Friday, November 29, 2013

My Brother Nikhil and I Am

[I wrote this a month ago, immediately after seeing the films, and forgot to hit publish. Oops.]

The wonderful Onir has just visited my campus, and by some miracle his films were screened at my actual workplace as the centerpiece of a semester-long series on Indian cinema. I should have seen these films already, especially after realizing at least one friend from the German-speaking Bollywood crew was supporting the development and showings of I Am, but I can't really regret having my first viewing of them be on the big screen followed by a Q&A with the director himself.

My Brother...Nikhil (official site)
To be honest, this did not really impress me as I was watching it, I think mostly because while I recognize how unusual this film is ("might have been"? present tense might be appropriate, because I sure can't name many other films that deal with AIDS in any way) for India—and how absolutely important its presence is—being a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s in the US means I long ago had my fill of certain kinds of portrayals of righteous and sad AIDS stories. I reacted similarly to Udaan, which I think is very well acted but ultimately feels too much like a Lifetime tv movie. I know perfectly well that I'm seeing this film in an utterly different context, but I had a hard time putting aside what I've already seen.

Because it is clearly About Something rather than "timepass, yaaaar," I had been worried that My Brother...Nikhil would be preachy and dull like Amu and Bawandar, which thankfully it is not at all. The reason for that movement and relative lightness, I soon learned in the Q&A, is that Onir deliberately uses tools of mainstream Hindi films—songs, romance, familiar actors, concepts of sin and honor, the centrality of a sibling relationship, the importance of a space defined as home, the valuing of what happens in or in reference to it home and its core family unit—to tell an unconventional story. Which, depending on how you look at it, has some very typical elements: son/brother is torn from family unit, wife is caught between her son and husband, older sibling protects younger one. In retrospect I think it's quite amazing how Onir manages to tell a true and timely true story—in other words, reality—with materials that are so often used for other, even completely opposite, purposes.

There are certain aspects of the film I had to re-think once I learned it's based on real events. The foremost for me is its setting in Goa, very often right on the beach or with the waves audible in the background, which triggers a sense of philosophical distance resulting from association of Goa with holidays (Honeymoon Travels), intoxication (Go Goa Gone, Dum Maro Dum), and not-exactly-good foreigners (Dil Chahta Hai). Goa can reads as not the "us" typically elevated in films, even when it's not flat-out representing drunk and/or promiscuous Catholics. Coincidentally, I had recently asked on Twitter about films, or even scenes, that really use the beach to mean something other than escape/not-normal-life or exoticism/glamour, and not that many suggestions came forward. Seeing a film treat an important topic and story in that setting was unexpected; quite apart from the story itself, I like seeing a different Goa on screen, one with dimensional, settled people in it.

Maybe the most important and moving thing I learned about the film from Onir is that the too-familiar statement that "any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental" at the beginning of the film is there only to satisfy the censors. Instead of stating that the obviously fictional is fictional, this film had to obscure the (maybe surprisingly) real. What cowards those censors must be.

I Am (official site)
I love this movie. Each of the four tales of people dealing with the realities of their identities has its own strengths, but they fit together so well. I hadn't noticed while watching how well-distributed the protagonists and points of view are. Now that I've had time to reflect, I'm struck by the variations in each segment around consistent themes or points: two women, two men; two Hindu, two Muslim; Calcutta, Srinigar, Bangalore, and Bombay; two people about to move forward but two who have new recognition of uneasiness or peril; two hardships because of sad peculiarities of the individuals' lives, two because people belong to targeted vulnerable communities. Each one has artifacts or emblems that embody something important for the characters: a piece of paper that is torn up and thrown away, a mobile phone returned, a tiny kitten, and, my favorite, a snow globe that slips into a suitcase in the place of an urn whose contents have been emptied.

I don't know Bangalore well enough to comment, but other three locations all have landmarks that have unexpected meanings. Flury's in Calcutta is the scene of bitter disagreements instead of sweet treats. The houseboats on the lakes of the Kashmir Valley, the vehicles of togetherness in countless film romances, carry people away when differences seem insurmountable. The Queen's Necklace leads not to fresh ocean air and freedom but to a very dark side street.

Three of the four stories of I Am are like My Brother Nikhil in that they also portray issues that are part of contemporary American culture, yet I responded so differently to them than I did to My Brother Nikhil. Maybe it has to do with the much shorter length of them, as though the short film format encourages economy and restraint that just appeal to me? Or that in trying to fit four films into one project whittles away tonal discrepancies leaving a stronger whole? Or maybe it's the result of a director who is just all-around better on his fourth feature film than he was on his first.

In the Q&A after the film, I was about to ask Onir about writing two stories focused on, and almost entirely told from the point of view of, women—and in contexts other than romance at that—when he reminded us that those two stories are in fact written by a woman (Urmi Juvekar, who has also worked on Oye Lucky and Shanghai). After momentary disappointment that I couldn't add "You wrote multiple competent grown-up women who can think about things other than boyfriends!" to reasons I wanted to hug Onir, I decided to be thrilled that two such good stories were made so well and got to stand with two films that are more male-centered (one so much so that no women appear ["I Am Omar," right?]) to make a whole that is simply about people. And speaking of the women, I know we all expect Nandita Das to be excellent, and she absolutely is, but Juhi Chawla is the standout for me. I'd forgotten until just this very moment how impressive she is in Luck by Chance, which is her most significant non-heroine role I've seen yet and probably the most complex, and she's great here as well, guarded and sad yet also expressing her character's discoveries so movingly. In fact, her performance here is so good that I've found myself thinking over My Brother...Nikhil again to reconsider how she uses her chirpy voice and famous smile in a story that at first doesn't seem to call for them.

It's so hard to discuss I Am without giving away the shape of the stories, and I think watching them unfold and reflect back and forth among each other is a joy you should not miss. It's such a thoughtful film, with not a moment wasted, not a shot out of place. The landscapes, the set design, the wardrobe all contribute to a a real sense of who these characters are and what their worlds are like. Each of these people is in some way a reminder of a challenge or problem that society at large would rather not be reminded of. Early in the film Nandita Das's character, frustrated by having to answer to other people about a personal choice, says something like "Why do I have to spend so much energy explaining myself to you?" I Am isn't simply about explanation (though it does poignantly show the risks and rewards that can come from revealing your true self). It's about putting a face, even a fictionalized one, to events in the news or subsets of society that we think don't impact us. It's a lovely statement of why individuals matter: somebody must speak so the rest of us can learn.

6 comments:

Unknown said...

Two quick comments, both peripherally related to your commentary.

First, regarding the beach being anything other than fantasy, you should see Malayalam films. Depending on your choices, this can also expose you to some superb films per se.

Second, the picture that popped up when I clicked on your blog entry was of Jaya Bhaduri from Guddi. This reminded me of your earlier ode to Pran where I had recommended that you see Guddi, and wondered whether the pop-up meant you had or whether this was just an unknowing random selection...

Beth Watkins said...

Unknown - I have seen only one Malayalam film so far. Someday! As for Guddi, that's a fun coincidence - and I saw the film years ago. Very cute.

Nivedita said...

"("might have been"? present tense might be appropriate, because I sure can't name many other films that deal with AIDS in any way)"

Have you seen Phir Milenge ? Rather decent performances by Junior B and Shilpa Shetty

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phir_Milenge

Beth Watkins said...

Nivedita - I haven't! I'm glad to know about it! I wish someone had brought it up in the Q&A after My Brother Nikhil because I'm curious what Onir would say about it. Interesting to know it came out so longer after Philadelphia.

maureen said...

I liked My Brother Nikhil better than I am. It moved me where necessary without me having to make an effort to be moved and entertained me where it was meant to be entertaining. I'd say MBN is one of the best movies I've ever watched and one of the best work I've seen of Juhi Chawla's. You could say the warmth, goodness and the understandng withining was coming within her

merasongspk said...

old is gold. old films story filling full. nice blog .