31 December 2010
DO DOONI CHAAR / TWO TIMES TWO EQUALS FOUR (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2010, India) - Social Inconsistencies
It was around about 2000 when Rishi Kapoor announced what was effectively his retirement from mainstream Indian cinema as a main lead – a wise move considering how awkward he appeared paired up against the likes of his much younger female co stars including Madhuri Dixit. Now, I don’t want to trash the acting reputation of Rishi Kapoor because what a film like Do Dooni Chaar in which Rishi Kapoor plays a down and out maths teacher Mr. Duggal proves is that casting is everything when pleading with audiences to suspend disbelief. Whilst he is not allowed to dominate the film, his star presence is important to the warmth with which director Habib Faisal depicts middle class India. I guess I was never convinced of Rishi Kapoor as an actor because he was probably miscast for most of his life; he never had the looks or the physique to be a leading man, nor did have great charisma. Another point to note is that Rishi Kapoor’s career in the nineties really came undone by the emergence of the Khan’s and similarly like Amitabh Bachchan he saw himself become overshadowed and also struggled to compete successfully at the box office. I’m not sure if he really had any significant box office and one could even argue that his presence in the industry was sustained largely through nepotism.
Over the last few years, Rishi Kapoor has re-emerged, reinventing himself as a supporting actor and his performance as the run down Mr Duggal, a patriarchal symbol of middle class aspirations, is the best I have seen from him. Do Dooni Chaar continues a trend of recent films including Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh that use comedy as a vehicle to deal with the often forgotten lives of a frustrated Indian middle class. In this case, whilst weddings, education and adolescence are painfully explored, it is the ubiquitous symbol of the car that is used predominately to critique the crippling middle class anxieties brought to bear upon what is an apparently normal yet wholly dysfunctional family. Very much a family melodrama that takes its comical linage from the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee in which eccentricities feel both habitual and normal, the under stated direction that Habib Faisal’s debut takes proves somewhat oppositional to the script work he has done for Yash Raj on such unmemorable films as Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Ideologically, the central argument of middle class India attempting to sustain itself economically and socially is convincingly articulated through the under valued position of the teacher. Impressively performed, the film does remarkably well to steer clear off song and dance cliques whilst benefiting enormously from the real life husband and wife sparing of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. A minor criticism would be the ending to the film which smacks a little too much of wish fulfilment but still this is a minor quibble for a film that should have done so much better at the box office.
23 December 2010
ALBERT PINTO KO GUSSA KYON AATA HAI / WHAT MAKES ALBERT PINTO ANGRY (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1980, India) - Look Back In Anger
It was only recently that I posted a lengthy entry on director Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1989 film Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry For Salim the Lame) which was one of his most personal works. A precursor and very much a template for Salim the Lame was Mirza’s 1980 satire Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai. Focusing on the Catholic community in Mumbai, the story focuses on a garage mechanic Albert Pinto (in one of Naseeruddin’s funniest performances) who spends much of his time arguing with his girlfriend Stella (Shabana Azmi) whilst at home he witnesses his father’s increasing politicisation due to a textile strike. With the secondary narrative of Pinto’s despairing father Mirza refers directly to the Great Bombay Textile Strike which was beginning to take shape as a result of mill closures in the area of Mumbai commonly known as Girangon, meaning ‘mill village’ in Marathi. Until the early eighties, textile workers were a sizable employment force in Mumbai and around 300,000 were employed at the peak of the industry. One of the longest strikes in the history of contemporary India, The Great Bombay Textile Strike lasted for around two years and though the government faced opposition in terms of civil unrest, the workers campaign of non protest did little to prevent the demise of the cotton mills. Today, the land on which the textile mills once operated is estimated to be worth at least 100 billion Rupees and much of it has been sold to various corporations whilst the impact on the surrounding community and level of unemployment has simply been brushed to one side.
Financed by the FFC (Film Finance Corporation), Mirza’s film outwardly displays the characteristics of classic parallel cinema including an art cinema aesthetic, low budget, state funding, a topical script shaped by political/social factors, graduates of Pune including editor Renu Saluja and scriptwriter Kundan Shah and perhaps most importantly the formidable and iconic acting quartet of Shah, Puri, Azmi and Patil. An episodic film, much of the narrative situations revolve around Albert Pinto’s inability to decide what exactly he wants to do with his life other than repair the expensive cars of his rich clients at the garage. A youthful figure with a sharp dress code and eccentric hairstyle, Pinto slowly comes to realise that it his girlfriend and friends at work are the only ones he can really depend on given his minority status. It is Pinto’s lack of understanding of the social and political dimensions of his reality and that of his family which sees him failing to prevent the imprisonment of his jobless younger brother whose vulnerability is inevitably exploited by local criminal elements. Pinto’s anger gradually transforms from a trait of selfishness, coming to symbolise a much wider discontentment that was about to be voiced by the real Mumbai textile workers as represented in the figure of the politically active yet defiant father.
By the end of the film and having witnessed his brother’s imprisonment, his father’s dignity destroyed and the company’s vile attempts to discredit the worker’s union and their right to strike, Pinto’s misplaced anger finally finds an appropriate target – the political and economic elite. This moment is crystallised in the cinema of all places with Pinto challenging the political address of the company management. Yelling out at the cinema screen, Pinto is shouted down by the disgruntled audience members and Mirza reverses the notion of political acquiescence by implicating the rest of society and empowering Pinto. Similarly like Salim The Lame, Mirza’s visual feel for the urban milieu of Mumbai is particularly striking and from what I have read about his career and films, the authenticity of shooting on location yet again points to his documentary roots. One of the great ideological achievements of parallel cinema was its relentless and fearless questioning of Indian cinema's mainstream assumptions on the state of society - Mirza's film not only questions power relations but is fully sympathetic to the cause of the workers. That in itself is a powerfully radical position to take up.
20 December 2010
'The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they travelled through the computer. Ships, motorcycles. With the circuits like freeways. I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day...I got in.'
-Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges)
For me this year in terms of sheer cinematic spectacle nothing has come close to the neon contours of the digital simulacra known as the grid in Disney’s Tron: Legacy. Whilst the plotting, performances and script are altogether outlandish and perhaps deliberately ridiculous, this is a film concerned entirely with conveying what is an extraordinarily multi layered and palpable sensory cinematic spectacle. I think the first thing that has to be said is that this film should be viewed in the appropriate context. I saw Tron Legacy in IMAX 3D and whilst I have never been entirely convinced of 3D technology it seems to have found its most complete expression so far in the universe of computer hacker and WEB 2.0 controller Kevin Flynn. Interestingly, the user as hacker has emerged as a popular thematic this year – both The Social Network and Kick Ass represent the computer nerd liberating their intellectual ideals via the democratisation offered to them by the Internet. In Tron: Legacy, the conflict between the users and programs references the collision between democracy and corporate power currently being played out in reality with the now iconic figure of Julian Assange.
In the opening sequence, Kevin Flynn’s rebellious son Sam breaks into the headquarters of his father’s estranged IT corporation Encom so he hack the servers and liberate a software application that the company intends to sell to the public. The notion that some software should be free to the point of access underlines a pertinent debate in which programs created by users should remain part of the public domain and fulfil the ideological belief that the digital world is self regulated by an open source philosophy. The hacker/user represented in Cyberpunk films including The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic and Minority Report is depicted as a pure and even revolutionary figure fighting to save the system/digital world from becoming part of the corporate world. In many ways, Tron: Legacy repeats such a motif of the user/hacker as a new age symbol reconstructing identity in the realms of post modernity – dissent is treated as endlessly pleasurable and dangerously chic.
In terms of the science fiction genre, the critical dystopia witnessed in the digital world of the grid as manufactured by the creative imagination of its creator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is exemplified in the figure of Clu, a clone created by Flynn in a failed attempt to create utopia. Much of this draws on familiar dystopian imagery and narratives from classic science fiction and cyberpunk literature including Rollerball –the concept of gladiatorial digital games not only taps into video game culture but illustrates the idea that user generated content can be altered to suit the demands of those participating online. Jeff Bridges reprising his original role of Kevin Flynn was crucial to the concept of Tron and his performance shows him having great fun with ‘The Dude’ persona. With a pulsating and impressive score by Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy is a wonderful post modern spectacle that may turn out to be somewhat unmemorable in the long run but the audience pleasures it offers may actually rest in Gunning’s observation of early cinema as the ‘cinema of attractions’.
19 December 2010
I was somewhat conflicted both emotionally and ideologically whilst watching this latest feature film from Pakistan. Such a conflict arouse from my desire to turn away from the lives of Pakistani middle classes many of whom have indirectly helped to sustain such the ruling elite’s indiscriminate grip on power since the country came into existence whilst part of me could not be helped to view the film as an example of South Asian Diaspora cinema largely because the director Hammad Khan is based in London. I think what makes Ramchand Pakistani the most pertinent and powerful of the recent cycle of Pakistani films is Mehreen Jabbar’s decision to approach the politics of Pakistan through the point of view of the poor, underprivileged and largely forgotten strata of Pakistani society. Arbitrarily touted as Pakistan's first slacker film Slackistan should really be translated as perhaps the country's first independent film. Having received favourable reviews at various film festivals, director Hammad Khan’s excursion into the lives of a group of spoilt and over privileged Pakistani youth based in the rich enclaves of Islamabad may easily have worked as a TV series.
Slackistan does provide us with an insight into the striking contradictions of life in Islamabad, suggesting that lurking beneath our perceptions of a religiously conservative city is an anti authoritarian and rebellious impulse generated by the middle class youth who seem to spend their days waiting for something unexpected to happen. Boredom is a popular symptom and the director does question if it is valid for the youth in Islamabad to simply escape from the dearth of opportunity by migrating to either America or England. Very few seem capable or brave enough to take up the challenge of remaining put in Islamabad and attempting to give something worthwhile back whilst openly resisting the system. Thematically, questioning of the status quo by the middle class youth does emerge in the character of the budding film maker and it a direct action validated in the response of a camera pointing at the lives of an underclass. It may be an idealistic action but it is surely a step in the right direction in terms of wanting to enact wider change. Slackistan is an uneven film - the performances are clumsy and at times the dialogue feels contrived yet given it's flaws, which are mainly ideological, it succeeds as it is rare to come across a film such as this one that offers something new and even revelatory about the state of Pakistan and its disillusioned youth.
18 December 2010
15 December 2010
When it comes to the acquiescent news coverage of Iraq, Pilger’s questioning of David Mannion (Editor in Chief of ITV News) and a senior news gatherer for the BBC rightly positions them as messengers for the corporate elite who have abandoned any duty to report accurately and fairly to the general public. Is it a wonder that so many British Muslims are disillusioned with the mainstream media? In one of the most revelatory moments, Pilger returns to the all important work of Greg Philo and the Glasgow Media Group to support his theory that the media coverage of the flotilla massacre by the Israeli military machine was effectively a whitewash. The absence of a credible and articulate spokesperson for the Palestinian side in the BBC’s news coverage of the flotilla aftermath is underlined by Pilger as yet another example of the BBC’s subservience to Israel and its uneven handed approach to the coverage of such a decisive news story. Pilger expands upon the argument of BBC subservience by suggesting such institutions which claim to be impartial are in fact constructing news in a culture of fear and intimidation.
When it comes to the ITV News coverage of the run up to the war in Iraq, Pilger takes David Mannion to task over misleading the public by refusing to present facts about Iraq including the genocide perpetrated on the Iraqi people by years of UN sanctions. The facts were not presented before the public by the television news media as they simply did not concur with the interests of the corporate elite. Of course, much of this goes back to Noam Chomsky’s argument of the media’s selective use of language to serve the aims of corporate propaganda. In one of the more disturbing moments, footage from Iraq which was made public by Julian Assange via Wikileaks shows an American gunship decimate a crowd of civilians made up of men and children. It’s not surprising Assange has become the scourge of the ruling elite as Wikileaks is finally attempting to simply give us the facts about political power relations and such facts of course are unfiltered. In another telling interview ex-BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar states categorically that the Al Jazeera news base in Kabul was deliberately targeted by the Americans with the intention to directly kill the journalists. Such war crimes have not simply gone unreported but they are in fact re-presented as something quite different and perhaps even normal in the context of perpetual war in which the so called terrorist threat needs to be deterred. Pilger’s work makes for essential viewing and for me this is undoubtedly one of the best documentaries of the year. Most of Pilger's work is available for free to watch online and appears on his website.
Here is a short trailer to the documentary:
A recent interview with Pilger on Democracy Now!:
The following is an excerpt from the documentary that examines the Israeli propaganda machine and its relationship with mainstream news organisations like the BBC:
14 December 2010
Whilst some of the critics have might over praised Monsters, I think given the remarkable context in which the film was made then it seems more reasonable as the director, a virtual one man crew, manages to achieve some great results with very little resources. Budget limitations seem to work in the favour of film makers as the degree of creativity is stronger; ideas can grow organically out of the environment and landscape which is what largely seems to happen with the unhurried unfolding of the narrative. Perhaps then it might be justified to position Monsters as part of the ‘slow cinema’ phenomenon whilst the dirty dystopian visual aesthetic recalls recent science fiction films such as Children of Men, Cloverfield and District 9. In many ways, Gareth Edward’s pared down approach to making a genre film may also be viewed as part of the independent and art film doctrine involving improvisation, a low budget, relatively unknown leads, an elliptical narrative and confounding genre expectations. However, Edward’s influences are largely mainstream Hollywood cinema including most importantly the science fiction work of Steven Spielberg.
The production outfit behind Monsters is the UK based Vertigo Films which was founded in 2002 by Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Nick Love, Rupert Preston and Rob Morgan. Director Nick Love has forged somewhat of a dubious critical reputation having made films such as The Football Factory, The Business and Outlaw – a kind of tabloid cinema which all star British actor Danny Dyer. Vertigo Films is committed to producing four films and distributing four films each year and since 2002 they have notched up some interesting, well received British films. Vertigo Films seems to be working as an indigenous film production company and the faith they have shown in Gareth Edwards certainly seems positive and welcoming to other British film makers seeking financing.
Film critic and academic Mark Kermode interviewed Gareth Edwards for a section in The Culture Show, reiterating the staggering truth that he created most of the visual effects using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects in the confines of his apartment. Interestingly one of the students after the screening referred to the main creature in the film as a merely a ‘Photoshop Squid’. Nevertheless, a film like Monsters certainly seems to support the claim that with emergence of new media technologies including relatively inexpensive editing software and HD video cameras we are finally seeing the democratisation of the film making process. In today’s instantaneous culture of film consumption in which it is no longer the aim of many mainstream Hollywood film makers to envelop the spectator in the experience and take time to gaze introspectively, perhaps slow actually equates to something serious and legitimate as is the case with Monsters. If we are to label Monsters as science fiction then as a genre it continues to offer film makers the ideal vehicle for exploring wider social and political anxieties whilst also offering allegories on the state of contemporary society. By situating the film in the territory of the US-Mexican border and by holding the Americans responsible for creating the infected zone, the film also indirectly explores the relations between America and Mexico in terms of borders, migration and identity.
12 December 2010
Film maker Mehboob Khan reached his artistic zenith with Mother India in 1957 whilst his body of work in the 1940s produced such classics as Aurat (Woman, 1940), Roti (The Bread, 1942), Humayun (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Andaz (1949). The considerable achievements of Mother India and its iconic cultural position in film history obscures many of the more adventurous and unconventional films Mehboob made during his two decade long domination of Hindi popular cinema. Unfortunately when compared to his peers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, much of Mehboob’s work is still sadly unavailable. Whilst much of it probably does exist somewhere on VHS, the DVD market has been slow to respond to the cinephile demands to make accessible more of the films that have become lost in the melee of populist works from the studio era. Legend has it that Mehboob ran away to join the film industry, working his way through the ranks until he eventually broke through in 1936 as a director on the historical film, Judgement of Allah. Dilip Kumar, dubbed the tragedy king was one of the major Hindi film stars of the 1950s. He worked with Mehboob on a number of films and Amar which was the film made before Mother India cast Dilip Kumar against type as a dubious and unsympathetic lawyer.
Amarnath is engaged to Anju (the beautiful Madhubala) but a milk maid Sonia (played by actress Nimmi) who comes from the nearby village also attracts the eye of Amarnath. When Sonia is raped by Amarnath, both of them at first attempt to live with the terrible secret but when Shankar uncovers the truth he tries to kill Amarnath. In the struggle, Amarnath absconds and Shankar is killed whilst the blame is pinned on poor Sonia. Like many of the social melodramas of the 40s and 50s, matters are resolved in a courtroom in which civil institutions are permitted to restore social order and re establish the degrees of morality. At least ten songs are used in the film by Mehboob. The 50s is often referred to as the golden age of Hindi popular cinema and this largely exists because of the nostalgia the older generation harbours for the way in which songs were picturised and sung. However, one of the problems of such a form is that the content can rarely cope with such pauses and interruptions in the narrative. Amar seems to be a case in point as the songs add little to the ideological weight of any social enquiry and in many ways suggest such a genre necessity was dictated by wider institutional concerns over which Mehboob had little control.
This is one of Mehboob’s most idiosyncratic films and though the melodramatic content is representative of the studio era and the 50s, it is the cinematography and editing that really saves Amar from being deemed as unmemorable and pedestrian. Cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani whom Mehboob first collaborated with on Judgement of Allah in 1935 would remain a regular contributor, working on many of Mehboob’s greatest works including Mother India. The same goes for Editor Shamsudin Kadri who makes some innovative and powerful uses of unconventional editing techniques including the triple jump cut in two key moments in the film’s narrative. Irani’s cinematography bears a visible expressionist style, producing a litany of gorgeous monochrome imagery in which shadows, glowing lanterns and rain manifest a pathetic fallacy.
5 December 2010
KHUDA KAY LIYE / IN THE NAME OF GOD (Dir. Shoaib Mansoor, Pakistan, 2007) - Awakenings in the Pakistani Film Industry
Yet again it might be too early to suggest that we are seeing the beginning of new dawn in Pakistani cinema. However, with the recent release of films such as Mehreen Jabbar’s critically acclaimed Ramchand Pakistani which I have talked about in a previous post, Pakistan’s first slacker film Slackistan and Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye, Pakistani cinema is attempting to reconstruct itself. A number of recent factors have helped emerging film makers to get funding and also engage with relevant political and social issues. Perhaps most importantly, television continues to provide a fertile training ground for new directors. Both Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar started out in the television drama series format before venturing into feature film making. Mehreen Jabaar is perhaps Pakistani television’s most distinct director and together with regular script collaborator Umaira Ahmed they have used the drama serial to address the concerns of Pakistani women from both the underclass and the middle classes. GEO TV, which is based in Karachi, not only helped to distribute Jabbar’s directorial debut but also directly financed Khuda Kay Liye. Similarly like in the UK in which the BBC and Channel Four are involved in supporting the British film industry, a similar pattern of funding and distribution seems to be emerging in Pakistan. Hopefully more of the Pakistani TV networks including ARY and HUM will also begin investing in films as it has also proved to be commercially lucrative as was the case with Khuda Kay Liye.
Another explanation for this shift in the industry might also be traced to the growing investment in training and courses for film makers in Pakistan. Film education is virtually non existent in Pakistan but the establishment of the country’s first film school in Karachi, the South Asian Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Television (SAAMPT), offering a range of film making courses points to a positive step in the right direction for elevating the cultural status of film as a whole. Additionally, some of the major universities in Pakistan also offer film making courses and director Shoaib Mansoor’s next film Bol which releases in January 2011 was completed with the help of students from Lahore’s National College of Arts which has its own film making department. Perhaps more importantly, the number of screens in Pakistan has always been on the decline but a programme is underway by Cinepax of investment into new multiplex cinemas in many of the major cities. This of course is going to be absolutely essential to nurturing a viable indigenous film industry, giving home grown films a chance to find an audience. The lifting of the ban on the exhibition of Indian films, the most idiotic and regressive of impositions by the Pakistani government meant a film like Khuda Kay Liye was able to be shown in India and Pakistan at the same time.
Released in 2007, Khuda Kay Liye is a post 9-11 film that focuses on three major narrative arcs. The first deals with the story of Mary, a British Pakistani girl, who is taken by her father under false pretences to Pakistan and forced to marry a young Pakistani man who turns out to be a religious fundamentalist. Mary hopes to marry Dave, a British student whom she has fallen in love but her father disapproves. The bitter irony is that Mary’s father is married to a British woman and yet cannot show any understanding for his own daughter as he feels they would be ostracised from the Pakistani community. This turns out to be a pretty feeble excuse for her father’s attempts to repress what emerge as regressive patriarchal attitudes.
Mary’s story is intertwined with that of Sarmad who lives in Pakistan, most probably Karachi or Lahore. Sarmad is in a band with his older brother Mansoor (Shaan) who forms the third narrative arc. Sarmad’s journey is perhaps the most interesting and political of the three as we witness his slow indoctrination into the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Blinded by his own religious beliefs, Sarmad is misled by a corrupting Mullah and leaves to fight in Afghanistan for the Taliban. By the end of his journey, Sarmad realises that his religious beliefs do not necessarily have to be translated in terms of a modern jihad and that his faith is purer than those fundamentalists around him who merely want to use Islam as a political platform for contesting power.
The final story focuses on Sarmad’s older brother Mansoor who leaves to study music in America. Mansoor, played by Pakistani superstar Shaan, falls in love with an American girl and as they grow intimate, the cataclysmic events of 9-11 throws a shadow of doubt over Mansoor’s presence in America. Accused of terrorism, Mansoor is illegally detained and tortured until he is left with brain damage. In the end, Mary takes her case of patriarchal and religious exploitation to the Pakistani courts and scores a victory for British Pakistani girls who are regularly made victims by tradition. In the final court sequences, Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah shows up in a minor yet significant role as a wise Islamic scholar who berates Pakistani society and especially those who misinterpret the Quran for altruistic ends.
Whilst director Shoaib Mansoor uses songs, they are effectively placed within the narrative. Most of the direction was surprisingly restrained for a Pakistani film and the virtual absence of histrionics made me appreciate the film’s honesty even more when dealing with such prescient issues such as terrorism, fundamentalism, women’s rights and the Diaspora. Technically, the film is well made with some strong cinematography throughout and the performances are excellent particularly from Pakistani actors Fawad Khan as Sarmad and Shaan as Mansoor. This is probably one of the best films I have seen to come out of Pakistan and compared to the atrocious and embarrassing bandit films that seemed to dominate Pakistani cinema for a long time, Khuda Kay Liye proves it is very possible and achievable for film makers in Pakistan to engage with the issues of their age and do so with some integrity. On its release, Mansoor’s film created a storm of controversy in Pakistan with many of the religious groups calling for an outright ban and deeming it blasphemous. However, this only seemed to help the film find a sizable audience, making it a commercial success in both India and Pakistan. On a final note, it is encouraging to see film makers from Pakistan like Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar taking on those issues like religious fundamentalism which are usually being misrepresented in western cinema especially Hollywood films. It is the only way in which the cinematic discourse on Islamic representations can be contested and perhaps challenged in many respects, reconstructing ideology from a South Asian perspective.