Saturday, September 29, 2012

mini-reviews from the Chicago South Asian Film Festival: features, part 1

Thoughts on the six feature films I saw at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival last weekend!

A Decent Arrangement (2011, dir. Sarovar Banka)
I really wanted to love this film about a rudderless (or slacker, as the director called him) Indian-American man, Ashok (Adam Laupus), who goes to India for an arranged marriage wrangled by his aunt (Shabana Azmi). A Decent Arrangement is less the culture clash story that that description may suggest and much more Ashok's coming of age, even though he is putting a first toe in the waters of self-awareness and bravery at a more advanced age than you might suspect. I was frustrated with Ashok throughout most of the film because he refuses to say much about what's going wrong with his life. My favorite moment is when he explains to another American traveler that he is getting an arranged marriage not out of any sense of Indian cultural identity but because he has seen the contentedness of his married friends and wants a little piece of that for himself, and since his demographic identity enables him to get married quite easily, he's going to take advantage of it. I say "demographic identity" purposefully because I have more knowledge of and affiliation with Indian culture than Ashok does.

This is the first time I've seen a story about a non-white person going to India in search of happiness or to find himself, made all the more interesting when the other American character, Lori, who is white, poo-poos Eat Pray Love-type stories while she acts every bit that indulgent, wandering stereotype. The difference between Ashok and Lori is that he's in India because he was trying to head towards something, albeit something he seems to understand so little that he can't participate in it or even identify it, while Lori gives us a line about ivory towers and not knowing if she's really happy.

The film is set in Chandigarh, which is significant for its contrast of the planned city with floundering Ashok and Lori. I can't decide if I think the Indian characters are supposed to be significantly more pulled-together and organized than Ashok. Even if they are not exactly happy (at least not in the American "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" sort of way), they seem satisfied and calm, perhaps because, as the title suggests, the arrangement of their lives is decent and sufficient, providing opportunities they understand and know how to follow. They know what they're doing, unlike Ashok, who doesn't seem to know anything at all until the very end of the film.

Runaway (2012, dir. Amit Ashraf)
For reasons I will explain later, I missed the first 20 minutes or so of Runaway, so I might be missing the key to what made the central character Baba (Shahed Ali Sujon) tick in such a weird and increasingly scary way. I had absolutely no idea where this story was going or how its threads were going to tie together (an ignorance probably intensified because of what I missed), so every time I winced I could still hope that something nice was in store for these clearly messed-up and desperate people. Actually, the roots and expressions of their desperation are another strength of the script and performances, now that I think about it. In the director's Q&A after the film, there was a discussion about the film's internal and human-scale logic, and I have to agree with the general opinion of the festival audience that this film ended exactly as it had to. Given how these characters are—which is very thoroughly established by the remarkable things they do throughout the film—and the structures and flows of power, there is but one possible ending. And what an ending it is, too. I will say no more except that to warn that for me this was not an easy film to watch but its harshness is mindful in a way I very much respect.

Jalpari (2012, dir. Nila Madhab Panda)
You may think you don't really want to see a film about female foeticide that is centered on adorable moppety children from the big city who adventurously scamper through Haryana tales and games while their father also confronts some kind of specter of his dead wife and regressive village politics, but believe me, you do.

There's something about the tone of this film that establishes a comfortably fairy-tale structure despite the horrifying truth about the much-feared witch who lurks at the edge of the village. Perhaps the actual displacement of the story from their crisp urban home in modern Delhi to the crumbling ancestral home full of strangers (from the children's point of view) adds to the sense of distancing it from "now" and placing it in a less real setting. Bad things happen in this village, but nothing seems absolutely perilous.

The actors add considerably to the safety net; the three lead child actors (Lehar Khan, Krishang Trivedi  [as the visiting siblings], and Harsh Mayar [the local ringleader who tuants them]) are so charming that I couldn't believe any real harm would befall them, and Parvin Dabas (as their confident and protective doctor dad) and Suhasini Mulay (their calm and wise grandmother) are people whose mere presence makes me happy. There is nothing un-real about what the protagonists experience, but the world they uncover feels removed even from their normal lives.

All of this makes it a fascinating contrast to one of the features the next day that dealt in part with the same basic issue...

Lessons in Forgetting (2012, dir. Unni Vijayan)
Gut-wrenching, unsettling, this is the grown-up response to the children-focused story of Jalpari in that the grown-up world so often has no tidy endings, no righting of the moral balance. It's not that this is more sophisticated than the other film, but it is darker, more complicated, and much more frightening. While both films touch on the rationale for female foeticide of "that's how it is in the village—we're not as modern as you city folks—so just leave it be," there is a more intense intent of using power to silence critics in this one. Again, there is an ending that I won't discuss, and it is even more harrowing than that of Runaway. I have not read the novel on which this is based, but author Anita Nair wrote the screenplay and I think she did a brilliant job at the arrangement and pacing of the stages of revealing the answers to the multiple questions that drive the principal threads of the story. Adil Hussain is wonderful as Jak, a father trying to figure out how his daughter (Maya Tideman) ended up mangled and unconscious. Like the father in Jalpari, he is a man of science, but unlike that father he is removed in time from the tragedy and can only look back, unable to observe directly. There is only what other people remember and are willing to tell him. He is desperate to know things, but the title suggests that might not be a wise or sustainable approach.

Contrasting with Jak, whose most important family member is returned to him nearly shattered, is Meera, played by a vibrant but restrained Roshni Achreja, whose family disappears throughout the film, leaving her reason and opportunity to become part of Jak's world. There is something about the quiet effort and openness of Meera that I just love. She's a little child-like, perhaps a result of one of the most adult aspects of her life being ripped away, but she is also more resilient and healthy in the face of tragedy than Jak. Together they create the sense that they will progress through their losses and confusion, holding on to what is valuable and shedding the rest. It's a powerful film with some truly brutal moments, but I was left with hope as well. Not much, but enough.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Basanta Bilap

Last month, I finally decided I was tired of conversations that included "What? You haven't seen the Apu Trilogy?!?", so my friend Ellie and I made a date to watch Pather Panchali...and I haven't looked back. I get it now. I get why so many people love Ray and I add my name to their numbers. Ray films like Apur SansarCharulata, and the Feludas have of course led me to Soumitra Chatterjee, who any minute now is going to make an appearance as his own special tag in my sidebar. [Update to post (October 9, 2012): and in fact, now he has.] I've drunk the Kool-Aid.
One of the ubiquitous and well-documented effects of Kool-Aid, of course, is prowling through the subject's filmography and youtube clips, and I have discovered—and, thanks to my Bengali Cinema Advisory Team members like Bongo Byango, Sayak, and Dotthei, been specifically directed to—many wonderful Soumitra-related things, including his attempt at the twist, which is almost as hilarious as his equestrian and combat skills in Jhinder Bandi (but the music is great).*

Thus it was that I ended up on the Angel Digital channel in front of the first segment of Basanta Bilap. I had run across the adorable song "Aami Miss Calcutta 1976" in a few different places,

but it was the even funnier "Aagun" that cemented a need to see this film right away.
That "Na! Na na na!" thing he does at about 1:24? I could watch that all day.

As far as I can tell—which is perhaps not very far at all—this is a film about very little. It's two hours of girls vs. boys, and from the group meet-cute you know how it's going to end. (I did actually wonder if it wouldn't end as I expected, since I know nothing about popular Bengali cinema from the 70s and shouldn't make assumptions about what it does with meet-cutes, though this one does have lyrics like "you were near me but I didn't understand that you loved me" in its first ten minutes.) Aparna Sen is the leader of a group of friends at a girls' hostel, 
Don't make me choose what sari I like most.
and she is magnificently feisty. She's also modern, living on her own, holding down a job, and having a great time with her friends. If her parents are mentioned at all, I missed it. That's true of most of the young characters in this film; there's nothing made of what these people should be doing or whom they'll disappoint if they don't. How refreshing! The spat goes back and forth for a bit until we realize that three couples have formed between the warring sides, with people lying to their friends about whom they're meeting and what they've been up to, including visiting sick aunts who inconveniently turn up perfectly fine a few seconds later. Only Aparna and Soumitra (the leader of the group of the young men) are the holdouts, annoying each other at work, egging on retaliation, and refusing to compromise after the pranks get out of control. 

It's quite possible that the novelty value of this film is so high for me that I liked it more than I would like a Bollywood iteration of the same story and songs. The jokes sometimes go on a bit too long or just don't seem all that funny (an angry fat man with a bucket on his head! Wowee!). 
There is also an incident whose implications I do not understand: early on, Aparna pretends that Soumitra has flicked his cigarette butt onto the hem of her sari, and she tells him off in public, waggling her finger and saying she'll make a complaint and calling him an inconsiderate monkey (which is a great phrase in English, even if it's not a literal translation) as passers-by join in chastising him. He seems utterly devastated by this, coming back to his friends' house and going on about wanting to hang himself. They tease him a little say, "What did you do, wink at her? Winking's not a crime!" but eventually quieting down when they realize how upset he is. I have no idea why this rattles him so much; I don't think his family or colleagues were present, and he has been shown as a boisterous and impish guy, not the sort of shuffling, demure, upright type who might more easily be flummoxed by a bit of public scolding over something he didn't actually do. I think this incident is supposed to be his reasoning for refusing to make peace with the girls, so I wish it had made more sense or resonated emotionally. As is, he came off as moody and a bit hypocritical rather than legitimately wronged. 
This picture doesn't really go with anything. I just like it.
Fortunately, the film chugs along to more silliness, and it's easy enough to put that aside and just enjoy the shenanigans. Watch it if you want a nice, light comedy with great songs. And at least try just the first few minutes, because the opening titles have superb music (by Sudhin Dasgupta) featuring a squawking muted trumpet for a sort of Dixieland feel, a vibraphone (I think?), and a chorus of giggles, plus a slew of other musical and sound effects that fade out into car horns and bike bells on the street as the action begins. In fact, all the songs are great, so even if I can't tempt you into the whole film, look for its songs—they're catchy and funny and populated by adorable stars doing their thing.

Basanta Bilap is available on youtube with English subtitles on the Angel channel here

* As is often true of the early stages of star infatuation, I saw something nasty on the Netflix, as Mrs. Starkadder would say. Do not, do not, do not watch The Bengali Night, even though it is available to stream and even though it stars Hugh Grant along with Shabana Azmi and Soumitra as the parents of Hugh's love interest. It is so very bad. The leads do an okay job, particularly the older ones and Hugh, but the side characters (Hugh's friends and neighbors) are horrendously, laughably performed, John Hurt's character is so irritating I wanted him dead from the moment he opened his mouth, and I never believed the romance for a second.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Come to the Chicago South Asian Film Festival!

If you're in the midwestern United States—or have time and money to get yourself here—I highly recommend attending the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, running September 20–23! To tempt you, the schedule is available here (with trailers collected here—which is such a good idea) and includes several world and US premieres of films with actors like Shabana Azmi, Lilete Dubey, Deepti Naval, Victor Banerjee, Samrat Chakrabarti, and Parvin Dabas.

Due to work commitments I can only make it to the Saturday and Sunday events (and possibly Friday night, if I play my cards right), but you luckier types will get to enjoy Heroine as the gala opening film on the 20th. Frankly I'm not sure how I feel about Heroine: I love Kareena and the idea of her in such a film is fantastic, and I thought Page 3 was okay, but Fashion is one of the worst films I have ever seen and it violated so many principles of storytelling and basic human decency that trying out something else made by some of the same creative team is not in the tiniest bit appealing.

The list of artists attending is also pretty interesting and I am already debating how likely it is that I will be rendered basically speechless and very shy in the presence of Farooq "Fake-Pretend Parallel Cinema Boyfriend #1" Shaikh (just as I was for Shashi back in March).

I had a great time at the 2011 festival and am really looking forward to what's in store this year. Let me know if you'll be there too and want to grab coffee (or stalk discretely) between shows! 

Sunday, September 02, 2012

mini-reviews: three brief thoughts on three meh films

In under 100 words!

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) 1958
The ominously swaying chandelier in the opening credits gives away the whole movie. Doom, gloom, and hopelessness are played out in lovely acting and musical performances that are encumbered by heavy, unexpectedly clunky symbolism. It's by far my least favorite of the ten Satyajit Ray films I've seen, though I did love the sense of archaeology whenever the camera wandered over the landscape and sets. It's visually very rich, but ultimately it didn't move me. Maybe I'm too much like Ganguly to appreciate this gem of another era—and mindset.

A note on the Criterion Collection blu-ray: this movie looked and sounded beautiful, no question about it.  My one complaint is that the subtitles in white lettering were too faintly outlined to be legible when the footage behind them was light. This led to some real problems over scenes of light-colored floors or people in white clothing, which is what everyone in this film seemed to wear most of the time. Slightly heavier outlines would have solved this problem without sacrificing the size of the picture to a black bar at the bottom. I appreciate that the credits were subtitled too, but the English was smacked on top of the Bengali text, rendering both hard to read. And even though I don't read Bengali, I love looking at the writing. #Criterionfail.

Hira aur Patthar 1977
What a stinker. Despite interesting seeds—anger at the gods, labor unions, a corpse that must be hidden—and people who know their masala (Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Ahsok Kumar, Bindu, Asrani), this movie goes nowhere and does nothing worth watching. One notable exception: a creative elopement wedding ceremony on a truck as the bride's family gives chase. I remember thinking the meet-cute was nice too, though a week later and I've forgotten why. For Shashi or Shabana completists only, such as Filmi Geek, with whom I snarked enjoyably through the whole film.

Aside: this film is directed by Vijay Bhatt, who also did a film with Meena Kumari and some anipals in the 30s called, of all things, Leatherface. If you have seen this, please, for the love of Helen, tell me all about it.

Baseraa (1981)
The most idiotic, unrealistic, and destructive plot I have ever seen in a Hindi film. Why anyone would want to make it is completely beyond me. It's just so dumb that I couldn't give a sh*t about any of its totally forced drama. Total waste of Shashi, Rakhee, and Rekha. The next time someone praises Gulzar to the skies, I'll give them a special stinkeye for this steaming pile of sacrifice porn. Another lesson learned: if you find your kid sister lying on your garland-bedecked bed on your wedding night, get that restraining order pronto.

And now I'm off to watch Charulata, which I am assured is amazing. It's about time.