26 December 2013

INDIAN CINEMA 2013 - A Look Back

Pran, an icon of Hindi cinema, passed away in 2013.

'Yahan kabootar bhi ek pankh se udta hai ... aur doosre se apna izzat bachata hai.'      Here even the pigeon flies with one wing ... and protects its honor with the other wing.       - Gangs of Wasseypur 

It’s that time of year again when film canonisation rears its ugly head, pontificating at the greatest hits. The sheer deluge of best of lists makes it an almost impossible art to try and make sense of it all. I prefer the individual lists by critics, reviewers and bloggers as they pin down more esoteric tastes procured over the year. Sight and Sound is always first out of the end of year sprint to name and shame, and The Act of Killing seems to be popping up as number one with annoying regularity on many a lists. I initially had the film on my top ten but realised Upstream Colour seemed like a favourable substitution. The Act of Killing appearing as perhaps the best film of the year, as determined by critics and reviewers alike, is more indicative of the way documentary is still enjoying its moment, a moment which can be traced back to Bowling for Columbine and the Michael Moore effect. I’m not entirely convinced by Oppenheimer’s ideological approach to the material since the absence of context(s) not only unveils a pre-determined construction but also brings into doubt the politics of a very political documentary. For a more lengthy and sustained take down of the documentary, I would recommend Tony Rayn’s piece for Sight and Sound eponymously titled ‘Build my Gallows High’.

But what about Indian Cinema I hear you say? How was it for the biggest film industry in the world in 2013? (a question that I can never hope to answer since I've not seen as much as I would have liked to this year) That seems like a pretty good place to start when it comes to looking back at the year but unfortunately, like so many years in the past, Indian films rarely ever make it to end of year lists. I have discussed the reasons for Indian cinema’s exclusion from canonisation and cinephile discourse particularly in mainstream western film journalism in a previous post so I am simply going to point in that direction rather than reiterate a similarly impassioned defence. Yes, I understand, Indian film distributors are not involved in the gambit of press screenings whereby they exclude themselves from end of year lists, and yes, many of the best Indian films (especially Indie and regional ones) never make it to UK film screens, but there are a number of films which could have easily made it on to end of year lists. Before I offer yet another list, I am going to underline a few observations about Indian Cinema in 2013, points not specifically related to the films I have chosen to include in my end of year list on Indian cinema.

Bombay Talkies, a portmanteau, was produced and released to coincide with 100 years of Indian Cinema.

2013 may not have been significant in terms of the filmmaking landscape and output, but this has been a year of celebration for Indian Cinema. Such a historic landmark has been commemorated in India in different ways including films, events and exhibitions. The Bradford Film Festival offered one of the most engaged celebrations with a strand dedicated to the screening of classic and contemporary Indian films such as the newly restored Kalpana. Films including Bombay Talkies, Celluloid and Shabdo were financed with the specific aim of celebrating the achievements of the film industry. I was somewhat perturbed by the unenthusiastic response from some sections of mainstream film journalism who seemed to be dismissive and ignorant of the role India has played in the history of film. Satyajit Ray also reappeared on the radar of cinephile discourse with a major retrospective of his work at the BFI Southbank coinciding with the timely Blu-ray release of key films like Charulata in restored new prints.

Indie cinema vs. mainstream Hindi cinema; this is an on going pattern in terms of distribution and more edgy, indie films really felt the squeeze of the tent pole Hindi films in 2013. The London Indian Film Festival has become a key date in the Indian indie film calendar in terms of getting exposure for new emerging filmmakers. While this is undeniably true, many indie films simply bypassed cinema exhibition including B.A. Pass (Ajay Bahl), Bombay Talkies and David (Bejoy Nambiar). SRK seemed to have the top spot at the Indian box office (both domestic and international) pretty much sewn up with the spectacular success of Chennai Express. I enjoyed Chennai Express, although some critics savaged the film for its apparent SRK histrionics, which seemed to be hyperbolised further by the insufferable Rohit Shetty (a contemporary, but less savy heir to Manmohan Desai). Chennai Express like Dhoom 3 were supported by relentless marketing campaigns with stars like SRK managing to appear on endless Indian TV shows with the singular intent of convincing the public to get behind the film. Nonetheless, Krrish 3, Race 2, Aashiqui 2 and now Dhoom 3, all succeeded at the box office. Was this the year that Indian cinema finally discovered sequels? Dhoom 3 broke box office records and has already been crowned the highest grossing Indian film of all time. The Dhoom and Krrish franchises certainly point to a new future for Indian cinema of transmedia storytelling and branding. Franchises seem especially important for studios in terms of revenue streams including merchandising. This is bad news for lovers of Indian indie cinema since the UK release schedule for Indian films is likely to get even more competitive over the years. That is unless you are in India where multiplexes cater to the ‘politics of difference’.

India's Oscar entry: Realist vs. Middle Cinema?

2013 also witnessed the continuing decline of once innovative genre director Ram Gopal Varma with both The Attacks of 26/11 and more despairingly Satya 2 receiving critical derision. RGV tends to work on low budgets and is able to recoup most of his costs for the films he makes but innovation has given way to a kind of hyper delusion concerning his skills as a filmmaker. One of the biggest disappointments of the year was the much-anticipated Ghanchakkar from director Rajkumar Gupta. Although Vidya Balan and Emraan Hashmi are splendid, the film’s script is insubstantial and fails to deliver in terms of the genre tropes being re-mixed. Nevertheless, Ghanchakkar is a potential cult film. The race for India’s Oscar entry came down to a battle between The Lunchbox (a favourite at many film festivals) and The Good Road. Whereas The Lunchbox is classic example of middle cinema with a charismatic leading role by Irrfan Khan, The Good Road, a Gujarati film, is typical of realist projects financed and supported by the NFDC. The decision to select The Good Road over The Lunchbox raised the ire of producers Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap who responded by criticising the Film Federation of India as embracing an archaic selection policy that is both inward looking and determined by criteria that reeks of an art vs. commerce snobbery. Having not being able to see either film, from what I have read, The Lunchbox’s exposure at film festivals and its feel good factor may have worked better to convince Academy voters.

Tamil Cinema has and continues to be a cinematic blind spot for me. I tend to gravitate to Bengali cinema because of its past associations with auteur cinema and that it continues to produce some of the more ideologically engaged filmmakers. Mainstream Hindi cinema has started to increasingly and reflexively appropriate populist elements from both Tamil and Marathi cinema – this has been evident in the way stars and directors have crossed over in the past but now is even more evident visually especially with the realist action cinema like that of Bala (a Tamil director) appearing transparently in films such as Chennai Express, Rowdy Rathore and R... Rajkumar. Pizza, a Tamil ‘ghost’ film I saw this year on DVD, is a startling directorial debut by Karthik Subbaraj. Pizza is a film as sophisticated, modern and cinematic as anything being made anywhere in the world today. I'm told a sequel to Pizza has already been released. Bollywood’s accelerated interest in regional cinema may come across as somewhat exploitative, but it yet again points to the way mainstream Hindi cinema continually draws on regional films for new ideas. Is it right to say then that innovation resides in regional cinema like the Tamil film industry? If this is true then it not without reason why both Mumbai could be labelled as inferior when put up against the regional power of the Tamil film industry for instance. Regional filmmaking hubs like Chennai are still more advanced than Mumbai when it comes to new film technology and technical accomplishments.

A riff on 'Sholay' by the forthcoming 'Gunday' - another neo-masala melange 

In many ways, 2013 appears to have been an inconsequential year for Indian cinema. Perhaps the major development and one that is likely to see a continuing growth is the emergence of a viable, innovative and much needed indie cinema, which seems to have attracted the support of studios, audiences and critics. It will be interesting to see if it can evolve into something ambitious as the parallel cinema movement. One final point of interest in terms of an emerging cycle of films, if not a new sub-genre, is one I would dub 'neo-masala' cinema. Although like Mumbai noir, it is hard to pinpoint an exact point of origin, recent films like Kaminey, Dabaang, Singham have introduced a hard body aesthetic that recalls a stoic, if not misogynist, brand of masculinity which seems like a complete rejection of the metrosexual male embodied by SRK. Concurrent to a reiteration of traditional gender norms is a postmodern reflexivity with films such as Aurangzeb and the forthcoming Gunday paying homage to the 1970s angry young man cinema.

I have compiled two lists. The first is films in 2013 while the second is non-2013 films which includes films I have sought out on DVD:

TOP TEN INDIAN FILMS: 2013 

(films appear in no particular order, not all of these films were released in the UK)


1. AURANGZEB (Atul Sabharwal) – It came; it went and did no business at all, but what a revelation.


2. SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (Tigmanshu Dulia) – a sequel that builds on the first film and marks out Tigmanshu Dulia as one of the finest mainstream filmmakers at work today, and a director who understands ‘genre’.


3. LOOTERA / ROBBER (Vikramaditya Motwane) – a little uneven at times but still terrifically realised in terms of period detail and a love story that works, just about!


4. GOYNAR BASKHO / THE JEWELLERY BOX (Aparna Sen) - a ghost, a housewife (played effortlessly by Konkana) and a gentle love story all make for compelling melodrama in the hands of director Aparna Sen.


5. GANGS OF WASSEYPUR 1 & 2 (Anurag Kashyap) – a delayed release for Kashyap’s epic crime saga but surely a most remarkable film (never mind all the detractors!) from one of Indian cinema's finest filmmakers working at his peak. An instant classic.


6. KAI PO CHE (Abhishek Kapoor) – based on Chetan Bhagat’s best selling novel ‘The 3 mistakes of my life’, this film straddles line between mainstream and indie cinema; this is middle cinema with a heartfelt ideological message of the need for co-existence.


7. CELLULOID (Kamal) - a sentimental film but done with such resounding affection for pioneer J. C. Daniel, the father of Malayalam Cinema; the final phase of Daniel's life as a recluse and pauper resonated with me long after the film had ended. It's a story that needed telling.


8. SHABDO / SOUND (Kaushik Ganguly) – Kaushik Ganguly is one of Bengali cinema’s busiest filmmakers and Shabdo is one of his most complex and elemental films that externalises the mental breakdown of a Foley artist. Gorgeous sound design.


9. MEGHE DHAKA TARA / CLOUD CAPPED STAR (Kamaleshwar Mukherjee) – a moving biopic on Ritwik Ghatak’s time in a mental asylum. Painfully evocative, expressionistic in tone, and a considerable achievement by Bengali director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee. Incidentally, since we are on the subject of the great Bengali master, one of the discoveries of the year was Ashish Rajadhyaksha's scholary work on Ritwik Ghatak. 'Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic', published in 1982, and probably out of print, is one of the great works on Ghatak's films.


10. KADAL / THE SEA (Mani Ratnam) – the return of Mani Ratnam to more authorial traits is something to be welcomed, and although Kadal may not stand up with his best work, it is better than most of what mainstream Hindi cinema has to offer.

= SPECIAL CHABBIS / SPECIAL 26 (Neeraj Pandey, 2013) - director Neeraj Pandey, who directed the award winning A Wednesday (2008) builds on such a promise with this brilliantly controlled heist thriller featuring an understated (believe it or not) Akshay Kumar.

Anurag Kashyap; the most influential director working in the Hindi film industry today?

Unfortunately, The Gangs of Wasseypur never really got the UK release it actually deserved. This seems particularly baffling given Kashyap’s prominence as a key player in today’s Indian indie cinema. Had a major star been present in the film then it is more than likely the film would have appeared in more UK cinema screens. Most of Kashyap’s work has been sidelined by UK film distributors for his reluctance to work with major stars and choosing controversial material. Yet 2013 could easily be declared as the year of Anurag Kashyap. He may just be the most important player working in the Hindi film industry today. Kashyap not only produced Lootera but also managed to lure director Tigmanshu Dulia out of the director's chair to act in The Gangs of Wasseypur. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, Kashyap had a hand in all three Indian films that were selected: Monsoon Shootout (producer), Bombay Talkies (one of the directors) and Ugly (director). He also produced a compilation film in 2013 featuring five short films titled Shorts which also got a limited release in India. You can also add The Lunchbox to his achievements for 2013 which he helped to produce. 2014 looks set to be a similarly busy year for Kashyap and remarkably given his exponential work rate, the level of quality has remained pretty consistent across the films he has been involved with. Although I have positioned him as part of a new wave of Indian indie cinema, I would argue the films he is making are more closer to the 'middle cinema' often associated with Shyam Benegal. A key film to look forward to in 2014 is Kashyap's much anticipated Bombay Velvet, a neo noir set in Mumbai starring Ranbir Kapoor, for which he struggled over nine years to get the green light.

20 INDIAN FILMS: NON-2013

(films appear in no particular order - some were seen on DVD and others sneakily downloaded, ahem!)

Pizza is part of a new wave of Tamil cinema.
Thankfully the NFDC have now got an online presence and under the DVD label of 'Cinemas of India' launched a website which allows you to watch their back catalogue online. Unfortunately, no subtitles at present but I'm guessing the NFDC are heading in the right direction by finally making all of these films, many part of parallel cinema, available for the discerning cinephile. 27 Down, Current, Anhey Ghorey Da Daan and Gaman were released by 'Cinemas of India' on DVD in 2013. One of the discoveries of the year was Mehboob Khan's Roti, a fiercely political and Marxist film, that pleads to reassess the way Mehboob Khan's status as an auteur has been configured.

1. MANTHAN / THE CHURNING (Shyam Benegal, 1976)

2. SATTAWIS DOWN / 27 DOWN (Awtar Krishna Kaul, 1974)

3. AGANTUK / THE STRANGER (Satyajit Ray, 1991)

4. DO ANKHEN BARAH HAATH / TWO EYES, TWELVE HANDS (Shantaram, 1958)

Opening Titles to Baazi - a repertoire of talent.

5. ROTI / BREAD (Mehboob Khan, 1942)

6. MASHAAL / THE TORCH (Yash Chopra, 1984)

7. BARFI (Anurag Basu, 2012)

8. BAAZI / GAMBLE (Guru Dutt, 1951)

9. VICKY DONOR (Shoojit Sircar, 2012)

Baishey Shravana / The Wedding Day: one of Sen's earliest films.

10. BAISHEY SHRAVANA / THE WEDDING DAY (Mrinal Sen, 1960)

11. GANASHATRU (Satyajit Ray, 1989)

12. ANHEY GHOREY DA DAAN / ALMS FOR A BLIND HORSE (Gurvinder Singh, 2011)

13. CURRENT (K. Hariharan, 1992)

14. KISMET (Gyan Mukherjee, 1943)

15. CHITTAGONG (Bedabrato Pain, 2012)

16. BHAVNI BHAVAI / TALE OF THE LIFE (Ketan Mehta, 1980)

17. PIZZA (Karthik Subbaraj, 2012)

Diabolically brilliant Desai

18. NASEEB / DESTINY (Manmohan Desai, 1981)

19. GATTU (Rajan Khosa, 2012)

20. GAMAN / DEPARTURE (Muzaffar Ali, 1978)

Notable omissions (so I'm informed) include the following which I intend to catch up on in 2014: Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, Midnight Children, Mariyan, Soodhu Kavvum, Madras Cafe, Satyagraha, Shuddh Desi Romance, Ram Leela, Bullet Raja, Tasher Desh, David, Shahid, Vishwaroop

Unfortunately I can't give a verdict on what was one of the best reviewed Indian films of the year - Ship of Thesus (dir. Anand Gandhi). Although the film was completed in 2012, it was eventually picked up by UTV motion pictures for distribution in India and performed well at the box office. The film certainly created a buzz amongst cinephiles in India and even got the backing of director Kiran Rao who publicly supported the film as a must watch. Director Anurag Kashyap said it was the best Indian film in over a decade. High praise indeed. The film has been picked up for UK distribution (let's out a big sigh of relief) and will inevitably make an appearance on DVD. The critical and commercial success of Ship of Thesus certainly goes a long way in supporting the idea of an emerging Indian indie new wave that is still gathering momentum. Here is the trailer to the film:



Perhaps the biggest loss for the Indian film industry in 2013 was the death of director Rituparno Ghosh who died of a heart attack at the age of 49. Ghosh, a Bengali filmmaker, was greatly influenced by both Satyajit Ray and more significantly Rabindranath Tagore, in his approach to cinema, making some remarkable and at times controversial films. I can't really finish without paying tribute to the singer Manna Dey, an icon of Indian cinema and one of the great voices period, who passed away in October:

 

21 December 2013

DHOOM 3 (Dir. Vijay Krishna Acharya, 2013, India) - All gloom and no dhoom! [spoilers ahead!]


It was Walt Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs who was the first to licence the characters in a feature film, opening a new era in merchandising opportunities. Although it is probably never the sanest of ideas to take a comparative approach to Indian cinema and even more perilous comparing it to Hollywood but the trend for franchises and franchise building is something common to many film industries. The Dhoom 3 marketing campaign, an expensive one, orchestrated by Yash Raj has seen the main leads including Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif making a point of promoting the merchandising launched specially to tie in with the film’s release. Nothing new here then, just more vertical integration. Films like Dhoom 3 are tentpole films and this is one which has been promoted aggressively as one of the must film events of the year will surely succeed at the box office. The term ‘critic proof’ has become synonymous with franchises in particular and although critics arguably don’t have the sway they once did, they are still a barometer of quality and taste. Although Dhoom 3 has been greeted with mixed reviews, having seen the film, in my opinion, many of the reviews by certainly the mainstream critics could be accused of hyper inflation. Of course, no such accusatory fingerpointing stands any chance of being taken seriously in the face of a saturated screenings, consensual back patting and intensive marketing. I don’t want to be overly cynical about tentpole films since I enjoyed both of the first Dhoom films as mildly diverting. Mainstream big budget films tend to be an easy target for reviewers and critics but when a film is made such with sloppiness and somewhat contempt for the audience then it is a film that needs to be singled out and criticised for its failings. Dhoom 3 is part of a franchise and considering the various revenue streams a film of this commerciality can generate inevitably means a film’s content can be end up a casualty of the creative process. This seems to be the case with Dhoom 3, a film so inept, contemptful and ridiculous that it made me walk out before the end credits started to roll.

The key attraction of Dhoom 3 is star Aamir Khan, one of the highest paid and most respected of actors, who simply looks out of place in this nonsensical universe. None of it is particularly convincing. The story of a son who wants to avenge his father’s death caused by a heartless banker has a Dickensian ring to it but why Chicago and why 1990 as a point of reference for the film’s narrative? Aamir Khan maintains a singular facial expression throughout, which I can only label as thoroughly pissed off, while Katrina’s role as a glorified stripper implies a continuing appropriation of demeaning sexual imagery often found in gangsta rap music videos. In fact, Katrina’s presence is unjustified and cynically related to the marketing of the film. Equally troublesome are the set pieces which border on the ridiculous whereas the dialogue is ladened with enough cliches to put any Bollywood ‘B’ movie to shame. Most embarrassing and problematic is the direction by Vijay Krishna Acharya, the writer of the first Dhoom films. The conflict between cop and criminal lacks any kind of energy or interest to sustain audience interest and many of the on screen encounters are absent of a vitality and chemistry much needed for a film nearing three hours. Even more problematic are the woeful songs by Pritam as none of them are particularly memorable. Perhaps it is too much of Aamir Khan as he really takes over the film, eclipsing the Dhoom brand in many ways. But this is at the expense of Jai and Ali’s characters who hardly seem to matter. Dhoom 3 amounts to nothing more than a ‘spectacular’ mess and I am having trouble recommending anything of cinematic value in the film other than the welcoming presence of Jackie Shroff. Another sore point is the blatant product placement evident throughout, signposting Mountain Dew, Apple and BMW with such vulgarity that it renders any artistic intentions a mute point indeed. The Dhoom franchise is a cash cow for Yash Raj and significant to the commercial framework of the Hindi film industry. However, like all formulas, reinvention and innovation will be key if it is to sustain itself in the future, a point which sadly goes unnoticed in this latest outing.

16 December 2013

AURANGZEB (Dir. Atul Sabharwal, 2013, India) - Iconographic Assemblages


Aurangzeb defines its very cinematic existence on the platitudes of old Hindi cinema, refabricating familiar and outlandish tropes with a sensitivity that touches you emotionally. Invoking the double role, the fragile mother figure, the dirty cop(s), a murky political context and a tale of brotherly disharmony finally aspires to 1970s populist Hindi cinema which other Yash Raj productions have failed to reclaim. The failure of Tashaan springs to mind. What appeared to be a fad for the 1970s and 1980s action cinema has given birth to a cycle of retro po-mo masala films fetishizing the hard body. Aurangzeb succeeds since its homage to such tropes is underlined by a modulated sincerity which doesn’t sit well with critics and audiences expecting a film of this nature to be simply in awe of its referents. The failure of Aurangzeb at the box office is not surprising given the absence of a major star other than the Yash Raj banner under which it was produced. I couldn’t help but be reminded of films such as Trishul, Deewaar and even the elaborate Desai narratives of coincidence. In a way, this is a film that understands masala melodrama and gives it to us unfiltered in a contemporary context. Like many of the great Hindi melodramas of the 1970s such as Deewaar, Aurangzeb rejects conventionality in terms of content by distancing song and dance for more thematic avenues. Given the comparison to Deewaar, I’m wary of placing it in such exalted company but it’s a film that isn’t ashamed of its masala roots and gives it to you very obviously and genuinely. It is also a film populated by the likes of Anupam Kher, Amrita Singh and Rishi Kapoor, redeployed, as is Jackie Shroff, in customary iconographic assemblages that evoke the infectious hyperbole of a bygone era. Films like Aurangzeb could be re-theorised under a new auspice, that of neo-masala cinema.

2 October 2013

MANTHAN / THE CHURNING (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1976, India) - The White Revolution


Manthan was the third part in a trilogy of films dealing with rural oppression and it is a film which framed Benegal as a fiercely political voice in Indian cinema. Not only does the film have one of the finest ensemble casts you are likely to come across in parallel cinema but also brings together a typically brilliant crew made up of Kaifi Azmi (dialogue), Vanraj Bhatia (music) and Govind Nihalani (cinematography). Manthan is Benegal at the peak of his creative powers and it is a masterful work that focuses on the efforts of liberals Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) and his men to help rural farmers establish a Milk cooperative. Based on the true story of the ‘white revolution’ - the world’s biggest Dairy development programme that took place in India during the 1970s and beyond, Benegal roots his story in a truth and approaches the political contestation of the village through a neo realist prism that serves to dignify the poor farmers/peasants as new egalitarian citizens. At first, the villagers are suspicious of the ‘city folk’ and the ambivalent character of Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah), an oppressed Dalit who becomes a metonym of casteism, is reluctant to allow his people to join the cooperative. Bhola’s reluctance stems from his experience with people from the city who he views as exploitative, greedy and hypocritical - characteristics that are explored in the film with a degree of ideological complexity. The villagers are beholden to Mishraji (Amrish Puri), a greedy Dairy distributor, who exploits particularly the Dalits, paying them pittance for their milk. 

Although the Milk cooperative at first seems like an Utopian impossibility, its eventual implementation is later questioned by Dr. Rao as a flawed enterprise since the poorest farmers which it is supposed to help the most remain excluded from equal participation and ownership. For Dr. Rao, this flaw in fact masks a failure to grasp the historical complexities of the different castes in the village. It is a liberal failing that such inequality stems from a history of casteism in which the Dalits have been mistreated and enslaved as sub-human. Bhola reminds Dr. Rao of such a discriminatory and painful past, pointing to the continuing exploitation and mistreatment of Dalit women by singling out Chandravarkar (Anant Nag) as perpetuating such a bind of oppression. Since the cooperative doesn’t discriminate against caste makes it an ideological entity that threatens to destabilise the hegemony of Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the self designated headman of the village and symbol of the higher caste. The status quo of the village is challenged directly when elections to contest the post of chairman are won by Moti, a Dalit. The Dalits claim the victory of Moti as a personal triumph and Bhola’s attempts to overturn an age old hegemonic tradition reclaim a human dignity for the Dalits and oppressed alike by rejecting the notion of inferiority perpetuated by Sarpanch and Mishraji. Sarpanch is outraged by the victory of Moti. In retaliation Sarpanch ensures Dr. Rao is transferred out of the village so that his radical politics can be suppressed. However, Sarpanch is unable to comprehend the infectious revolutionary ideals have already been embraced by Bhola. Even though Dr. Rao fails in his original aim of starting a Milk cooperative embraced in a totality by the villagers especially the Dalits, his radicalisation of Bhola is an ideological achievement that should be read as a counter hegemonic consolidation of a peasant insurgency. Such an explicit final political position unites Manthan firmly with Ankur and Nishant.

KAPURUSH / THE COWARD (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1965, India) - The choices we make


It seems a little miscalculated that Criterion have packaged Kapurush with Mahanagar. The apparent logic may appear related with the presence of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in both films. Charulata has been released separately yet thematically Kapurush has much more in common with this film than Mahanagar. Firstly, Kapurush was the film Ray made after Charulata. Secondly, Kapurush continued the collaboration with both Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee from Charulata. Thirdly, Kapurush revisits themes about repression and the love triangle that Ray explored in Charulata. These three reasons are evidence enough that Kapurush is in fact a companion piece to Charulata, resituating themes in a contemporary middle class milieu. Less ambitious than Charulata, Ray distills the melodrama of a love triangle to its most basic by focusing solely on the relationship between a scriptwriter, married woman and her husband. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Amitabh a scriptwriter on the search for locations who ends up at the house of a tea planter after his car breaks down. Much to his surprise, the tea planter’s wife turns out to a former lover, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), whom he abandoned out of selfishness. 

I was always under the impression that Kapurush was a minor work from Ray but no Ray film should be thought of in such discriminatory terms since each film tells us something about Ray as a filmmaker, whether this be aesthetically or thematically. Unlike Charulata which seems to fracture the husband-wife bond, Kapurush keeps the husband at a distance so that a collision between the past and present through a series of revealing flashbacks creates an unbearable tension. Ray is interested in the question about a specific middle class selfishness and cowardice that privileges individual creative success over emotional commitment. Karuna is prepared to give up her family and status so that she can be with Amitabh but the flashback tells us he is too concerned with his underachievement's as an artist. Ambiguity permeates the emotional state of Karuna in the present day and it is never made clear if she is happy. Additionally, we never come to know if her husband is aware of Karuna’s past relationship with Amitabh. While Karuna is critical of Amitabh’s cowardice, her decision to snub Amitabh at the train station at the end of the film underlines a cruelty personified through the symbolic significance of sleeping pills. It’s a shame that Mukherjee and Chatterjee never went on to work together more regularly since they were perfectly suited as an on screen pairing.

28 September 2013

WORLD WAR Z (Dir. Marc Forster, 2013, US) - The Infected


If John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids influenced the post apocalyptic trajectory of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s science fiction-horror 28 Days Later (2002) then it is a novel which reaches back to the past and affects the present day consciousness of Hollywood cinema. For a long time, the undead was fragmented from the gothic into the vampire and zombie film. Perhaps the one pre-28 days Later text cited by many attempting a new variation on the zombie film was Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although Romero modernised the zombie flick by saturating the narrative with a socio-political perspective, it wasn’t long before parody rendered Romero’s dead films as a mute point in terms of zombie referencing. If cinema has secretly longed for the end of the world with its endless post apocalyptic fantasies then 28 Days Later merged familiar horror idioms with an underlining nastiness about the human condition. 28 Days Later repressed the zombie, perpetuating a forgotten horror trope – the infected. More importantly, the resurrection of the infected as a post 9-11 horror convention laid bare an allegorical opportunism that projected a plethora of geopolitical anxieties. Whereas the zombie was an icon of the undead, the infected after 9-11 seemed logical since ideological infection was rife, contagious yet somewhat inexplicable in a world being reconfigured by demagogues and iconoclasts. If 28 Days Later led to a new interest and revival in zombie cinema then it also spawned a line of post apocalyptic films with the infected as an allegorical catalyst. In other words, zombies representing no real social or political threat rendered them essentially irrelevant and this meant reiterating their presence in horror films as nothing but gore. The infected on the other hand isn’t as empty when it comes to ideological interpretation and the ‘rage’ virus in 28 Days Later sought to situate the symptoms of the infected in contemporary social reality. 

World War Z, a post apocalyptic blockbuster, takes a similar premise as 28 Days Later and gives it an international context by transforming the central protagonist of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) into a global citizen, travelling to places such as New York, Jerusalem and Cardiff in order to find a vaccine to an unexplained infection. Typically in such post apocalyptic Hollywood narratives, the central protagonist would either by an ordinary individual, extension of the government or someone with a past in the military. Given the presence of Brad Pitt in the main lead and who also acts as a producer on the film, it’s not surprising that his ties to the UN in the film constructs him as a global citizen and since much of the film takes place internationally rather than typically in America (as do so many Disaster/post apocalyptic films), an attempt is made to refashion the end of the world scenario as a globalist allegory. Given the current civil unrest brought on by the failings of market liberalism and the end of capitalism, allegorically the sense of destruction envisioned in the film is less of a warning about populist resistance and more of a semi-meditation on global interconnectedness stemming from multi protagonist films such as Syriana and Babel. While the film is ambitious in terms of reinvigorating the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, the attempts to narrate a seemingly intelligent story is crudely interrupted by a series of well-executed but immaterial set pieces. Bookended with the instrumentals of Muse, World War Z is a mildly diverting blockbuster that is likely to grow as a potential franchise for Paramount and Brad Pitt. If we get a sequel, the mention of the infection originating from India in the film points to a likely South Asian geographical context.

7 September 2013

Notes on Contemporary Indian Cinema 1# : August 2013


Pizza is a Tamil film pointed out to me in an article by K Hariharan titled ‘After the Cinema of Disgust’ in which he discusses the ‘renegade New Wave Tamil Cinema’. Hariharan focuses on three films in particular; Pizza, Naduvula Konjam Pakkathu Kannum (Some Pages in the middle are missing), and Sudhu Kavvum (Thou shalt Not Gamble). All three films are marked by the presence of Vijay Sethupathy, a new face in Tamil cinema. It is unlikely any of these films will be distributed in UK cinemas. In fact, all three films are already available on DVD in India, having been hits at the box office. Having seen very little Tamil cinema, director Kartik Subburaj’s Pizza is a genre piece that mixes supernatural idioms with postmodern twists. It is a skillfully crafted narrative in which Michael, a frustrated twenty something who delivers pizzas for a living, conspires with his girlfriend to concoct a genuinely gripping ghost story for personal reasons. Made on a low budget, Pizza was a sleeper hit in Tamil and is already being prepped for a Bollywood style remake. Actor Vijay Sethupathy is superb in the lead role and it is not difficult to see why he is being singled out as an emerging talent in the Chennai film industry. Although Hariharan says none of these films make any explicit connection to the wider reality of Tamil society and exist in a prism of self contained internal narrativity, Pizza is a film that transcends any cultural barriers since it speaks in a voice familiar to us from a shared understanding of genre conventions. In fact, it would be more suitable to position the film as an example of Tamil indie cinema.

The influence of Tamil cinema is notable in mainstream Hindi films and Raanjhanaa (Beloved One, 2013) saw the Hindi debut of Tamil star Dhanush in the lead role of a jilted, doomed lover. Shot digitally, Raanjhanaa is arguably director Anand Rai’s breakthrough feature. Whilst his previous film Tanu weds Manu was a sleeper hit at the box office, Raanjhanaa evidences a more ambitious approach to the idioms of the Bollywood romance, combining politics, caste and religion to create an emotionally convincing love story reaching for a tragic apotheosis. Unlike recent Bollywood love stories in which the on screen chemistry has been somewhat lacking a certain spark, Dhanush and Sonam Kapoor are perfectly cast. A. R. Rahman offers a terrific soundtrack while Abhay Deol pops up in a key supporting role. This may be a traditional narrative but it is a rendition that could be construed as classical.

Gattu (2012) may come across as a didactic piece of cinema but its sentimentality necessitates an empathy for the orphaned street child of Gattu who spends his days obsessing over kite flying. Perhaps most inspired is Gattu’s comical infiltration of a school so he can reach his dream of bringing down a kite named Kali which reigns supreme in the skies of the local area. His time at the school as an imposter results in a series of exchanges with the school children that is handled with great sensitivity. In many ways, Gattu could also be labelled as an example of contemporary neo realist cinema since it deals with the humble in the framework of what is a very simple tale. The mechanics of sound have been coldly explored in films before such as The Conversation, Blow Out and most recently Berberian Sound Studio.

Shabdo (Sound, 2013), a Bengali film written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly navigates a similar world of film sound with a story about a Foley Artist who loses his grip on reality because of an unhealthy obsession with Foley sounds. This is a psychological drama that offers a compelling view of the Bengali film industry, taking you behind the scenes and detailing the painstaking processes that a Foley Artist goes through to reproduce and record the soundtrack for a film. Unsurprisingly, what I enjoyed most about Shabdo was the rich sound design, used brilliantly as an extension of the psychological disintegration of the Foley Artist.

Aparna Sen is a key figure in Bengali cinema, having started as an actress then later becoming a director. Her latest feature, Goynar Baksho (The Jewellery Box) is a supernatural ghost story set after partition. Sen has said that this is a film she has dreamed of making for a long time but rights to adapt the novel prevented her from doing so in the past. Much of the narrative unfolds in the ancestral home of a prestigious Bengali family which is evocatively recreated and anchored in the figures of a recently deceased widow and a dutiful housewife (Konkana Sen). The supernatural element which sees the ghost of the dead widow communicating with the housewife is both comical and poignantly depicted. In addition to the comic register, Sen is less successful when it comes to bringing to the mix a premature tale of repression in the character of the housewife. Although, this idea of two people who love each other but are kept apart by social norms is given a generational sweep, such a narrative strand is added much too late for it to develop fully. Nonetheless, Goynar Baksho features terrific performances and is certainly one of Aparna Sen’s most idiosyncratic films.

Director Rajkumar Gupta’s breakthrough came with the underrated Barah Aana in 2009 for which he wrote the screenplay. His directorial debut, Aamir, showed promise with its compact narrative and prescient theme. Aamir was followed by No One Killed Jessica, a UTV production, signalling Gupta’s entry into the mainstream. His latest film, Ghanchakkar (Crazy), sees him reteam with Vidya Balan. On the surface, it tries to be a playful film with an noirish urban story featuring familiar crime idioms like memory loss and a missing suitcase full of money but the desire to be edgy is nothing other than an aspiration that rambles profusely and then disintegrates into cataclysmic cinematic absurdities. Emraan Hashmi’s continuing attempts to alternate from his romantic lead star image in films like Shanghai (2012) and Ghanchakkar certainly proves he has a nastiness lurking within him that needs to be exploited more often. One of the major problems with Ghanchakkar is the running time. Had this film been more taut by shaving off thirty or even forty five minutes, it may have been more engaging. Overall, it is a disappointing film but I have to admit, the ending was somewhat of a surprise and welcoming to see filmmakers seeking to export ideas often found in Indian indie cinema to a mainstream context.

25 August 2013

BLURRING THE LINE: IN REPLY TO KEVIN B. LEE

I want to take some time to offer a reply to an article referring to me by Kevin B. Lee on the Fandor website in regards to a video essay I posted on my blog titled ‘Sticking It To ‘The Man’: Instances of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt.

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan - a radical filmmaker from India

Firstly, I want to query my writings in regards to director Robert Bresson. I have only ever posted one entry on Bresson, which was on The Trial of Joan of Arc / Proces De Jeanne D’Arc in 2009. I have made numerous references to Bresson in other writings on my blog but that hardly constitutes as specific writings on his work and whereas on Twitter, I go by the name of Bressonian, I must confess I am a fan but writings on Bresson’s work from myself are limited indeed. Therefore, it seems somewhat suspect to me when Kevin says he admires ‘my work on Bresson’. What this suggests to me is that Kevin hasn’t really done his homework and just taken the information on my blog that says Pickpocket is my favourite film as an assumption that I have also written extensively on Bresson. What this underlines is that we regularly fall into the trap of generalising about other people’s film tastes. I think this tends to happen a great deal to bloggers writing on the Internet so maybe I am making a general observation. Nonetheless, the ostensible lack of knowledge of my writings is supported by the calamity of failing to clearly identify me as the author of the video essay. This resulted in Fandor referring to me as Omer Sayed. You only have to read my twitter handler and blog to authenticate such basic information as my full name. There is a big difference between Sayed and Ahmed. Adrian Martin was first to query this and although it was corrected, it wasn’t done so completely and read Omer Ahmed. As I write this rebuttal, the post still reads Omer Ahmed, indicating either an editorial slip-up or more seriously, a case of cultural ignorance on behalf of Keyframe and Fandor. 

Kevin then fails to point out that the Vimeo channel ‘Audiovisualcy’ (created and maintained by Catherine Grant) which he refers to as ‘the most reliable curated resource for discovering critical video essays’ includes me as a moderator so I have the capacity to reject and approve which videos can be chosen to appear in the channel’s stream. He also argues that the presence of the video essay in such a reputable channel such as ‘Audiovisualcy’ gives credence to his claims that the radicalism I espouse is celebrated and the norms of radicalism are reinforced. That can hardly be true when the video has only been viewed 69 times, with most of those hits coming after Kevin’s article appeared on Keyframe. Yet again, I have to reiterate that my video essay was never about radicalism but interested in exploring ‘instances’ of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt, as I clearly state in the introduction to the essay. This low viewing figure hardly warrants the notion of ‘celebration’ when so few people have actually seen it unlike Spring Breakers (which I haven’t seen). Additionally, Kevin refers to me as a ‘prolific video essayist’. Yet again this is an exaggeration, if not, a manipulation of the facts. I produced my first video essay two years ago on Apu Sansar and since then have made a total of just seven video essays. Not exactly prolific, is it? Compare my output to say someone like Aaron Aradillas or Kevin himself and you will know what prolific actually means. In many ways, I am a novice at the job of video essayist and lack the finesse of experts like Kevin who is well versed in the language of video essays. I am just a beginner. 

My understanding is that Kevin’s criticisms of my video essay focuses on my supposed attempts to elevate the work of Tarantino and Linklater as somehow ‘radical’. I never claim that these films are ‘radical’. Of course they are not, they are populist, mainstream films but what these films do offer are ‘instances’ of cinematic disobedience/revolt that in my opinion is true of American cinema in the past, using narrative as a means of social commentary. The term ‘the man’ has almost but disappeared from contemporary discussions of political cinema, as it was a term that became associated with the counter culture movement in the late 1960s and black militancy in the 1970s. My attempt to resurrect the term ‘the man’ was to show the way hegemony works since anything oppositional or alternative usually become subsumed into the mainstream. The invisibility of the term ‘the man’ points to the way ‘the man’ has just taken on different forms now such as corporate power. I do find it a little unfair that Kevin also chooses to highlight contemporary films, ‘Fight Club to V for Vendetta to Rambo’ from my video essay as a means of validating the sincerity of his arguments. The three films he chooses to highlight along with Django Unchained are recent films, more open to interpretation than the other genuine anti-establishment films that I also make reference to. This includes Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Do The Right Thing, if…., The Parallax View, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon. Nor is there is any reference to the two examples of Indian cinema: Deewaar (The Wall) and Lagaan (Land Tax). Why omit references to such films? Who can deny films such as Sweetback and If… are genuinely anti-establishment. Why the latter ends with students gunning down the headteacher in cold blood!

It might be true that these films were never meant to be revolutionary since mainstream cinema does not have the capacity to allow for such radical political address, but it does allow for smuggling in political ideas conducive to the wider context and express those ideas in such a way that we do get ‘instances’ of anti establishment ideology. This was my point about School of Rock. Here’s a film, directed by Richard Linklater as a studio assignment, but given his Generation X status as a Hollywood outsider, he has continually used his films to stress themes such as non conformity. As Mark Kermode says, ‘Linklater understands that a die-hard anti-establishment ethos need not be anathema to multiplex friendly family fare.’ The inclusion of School of Rock in my video essay wasn’t simply to make everything look that much cooler but it focused on a key question being raised: is it not possible to be anti establishment in a mainstream context? ‘Instances’ have occurred before and will continue to do so. This was a point proven by Robin Wood’s work on horror films in the 1970s, especially populist slasher and zombie films, arguing they ‘offer an expose of the contradictions of capitalism’. So it is possible for mainstream films to critique the hegemonic system they supposedly reinforce. Kevin forgets that oppositional cinema that actually argues for a political activism through imagery of resistance ‘exists as a reaction to mainstream commercial cinema and therefore depends on the very practice it seeks to undermine.’ Given constraints to do with upload and length of the essay, I was forced to leave out directors in my video essay who also need mentioning in terms of the way they use narrative and genre conventions to articulate a political discourse that offers instances of anti establishment philosophy. This includes directors such as Oliver Stone, John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch. Besides, aren’t most political notions subjective? Radicalism is purely subjective and largely depends on cultural capital. If this is the case then everyone’s idea of what is radical will also differ. Radical cinematic address has always been complicated by the stark reality that it is usually middle class filmmakers who are in the position of making such films and that the target audience, typically the invisible, oppressed minority, do not have the means with which to access this radical address. This has meant the intended audience rarely enter the equation of radicalism except as subjects. And surely some of the films being screened by the Lincoln Center may in fact be radical works but does something like ‘dancing nude in giant celebratory circles of anti-materialist communion’ make a film particularly radical?

What this leads on to next is the culture of canonisation we are living on today especially in regards to film. Kevin pointed out the Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series to me. It is a very important list of films, which are rightfully categorised as radical. I refute the accusation of being ‘backhanded’ in my response to Kevin’s weblink he highlighted for ‘further consideration’. My reply of ‘Thanks for the esoteric suggestions’ was not supposed to be trite in anyway. The truth is being pointed into the direction of a web page without any context seemed a little backhanded to me. Had the films come as personal recommendations from Kevin then I would have taken his initial comment more seriously. Besides, my video essay was never meant to be intellectual and it was never my intentions to slight radical cinema. Additionally, Kevin’s initial comment was followed by a link to Solanas and Getino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Toward a Third Cinema’, which I am already familiar with and have incorporated into my upcoming book on Indian cinema. I felt disappointed that Kevin simply assumed I had no understanding or realisation of such a manifesto. At the time I did leave a reply to Kevin’s initial criticisms on Vimeo, which I also feel, have been overlooked. Kevin also fails to acknowledge a video essay I produced on Naxalite cinema, a case in point about political radicalism within the strata of mainstream Indian cinema. 


Lal Salaam! - Naxalite Cinema from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

This returns to my intentions with my most recent video essay: is it not possible to question power, authority and the status quo in a mainstream cinematic context? Nonetheless, the problem with film programming is that like most ‘lists’, you have to be discriminatory, selecting and excluding. The Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series does exactly that, whereby certain nations are left completely out of the equation of global radical cinema. A case in point is Indian cinema. My recent open letter to specialist DVD labels raised a number of replies that got me thinking about the role of film programming in arthouse cinemas and film festivals alike. The absence of Indian film titles from the culture of film programming is one of the reasons why Indian cinema rarely appears on the radar of western film discourse. If it does so, it is usually in the service of Satyajit Ray. The ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series could easily have chosen any of the work by documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan especially his 1971 documentary ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ which documents the Indian Emergency (1975 - 1977) through the stark personal testimonies of political prisoners. The absence of India or other significant filmmaking nations shouldn’t invalidate the noble intentions of the series, it just means that film programming is subjective and comes to reflect the tastes/prejudices of the film programmers involved. I cannot help but feel film programming and festivals are caught in this bind to exclude Indian cinema and reinforce ‘trends’. 

It is a default position to simply bring out the old age debate about high and low culture (mainstream cinema = apolitical/appropriates/dismissive vs. radical cinema = political/real/truth/activism) but I couldn’t help feel this is what Kevin was driving towards in his article, legitimising his own position as the self righteous gatekeeper of radical cinema, since his view of radical cinema dismisses any opportunities for oppositional reading in mainstream films, suggesting that mainstream cinema simply replicates the status quo and denies any ‘instances’ for alternative political address. I contest such a claim in my video essay by juxtaposing clips from various mainstream, mostly American, films to underline a continual attempt to smuggle in or explicitly question dominant values. For a lengthy analysis of Tarantino’s Django Unchained, refer to my article titled ‘Re-imagining Slavery’.

Before I finish there are two important final points I’d like to make. The first relates to a refusal to name film scholars and film critics by Kevin. Even when Kevin is discussing Spring Breakers, he never once refers to the writer in question. I haven’t seen Spring Breakers so is it a mainstream film critic you are alluding to? Why the secrecy? However, Kevin goes to the trouble of singling me and thus makes an example of me as a phony radical, suggesting that deep down I am simply part of a capitalist system that trivialises radicalism and positions it as somewhat threatening and even aberrant. I refute such claims. So who exactly are these ‘film scholars and discerning film critics’? Even more baffling is that given Keyframe’s reputation as an on-line scholarly site for new film writing, how would this even get past the editorial process? It makes one question the legitimacy of Keyframe/Fandor as a reliable and scholarly resource for cinephilia. As for, Kevin I have always admired his work but did not expect for him to put me in the firing line for a piece of work that holds little, if any, relevance to his own concerns (a concern I wholeheartedly share) about what constitutes radical cinema today. 

My final point is perhaps the reason why I felt I needed to write this defence. In his final denouncement of myself and others like me who supposedly tow the line, Kevin had this to say: ‘movies aren’t a spectator sport for us to get our rebellious rocks off via proxy, but a call to action: not just take the injustices of the world seriously, and to be motivated to actually do something about it.’ Kevin yet again assumes that I am not involved in taking action against injustices. Let me tell you a bit about myself. I’ve been teaching full time for ten years now, and all in the public sector. I have also been a member of Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for ten years since I also believe in showing support for my fellow workers and colleagues. Over the last three years, the government has taken a sledgehammer to the education system and this had led to funding cuts for the public sector. Pay has stalled, hours have increased and group’s sizes have got bigger for teachers like myself. The NUT has called on teachers to ‘take action’ several times and I have been on strike on four occasions now. Going on strike has many consequences including loss of earnings. Wouldn’t you agree this is called being ‘motivated to actually do something about it!’, no matter how trivial or minor the cause may be when compared to other injustices. It is clearly wrong of you to categorise me as ‘getting my rebellious rocks via proxy’ since I have been active in seeking to overturn and question injustices, be they local or global ones. Although I don’t have the platform that you may have from which to articulate your criticisms I can only resort to my blog with the small audience I get occasionally. I stand by my video essay since it was never a piece about radical cinema but unfortunately has been pulled into a wider debate from which it should have been excluded since all of my clips are from mainstream films not counter hegemonic cinema. However, since I feel so passionately about the imperative role played by radical cinema and radical filmmakers around the world, as a show of solidarity and mark of up most respect I will be ‘taking down’ the video essay forthwith since I don’t want anyone else to misinterpret my work as a means of denigrating the eternal sacrifices of radical cinema. 

Omar Ahmed 

Teacher/Blogger/Cinephile/Writer

17 August 2013

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) - Postmodern 'masala'


This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences. 

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.

KADAL / THE SEA (Mani Ratnam, 2013, India) - Good Vs. Evil


Tamil novelist and co-scriptwriter Jeyamohan describes Mani Ratnam’s latest cinematic venture as a ‘grand spiritual saga’. That seems like a fitting way to sum up Kadal / The Sea. Whenever I want to speak or write about Ratnam my instinct is to position him as an arthouse auteur, which may seem appropriate for a cinephile based outside of India and especially Tamil. Of course, the truth is that Ratnam is a populist mainstream filmmaker and in the past has shown the capacity to transcend his indigenous Tamil roots by crossing over to make Hindi films. He is still one of Indian cinema’s leading filmmakers and although Kadal was met with a mixed response from critics on its release, it is one of the most technically accomplished films of the year with a grand narrative that is both elemental and metaphysically construed. The backdrop is a fishing community and the story weaves together an embittered conflict between two priests and a love story between two orphans. Thematically, the biblical context of Christianity as a source of redemption, is somewhat conventionally played out, climaxing in a cinematically charged case of pathetic fallacy. In terms of genre conventions, Ratnam clearly draws from gangster/crime films, which he has done so in past films such as Nayakan, and one clear recent and ongoing thematic preoccupation seems to be with the accumulation and dissolution of power. 

Ratnam has over the years built up a team of regular collaborators and technically speaking his films are very accomplished, perhaps offering some of the finest lessons in camerawork, editing and lighting in Indian cinema. Both of Ratnam’s last two films, Guru and Raavan, were distributed internationally, mainly because of the star presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. However, Kadal is a different case altogether since it features two debutantes; Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair, in the lead roles. It was terrific to see the comeback of much missed actor Arvind Swamy (a natural screen presence) who starred in earlier Ratnam films including Roja and Bombay. In many ways, Ratnam’s retreat to more regional concerns is to be commended since an engagement with Tamil cinema has often led his most popular and best loved works. It is worth pointing out the notable contributions of cinematographer Rajiv Menon and music composer A. R. Rahman.

SATTAWIS DOWN / 27 DOWN (Awtar Krishna Paul, 1973, India) - Trains


Financed by the NFDC, Awtar Krishna Paul’s debut film 27 Down signalled much promise but his career was tragically cut short when he died while trying to save someone from drowning. 27 Down is a restoration by the NFDC and has been released on DVD under its new Cinemas of India label. Beautifully shot in a noirish monochrome by DOP Apurba Kishore Bir and with a striking production design by regular Ray collaborator Bansi Chandragupta, 27 Down stands out as a key work from the parallel cinema movement. Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father. This is a film to savour and deserves wider appreciation.

7 August 2013

AN OPEN LETTER TO SPECIALIST DVD LABELS ON INDIAN FILM TITLES

Specialist DVD Labels
The Criterion Collection (Janus) 
Masters of Cinema (Eureka! Entertainment) 
Second Run 
BFI 
Artificial Eye 
Mr Bongo 

A word of warning before you read on: This letter is in no way definitive and should be best viewed as a working document that is subject to change. Also I'm not sure how accurate I have been with my numbers on Indian film titles released by specialist DVD labels. 

I have been buying films for little over twenty-five years now. As a self proclaimed cinephile my tastes in film are varied and I have DVDs and now increasingly Blu-ray's that reflect such interests. Conversely, what I have observed over the years is that many of the specialist DVD labels such as Masters of Cinema and Criterion have chosen to make available newly discovered, influential and cult films to a global cinephile community. The significance of specialist film distribution should not be underestimated in terms of enriching our understanding of film. Nonetheless, while many labels have no such obligation when it comes to ensuring they release titles that represent film in its varied global diversity, the absence or should say I say lack of Indian film titles is underwhelming and needs elucidation. 

Firstly, the absence of Indian film titles (I am arguing here for art-house, independent and cult films not mainstream titles which are well supported by most of the major distributors) suggests Indian cinema is not deemed as important as other cinemas, a point I would refute and vehemently argue against. One only has to survey the richness of the Indian New Wave in the late 1960s and beyond to sustain such an argument. In fact, such an absence reiterates the cultural inferiority of Indian cinema that is sometimes perpetuated by mainstream film discourse. Consider even the way 100 years of Indian cinema has been neglected by major highbrow film publications such as Sight and Sound & Film Comment. 

Secondly, the cinema of Satyajit Ray, who has become the most revered Indian film director in the West, does not accurately reflect the contemporary state of Indian cinema. The rise of an educated middle class and a Multiplex film culture in India has led to a vibrant, innovative and edgy independent film scene. No one is denying that Ray is one of the great filmmakers but the unending focus on his films is a default position to adopt since it limits the way we think about Indian cinema. I'm a huge fan of Ray and find it deeply encouraging to see his films gradually being restored and released definitively but whereas French or German cinema has a plethora of auteurs with films that can be accessed easily through specialist DVD labels, the same cannot be said for Indian cinema. Some would reason Indian cinema might have begun with Ray; however, it certainly didn’t end with him.


Satyajit Ray is still Indian cinema's most revered filmmaker.
Thirdly, if none of these aforementioned DVD labels have a duty or obligation to pursue Indian cinema then why is it that French cinema or even Japanese cinema is given preferential treatment? Perhaps one of the answers is that both French and Japanese cinema are more widely respected among the cinephile community since a greater body of scholarly work exists. If the notion of authorial expression is more closely attuned to French or Japanese cinema then we could attribute this perception to academia and the way film studies is taught. Indian cinema is rarely thought of in terms film auteurs. This seems to be an obstacle since many of the films released by specialist labels are predicated on the auteur myth and consequently Indian cinema becomes marginalised in such a context. That Indian cinema doesn’t produce auteurs is of course an absurdist view.

Lastly, many independent and art Indian films don't make it to UK cinema screens so it becomes even more important that DVD labels act as a meditator, making available films that are often ignored or dismissed in the face of mainstream film distribution. Given the way many of these labels now hold real weight amongst cinephiles, academics and critics alike, what they choose to release and make available in a way inevitably establishes a discourse that selectively accentuates auteurs, movements and films. For a film to be given preferential treatment and be canonised, as is the case with films that are given the ‘Criterion treatment’ reiterates their cultural worth, contributing to the flow of cinephile discourse.


Ray films that have been given the Criterion treatment.

But is it even necessary to plead with specialist DVD labels when so much of Indian cinema is readily available today? This truth is that the biggies have no problem appearing on DVD. The problem remains that much of regional, art and independent cinema receives inadequate distribution in the UK. Nonetheless, today the situation for a discerning cinephile in India may in fact be the reverse since accessibility has become less of an issue. Getting access to Indian films has never been easier especially with YouTube and various VOD services. Additionally, DVD labels like UTV Motion Pictures, Yash Raj, Shemaroo and NFDC to name a few distribute varied Indian film titles. I am not arguing specialist DVD labels should enforce a more balanced policy when it comes to selecting films since this would inevitably lead to a kind of cinematic political correctness. Films need to be judged on their artistic merits alone and film canons have never been compiled solely on the basis of ‘country of origin’. Yet if this is the case then why is it that Indian cinema is so poorly represented in the catalogues of so many DVD labels. In an attempt to support such a claim I surveyed the number of films from India that have been released by some of the major specialist DVD labels. It was fairly obvious what I learned:

The Criterion Collection (owned by Janus) - 7 titles 

Eureka! Entertainment (which owns the Masters of Cinema label) - 1 title (Abhijan by Ray which is currently listed as out of print) 

BFI - 6 titles (although I have not included films by Franz Osten) 

Artificial Eye - 16 titles (all of these except for one are films directed by Satyajit Ray) 

Second Run - 3 titles 

Mr Bongo - 4 titles (all films by Ray again) 

Artificial Eye wins hand down and it certainly has the strongest track record in terms of making available titles from the Middle East, Iran and even Africa. However, Satyajit Ray dominates the titles, which is not surprising since he is still promoted by western film discourse as the only Indian filmmaker with widespread acceptance amongst a predominantly middle class western audience. Dare I say it but has Ray become a problem in the way we perceive Indian cinema today? It may in fact be a problem exacerbated by the way Ray continues to a primary focus whenever Indian cinema appears in mainstream film publications such as Sight and Sound. Criterion, perhaps the most reputable specialist DVD label, has seven Indian film titles in their catalogue (I decided against including the Merchant-Ivory films) and aside from Monsoon Wedding, which one could argue isn't even indigenous, Ray dominates again. In fact, Finland is better represented than India, which seems especially bizarre given the exponential output from the Indian film industry. Eureka! Entertainment, which owns Masters of Cinema have just one Indian film title; Abhijan. This is yet another Ray film and since it is currently out of print, one could argue a complete absence of Indian cinema in the catalogue of Masters of Cinema seems perplexing considering so many contemporary Indian indie titles have bee made of late that are artistically significant and commercially feasible. Peepli Live, the only recent Indian film title that appears in the catalogue of Artificial Eye, is representative of a new wave of Multiplex indie films that have emerged more frequently over the past few years but one title hardly accounts for the prolific creative output of this particular lively film scene. The BFI, which relies partially on public funding is exemplary at promoting British film culture yet has only six Indian film titles in their catalogues. All of these films are quite old now and while the BFI were the first in the UK to make available the films of Ritwik Ghatak, such a concern for Indian cinema in terms of specialist distribution has been inconsistent to the say the least. 


Non-Ray films that have been given a specialist film release by DVD labels include few contemporary Indian films.

One reason, often cited, why Indian film titles are rarely distributed by specialist labels is related to the complicated area of distribution rights in India which I am told are highly problematic when compared to other countries. Unfortunately, my reluctance to expand on this argument is to do with a lack of information about the process. I'm guessing locating an adequate print, usually from an archive, is just one of the obstacles complicating this process. It may be the case that some Indian films have been released on DVD and are available to buy but we can say the same for some of the films that have been acquired by Masters of Cinema and Criterion. Consider the way Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil and Two Lane Blacktop have been re-released more definitively than ever before. Acquiring distribution has been in an issue in the past especially for classic Indian films. I doubt the same circumstances exist for contemporary independent films since they depending on alternate platforms in terms of reaching the widest possible audience. Another question arises here: why should it be the responsibility of DVD labels in the west to reclaim Indian films from the past? Such a question may seem pertinent at first but given the way DVD labels in both the US and UK have fallen over themselves to focus squarely on Europe as a benchmark for quality arthouse cinema renders such a question irrelevant because isn’t it the case that cinephilia is predicated on a singular motivating factor; the promotion of good cinema?

It would be wrong to bring forth accusations to do with discrimination but I feel film canons that have popularised movements, auteurs and films in the West have done so at the expense of Indian cinema. This was evident in Sight and Sound’s recent poll. The Eurocentric bias that I have written about before continues to circulate in the way film is written about in mainstream film journalism and academia and I personally feel this is a decisive factor in the way discourse on Indian cinema takes place within a marginal space obfuscating the rich output of regional cinemas. The recent London Indian Film Festival which is currently touring the UK with examples of new Indian cinema needs to be embraced for it’s programming since it draws attention to an alternative counter hegemonic cinema which is very much alive in India. An interesting case in point and one that allows me to test my theory of the way edgy, independent and art films never reach UK shores especially in terms of specialist DVD distribution can be illustrated by simply looking at the 2012 programme for the London Indian Film Festival. Although these films were exhibited before a select audience, how many of them actually saw the light of day in terms of home video distribution? The answer would probably be a handful. Many of these films will probably be available in the Indian domestic home video market, creeping through on VOD but most of the still remain unreleased in the UK, failing to get either a theatrical or home video release. This in many ways doesn't seem particularly revelatory considering so many films in general, regardless of the country in which they are made, face such a struggle when it comes to getting an adequate distribution deal.


A key festival in the Indian film calendar which is playing a hugely significant role in helping to offer an alternative to populist Hindi cinema or Bollywood with an emphasis on the Indian 'indie' film scene.
Recommending a body of film titles suitable for distribution on DVD/Blu-ray may seem a little presumptuous but I am going to anyway. An invaluable starting point is a list of ‘landmark films’ compiled by the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), to mark 100 years of Indian cinema. Films canons obviously discriminate but this list avoids the crime of simply defining Indian cinema by the populist Hindi films, instead striking a tone of inclusivity by accounting for regional output. In spite of some of these films having been released on DVD, a release via a specialist label would not only bring the films to a wider audience but force the cinephile community to reformulate their understanding of Indian cinema by entering into a new dialogue with the contemporary scene rather than remain fixated on a singular film auteur. 

Another false perception of Indian cinema is through the prism of Bollywood (mainstream Hindi cinema in Mumbai). Extravagant 'masala' spectacles offer hyperbolic narratives that can still be equated with lowbrow culture. In spite of that, Indian cinema has its fair share of auteurs, from the past and present. For example, just consider the work of documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has had a retrospective at the BFI Southbank yet whose work is unavailable in the UK unless you purchase directly through his website - Patwardhan’s output in itself calls for a substantial box set treatment. DVD labels like Criterion and Masters of Cinema excel in their comprehensive approach, ensuring each film title is presented with the finest transfer, recompensing extras and striking packaging. 

Whereas I am in agreement with the NFAI’s list, I want to finish by proposing a personal list of ten films that I would argue deserve a specialist release: (the films appear in no particular order) 

1. Gulaal (Anurag Kashyap, 2009) 
2. Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan / Alms for the Blind Horse (Gurvinder Singh, 2011)
3. Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, 2009)
4. Garam Hawa / Hot Winds (M. S. Sathyu, 1973)
5. Calcutta 71’ (Mrinal Sen, 1971)
6. Uski Roti / Our Daily Bread (Mani Kaul, 1970)
7. Neecha Nagar / Lowly City (Chetan Anand, 1946)
8. Hey Ram (Kamal Hassan, 2000)
9. Ganga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961)
10. Baazi / Gamble (Guru Dutt, 1951)


Some personal choices that deserve a specialist release by DVD labels.

Understandably DVD labels have to think commercially about film titles and this can be an abiding, if not, fundamental principle guiding their selection. If this is true and Indian cinema is considered commercially unsound in terms of the cinephile consumer then perhaps the changes I am advocating are unrealistic, hence the exclusion of Indian cinema from specialist cinephile distribution is without prejudice. I want to end by saying that specialist labels that have the means to distribute must take more of a considered approach when it comes to selecting film titles but this means taking Indian cinema seriously as a genuine cinephile concern. Even if a label as influential and revered as let’s say Masters of Cinema were to release at least one film each year in this way, it would be a step in the right direction. 

Omar Ahmed 
Cinephile/Teacher/Writer 
oahmed5@gmail.com
@bressonian