Photograph (India-Germany-US 2019)

Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) encourages Rafi to buy a drink for Miloni at a street stall near the Gateway

Photograph is an independent Indian film with a supported release by the major UK arthouse distributor Curzon. That makes it unusual and you’d have to go back to the same writer-director Ritish Batra’s 2013/4 release The Lunchbox to find another. At HOME in Manchester, Photograph was introduced by Dr Omar Ahmed in relation to HOME’s upcoming ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ (3rd edition) season in September. I think that the audience for this screening was lucky to hear Omar’s intro as he helped to place the film in context and to think a bit more about it than some of the US/UK reviewers seem to have done since its appearance at Sundance earlier this year.

I’d seen some lukewarm reviews and was a little worried about what would unfold but I soon became engaged and I found the the film low-key but moving and possibly a different kind of film than I was expecting. After The Lunchbox, Batra made two English language films adapted from novels. I haven’t seen either of them but I wondered why he did this (ie why he couldn’t make the films he wanted to make in India). On his return to India he brought back with him his film editor John F. Lyons who has worked on all four of his films and other creatives who I assume he met during his UK/US production periods. Photograph is again his own script and it has strong connections to The Lunchbox. For me the ‘feel’ of the film is similar to that which I get from diasporic or exilic directors such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta. There is one direct connection with other recent Indian independents and that is the actor Geetanjali Kulkarni who also appears in Sir (2019), Court (2014) and Hotel Salvation (2016).

Nawazuddin Sidiqqui is the other link back to The Lunchbox. This time he takes the role occupied by Irrfan Khan in the first film – an older single man who will gradually fall in love. However, this man has less standing than Irrfan’s character and he also has a family history to contend with. Rafi is a Muslim is from a village in Uttar Pradesh and he has been in Mumbai for many years, earning money to send home to pay family debts and to provide a dowry for his sisters. Rafi works as a street photographer, snapping the tourists around the ‘Gateway of India’. One day he snaps a pretty girl who dashes off before he can print out the photo (and before paying him). When he hears through the local village grapevine that runs through his Mumbai district that his grandmother (‘Dadi’) is threatening to stop taking her medicine unless he marries, he decides to send the photo to Dadi, claiming it is his new girlfriend ‘Noorie’. But then, of course, Dadi wants to visit Mumbai to meet the girl . . .

In many ways, Rafi has set up a classic rom-com scenario. He’ll have to find the girl again and convince her to play a role and the two of them will be brought together under pressure and . . . But although this plot will play out, Batra doesn’t necessarily take it in the expected directions and he sometimes refuses to offer us the expected scenes. If a Hollywood or Bollywood romance is what audiences expect to see they will be disappointed by the ellipses in the narrative, by the periods of introspection and by the general slow pacing. None of this bothered me since my interest was in the two central characters and their backgrounds. The young woman in the photograph is Miloni played by Sanya Malhotra who first came to attention in Dangal (2016) – a film I must watch. She is very well cast and gives a beguiling performance as the daughter of a middle-class Gujarati Hindu family who expect her to become a chartered accountant and to marry a successful graduate. She is literally the ‘poster girl’ for a small private accountancy college and the top student. But she feels trapped by her family’s expectations. She’d always enjoyed drama at school and perhaps that is why ‘playing the girlfriend’ attracts her.

One of several taxi rides during which Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) tentatively discover something about each other

One convention that Batra does follow is to provide the two leads with a supportive ‘crew’. Rafi lives in a communal room with other men from his district and Dadi (a terrific performance by 86 year-old Farrukh Jaffar) will find a space for herself in the same room. By comparison, Miloni’s family is wealthy enough to have a live-in maid/cook/housekeeper played by Geetanjali Kulkarni who can advise her about the village man and will be discreet. The romance can only be tentative at first and its prospects in the long-term are not good. Religious differences and social class differences do not make Western-style romances straightforward (not that they do in the US or UK either in some circumstances). Batra offers some good examples of how their daily lives differ and he uses a favourite cinema as a meeting place for the couple which endlessly replays the same films from the 1980s (a similar nostalgia to the TV soaps of the period in The Lunchbox). Omar stressed in his introduction how the Bombay (rather than ‘Mumbai’) in the film is not the Bombay of Bollywood gangster films nor is it only a place of poverty and desolation – or of the glossy modernity of the ‘New India’. Bombay has always been an almost mythical place for migrants from other parts of India, especially in the Hindi cinema social films of the 1940s and 1950s. A more recent tradition of Bombay ‘street films’ takes an almost documentary interest in the lives of the city’s poorer inhabitants, e.g. in a film like Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (India-UK 1988). Photograph shares its starting point with that film – the tourists at the Gateway of India – but it uses the street as a setting for a different kind of narrative, one which still represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, but which which also finds stories at the micro level in the interactions of characters.

The image that has been widely used to promote the film and which perhaps typifies Ritesh Batra’s careful compositions and mise en scène

Batra uses Bombay’s streets, cafés and food stalls carefully. As in The Lunchbox, buses, trains and traditional taxis are important meeting places in which Miloni is taken out of her comfort zone. Significantly it is a food stall that creates one of the moments of distrust by Miloni’s parents about their daughter’s behaviour. Batra also introduces an eccentric story about the history of Indian soft drinks. We see Miloni drinking ‘Limca’, an Indian brand of lemonade/lime now owned by Coca Cola and she tells Rafi that as a child she liked a now defunct brand of Cola. I take this as a signifier of the old Bombay, before the changes of the 1990s brought in American-style fast foods and shopping malls. But some things don’t change. Dadi comments on how dark her grandson’s skin is and he begins to use lightening cream. I think it is also important that at the beginning of the film we see Miloni being taken by her mother to buy clothes. We recognise that Miloni wants something else and throughout the romance we see her wearing quite simple outfits that seem more ‘natural’ and which I thought suited her much better than the more showy costumes of Bollywood films.

Both Rafi and Miloni have times when they sit in their rooms contemplating their futures but in Rafi’s case we get a fantasy sequence in which he discusses his current situation with another migrant from earlier times. I liked this and it worked for me. I’m not sure everything works in Photograph but overall Batra creates a distinctive vision of Bombay through the creation of a ‘feel’ and ‘tone’ for Rafi’s community and Miloni’s family. He presents a unique Bombay story rather than fulfil genre expectations. He’s aided by terrific performances from his two leads and from Farrukh Jaffar. I would very much recommend this film to anyone prepared to be open to Batra’s ideas.

Malta Story (UK 1953)

Malta Story screened on Talking Pictures TV a few weeks ago. I don’t remember seeing it before and I found it an intriguing watch for several reasons. The early 1950s fascinates me as a much-derided period of British filmmaking, but also a commercially successful one for some studios and a time when British audiences preferred British stars to Amnericans. The war films of the period have become the most derided by many film scholars and, perhaps not coincidentally they also appear to give comfort to the Brexiteers. Malta Story is a particularly strong example of a film celebrating the bravery and resilience of the Maltese people and the heroics of both the RAF and Royal Navy. It was one of the most popular films at the British box office in 1953. Sue Harper and Vincent Porter (British Cinema of the 1950s) report that the idea for the film came originally from the Central Office of Information under Labour (presumably in the late 1940s) as a propaganda film supporting the three armed services. This version would have been directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by William Fairchild. The project was eventually funded as a production of ‘British Film Makers’ a joint operation between Rank and the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Nigel Balchin developed the script and Brian Desmond Hurst took over as director for a production based at Pinewood with location shots on Malta and access to archive footage of air and sea battles in the Mediterranean. (The Talking Pictures print still announces the film as a ‘Theta Production’ – the company set up by Dickinson and producer Peter De Sarigny.)

Bartlett and Ross as anxious Spitfire pilots

As a child in the 1950s I was aware of the powerful mythology associated with ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, the three Gloster Gladiator bi-planes which defended Malta in 1940 in the early months of the war. But Malta Story deals with the later period when the island’s strategic importance made it the target for both German and Italian bombers, attempting destroy its defences for an invasion that would then allow the Axis powers to guarantee their own supply route to North Africa. One of the two lead roles in the film was taken by Jack Hawkins as the senior RAF officer, Air Commodore Frank. It is his responsibility to maintain the the airfields and the dwindling numbers of Spitfires for long enough to allow the RN to bring in reinforcements. He faces a Catch-22 situation since his aircraft are vulnerable on the ground or in the air in facing Luftwaffe superiority of numbers. But if he can’t protect the convoys carrying the reinforcements, they may be lost as well. The ‘inciting moment’ of the narrative is the arrival on the island of a reconnaissance flyer en route to Egypt. Frank gets permission to keep the flyer on Malta and to use him to monitor Italian ports and railways for an invasion build-up. The flyer is F/Lt Peter Ross, played by Alec Guinness. Ross has a double function in the narrative. First he provides the mechanism by which Frank can gain intelligence on enemy troop/shipping movements. Second, he can ‘personalise’ the story by falling for one of the young Maltese women, Maria (Muriel Pavlow) working in the RAF ops room. Maria’s family headed by her mother (Flora Robson) will also provide a secondary narrative about a possible spy in the shape of Maria’s brother.

Jack Hawkins (centre) as Air Commodore Frank, flanked by Bartlett (Anthony Steel) and Maria (Muriel Pavlow)

In 1953 Jack Hawkins was at the peak of his popularity with British audiences. 1953 was also the year of his naval Commander in The Cruel Sea and his ex Army officer in The Intruder and the year before he had been in The Planter’s Wife resisting Malayan independence fighters. In 1952 he’d also had a senior RAF post in Angels One Five and the pioneering head teacher in Mandy. It’s difficult to think of another star actor who carried the same sense of authority and gravitas, but who could also be affable and avuncular and, when necessary, ruthless. I think Hawkins has tended to suffer in retrospect from charges of ‘stolidity’ but for me he is the outstanding male actor of 1950s British cinema. There is much more to him than the ‘stiff upper lip’. The top-billed actor on Malta Story is Alec Guinness but I confess I’m not always a Guinness fan. It seems he angled for the part of Ross as ‘something different’ and he does create an interesting character, the almost unworldly Cambridge archaeologist who had done some aerial photography pre-war. His courtship of the beautiful Maria is sometimes uncomfortable to watch because of his awkwardness but this is resolved in the final scenes which I did actually find quite moving, especially in Muriel Pavlow’s performance.

I’m wondering how much of the original script survived the ‘front office pressure’ of Rank’s John Davis and executive producer Earl St John. Balchin was both a celebrated novelist as well as a top scriptwriter of the period. My suspicions are raised by the relatively minor role played by the relationship between Anthony Steel’s Wing Commander Bartlett and Renee Asherson as another of the women working in the Ops Room. Steel is third-billed on the film’s poster and Asherson is billed alongside Muriel Pavlow but neither role seems to contribute much to the narrative development. Steel’s Bartlett should be the representative of the Spitfire pilots on the island (i.e. those defending the base) but because the role isn’t developed, the twin axis of the narrative is the ‘high command’ and Maria’s Maltese family headed by Flora Robson with what I assume is meant to be a ‘Maltese’ accent. Visually the film is dominated by the location shooting amongst the ruins and across the harbour skilfully edited with archive footage. Similarly in 1952/3 there were still wartime aircraft available to complement the archive footage. (Although because of the rapid development of marques during the war, the Spitfires are mainly later models than those of the 1942 Malta siege.) I didn’t particularly notice the use of model work on my TV screening but others suggest it is extensive in the film.

Maria and Peter Ross (Alec Guinness)

It isn’t easy to make a film with real narrative drive about a siege lasting several weeks. There is always the risk that the spectacle of aerial dogfights will overtake the drama faced by civilians on the Home Front and the military personnel on the ground in the harbour and on the airfields. There is also a danger in trying to tell too many stories and the 1969 Battle of Britain film fell into both traps for me. In this respect, Malta Story is strengthened by the drama of Ross trying to find a German convoy on its way to support Rommel at El Alamein. If he can do this, the struggles of everyone on Malta will have been worthwhile because the new British bombers which have eventually got through to the island will then be able to attack the German supply line. The irony is that Ross, the Cambridge archaeologist, should be the man whose single mission becomes so important. Several years later, Guinness played ‘Aircraftman Ross’, the assumed name of T. E. Lawrence in the RAF in a 1960 play by Terence Rattigan. Without the family, Malta Story might have become another 1950s war film showing the British middle classes winning the war through good management and strength of character. Ordinary people and ‘the lower ranks’ were important in the 1940s but in the 1950s establishment values were being re-asserted – or at least that is what several film scholars have suggested. History however, records that the ‘people of Malta’ were awarded a collective George Cross for their resistance in 1942 and this is included in the film. Later still Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964, became a Republic in 1974 and joined the EU in 2004. I wonder what the Brexiteers think of that?

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.

The Chambermaid (La camarista, Mexico 2018)

A striking promo image for The Chambermaid

This UK release from the always reliable New Wave distribution company has been gathering a great deal of support from UK critics and programmers. It is certainly an impressive film but I do wonder what audiences are making of it. There are currently only three responses on IMDb, two of which are negative, but the ‘User Ratings’ suggest a very positive response. I’m struggling to find words to describe my own overall response and I’ll try to be as objective as possible.

As the title suggests, the film focuses on Evella (‘Eve’), a chambermaid in a 5 star hotel in Mexico City. Eve is a 24 year-old Indigenous woman who has clearly made good progress in her time at the hotel. She is now responsible for the 21st floor and has her sights set on the 42nd floor, the penthouse suite. Later we will learn that she has a small boy being looked after by a child-minder and that a further promotion will help her pay for this child care and to find more suitable accommodation in the city. The narrative doesn’t actually move out of the hotel until the final scene and all we know about Eve’s life outside work is gleaned from the phone calls she manages to make to the child-minder.

A rare close-up of Eve that begins to explore her humanity

The writer-director Lila Avilés (b. 1982) has a background in theatre, TV and film, writing, directing, producing and acting. She has formed her own film production company which carries this statement on its website:

Limerencia Films is a Mexican independent film producer founded by Lila Avilés and the film La Camarista. Limerencia Films intends to continue producing author films with deep themes, searching new cinematographic narratives with international projection. Avilés is currently in the development stage of her next film, which is an autobiographical story.

A sister company is concerned with stage productions. It’s important to note that the two other features that Alivés has made are documentaries. La camarista is presented, in CinemaScope (2.35 : 1), almost like a documentary study of Eve’s working life in the hotel and the Press Notes reveal that the film started from a documentary approach. The whole film has a subdued colour palette of whites, blues and greys enlivened only occasionally by more dramatic colours. The hotel itself is ‘tastefully’ decorated. Significantly, perhaps, Eve is hoping to claim a bright red dress left behind by a guest. She is ‘top of the list’ if the owner doesn’t claim the dress after a few weeks have passed. I didn’t notice much music in the film, though as one reviewer has pointed out there is a sophisticated sound design by Guido Berenblum incorporating all the sounds of the building which is sealed off from the roar of the city outside. The film lasts for just over 100 minutes and the plot is minimal. We spend a significant amount of the running time accompanying Eve on her cleaning, bed-making and re-stocking of what the subtitles refer to as ‘amenities’ (soap, towels etc.). The film’s ‘action sequences’ comprise Eve’s interactions with other hotel staff and a handful of guests. Sometimes these meetings are quite dramatic, perhaps seeming more so because of the observational sequences which proceed them. When I reflected on the film’s aesthetic, the term that kept coming to me was ‘austere’, but perhaps it should have been ‘controlled’. There is enormous care in the presentation of what is a wonderful performance by Gabriela Cartol as Eve via the cinematography of Carlos Rossini, the editing of Omar Guzmán and the art direction by Vika Fleitas.

Eve in the staff canteen. She interacts with only a few of the other staff

What are we invited to take from this meticulous observational study? Perhaps inevitably, critics have referenced Roma (2018) because of the parallel of Indigenous women working as maids/housekeepers in Mexico City. I’m not sure that is very helpful. In Roma, as in many other Latin American film narratives, the maid is part of a household with distinct relationships with a family and events are often played out as part of a family melodrama. Any Latin American film focusing on a maid is going to have a clear discourse about both social class and ethnicity in unequal societies – and not just in Latin America. La camarista is almost like an ‘anti-melodrama’ in its observational style, yet it does have its melodrama moments. Eve, once out of her uniform and with her hair down is an attractive young woman as well as a working mum. But just as importantly, the script develops a critique of the economic plight of the hotel workers in this hotel and symbol of global capitalism. There is a narrative tension in the film. Will Eve get her red dress and her promotion? Will she be able to improve her chances by gaining a high school diploma while studying in an improvised cramming class for hotel workers?

Eve with Miriam (Teresa Sánchez) who offers to help her work the system

The hotel is a community, a form of family perhaps, for all the hotel workers. But it is also a factory in which workers are in danger of exploitation. Eve is understandably wary of getting closer to fellow workers and her immediate superiors. Managements invariably divide and rule. Eve will meet other workers who try to sell her things, pressurising her to buy. They may discriminate against her because of her background – yet she needs them and they may know more about the job and ways around problems.

I certainly recommend The Chambermaid, but audiences need patience and sharp observation to get everything from the narrative. Eve is definitely worth getting to know and I will look out for future films by Lila Avilés. I hope she doesn’t lose her documentarist’s eye, but I would like to see a little more narrative development in future projects. The film continues for a third week at HOME in Manchester, demonstrating how a 5 screen cinema can nurture an audience for films like this. The film is also available on Curzon’s streaming service in the UK and it is still touring venues in the US.