Sunday, 12 January 2020

Daguerréotypes [1975]

Agnès Varda had resided for many years in Rue Daguerre, a lively market street in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement and Montparnasse district named after the pioneering inventor of photographic process Louis Daguerre, since moving in here as a young photographer herself. Awash in nostalgia and amusing reflections, Daguerréotypes was her loving homage to this fascinating, chaotic, demographically diverse, working class neighbourhood, filled with gentle observations on the simple-natured, hard-working, blue-collared folks – middle-aged and ageing couples and immigrants from various parts of France and beyond –  who own and run the small shops, stores and establishments situated along its pavements. Selling everything from perfumes and haberdashery to bakery items and meat products, running salons for men and women, tailoring dresses, repairing old clocks, and providing music and driving lessons to the young and the old, this was the kind of closely-knit community where everyone knew everybody’s histories, the local sounds and smells were integral parts of their existences, and time flew at its own sweet speed – the kind of irresistible, albeit largely vanished, time capsule that Tati had immortalized in Mon Oncle. The documentary comprises of a collage of candid scenes of daily life – each day being almost like any other random day – with people buying home-made perfumes, baguettes, sirloin steaks and whatnot, partaking lessons in musical instruments and traffic rules, chatting with each other on the streets and within the shops, and going about in their quotidian tasks; it also has heartwarming interactions with these people and descriptions of them through voiceover by Varda herself, and a rather funny magic show too. Accompanied by the lilting tunes of accordion, this sepia-toned, warm-hearted mosaic portrayed the poetry and beauty within the banal.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Documentary
Language: French
Country: France

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Dharavi [1992]

Dharavi, the densely populated settlement in Bombay (Mumbai) – patronizingly touted as one of the largest slums in the world – has always formed a dramatic counterpoint and dark underbelly, in Hindi cinema, to the pompous epithet of ‘city of dreams’. In the eponymously titled movie directed by Sudhir Mishra, the grim and gritty tale of one man – his fierce ambition, desire to rapidly climb the socioeconomic ladder, dogged refusal to strike compromises with his harsh realities – provided an indictment to the city’s romanticized image that through sheer hard work, burning ambitions and a bit of luck, a pauper can jolly well become a wealthy prince. An embittered taxi driver (Om Puri), living in a cramped shack with his wife (Shabana Azmi), plans to buy a business for dying clothes along with his drinking pals. However, when contributions fall short, he makes the fatal choice of taking help from a local gangster which leads to disastrous downward spirals for all. The film ended on a feeble note of hope that added an interesting ambiguity to the vicious cycle. His obsession with getting off the rut, punching way above his weight and becoming the owner of his own fate, was manifested in his parallel fantasy world by his romancing with a screen goddess (Madhuri Dixit playing herself) who represents the highest echelon of beauty, dream and desire for him – a holy grail that he can never attain in the sordid grime that he exists. Over-usage of slow-mo, sound amplifications and echoes, to create visceral effects, dampened the viewing experience, though commendable turns by Puri and Azmi in capturing their disillusionment and lost dreams, and representation of the mileau, compensated for these lapses.

Director: Sudhir Mishra
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Monday, 6 January 2020

One Sings, the Other Doesn't [1977]

In 1971, 343 feerless French women disclosed in the “Manifesto of the 343”, ignoring the possibility of criminal persecution and conservative backlash, that they’d had abortion; its signatories included, among others, Agnès Varda. The stirring statement that “the personal is political” is therefore emphatically applicable in her poignant and powerful film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. An infectious tale of enduring friendship between two women whose lives parallel the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970s France, imbued it with attributes that went beyond cinema; that it was also a beautifully rendered movie, at once playful and melancholic, irreverent and serious, polemical and poetic, and comprising of diverse formal choices like voiceovers (by Varda herself), epistolary narration (through heartwarming use of postcards), blending of “live” music and non-fiction agitprop elements into the within the narrative time-space, etc, made this all the more memorable. The kinship of the two marvelously enacted women begins when 17-year old high-school student Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) helps fund the abortion for 22-year old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who’s struggling to make ends meet with the two kids she already has with a married photographer. And their bond gets sealed for life upon getting reconnected a few years later at the historical Bobigny trial. Their nature and life arcs couldn’t be more disparate – Pauline, the more impulsive and outspoken of the two, becomes part of a travelling feminist folk group singing quirky political songs and gets briefly married to an Iranian man, while single mom Susanne, who gradually embraces her radical spirit, eventually starts a family planning clinic. The final sequence, shot using a gently panning single take, ended this defiant yet intimate film on a beautifully elegiac note.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Drama/Buddy Film/Feminist Drama
Language: French
Country: France

Saturday, 4 January 2020

24 City [2008]

Jia Zhangke’s extraordinary masterpiece 24 City is a work of tour de force filmmaking – even if, ironically, that might appear counterintuitive due to its profoundly poignant, meditative, rigorous and austere nature. He’d crafted a magnificent exploration of China’s sociocultural flux and ensuing human displacements in Still Life, and the same thematic thread was continued through the premise here, viz. demolition of a state-owned military-industrial complex which, at its peak of productivity during the Korean and Vietnam Wars had employed 30,000 workers and formed a township in itself, and building in its place a sprawling apartment complex. The film, therefore, covered two connected displacements – getting in place its massive workforce from all across when the factory was setup in 1958, and thereafter, the downsizing once the war efforts petered down and eventual shutdown. Jia made this in the form of intimate oral histories akin to Svetlana Alexievich’s literary approach in order to capture the deeply personal stories and anecdotes that powerfully humanized the cost of “progress”, and, in the process, painting a heart-wrenching picture of loss, loneliness and desolation. Yet, in an act of outrageous genre-bending audacity, he mixed non-professionals with established actors for the interviews, thus blending documentary facts with fictionalized facts, and therefore underpinning an incisive commentary on the futility of absolute authenticity when it comes to memories and the idea that there’s no such thing as 100% objective truth. While all the monologues – penned by the poet Zhai Yongming – were piercing and poignant, the most breathtaking one involved the stunning Joan Chen featuring as a lovelorn lady who’s been given a moniker by her co-workers after a film (Little Flower) which, ironically, she herself had starred in.

Director: Jia Zhangke
Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Documentary
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Mirch Masala [1987]

Bold, provocative and confrontational, Ketan Mehta’s visceral feminist film Mirch Masala was all these and a bit more. Subtlety wasn’t among its facets, and yet, ironically, its bluntness – a tight-fisted punch against patriarchy, and the accompanying sexual oppression and abuse against women (legitimized through traditional power structures) – is what made it all the more powerful. The tale, based on a short story, is set in an arid hamlet in colonial-era India. The village is marked by its disdain for anything that challenges status quo – the then swaraj (self-determination) movement against the British, education for girls, the right to dignity and agency for women and lower castes, etc. – and the same is perpetuated by the village headman (Suresh Oberoi) and slimy priest (Harish Patel). The vicious and arrogant subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) represents the worst of the lot, assuming it his birth-right to plunder the village for fun, brutally thrash his servants, ogle at women and have his libido satisfied at will. Things take a dramatic turn when his lascivious gaze falls on Sonbai (Smita Patil), a sultry and defiant married woman lusted by the village. And all hell breaks lose when she displays the gall and temerity to wound his fragile male-ego, leading to a thrillingly shot pursuit, and the iconic climax that the film is led to upon her taking refuge in a factory, guarded by an old watchman (Om Puri), where womenfolk grind red chillies into powder. Both Patil and Shah gave electrifying performances, while Deepti Naval, too, was memorable as the headman’s feisty wife who, like Sonbai, refuses to go silently into the night. The film’s dominant colour palette was red, symbolizing passion, sexuality, fury and rebellion.

Director: Ketan Mehta
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Ensemble Film
Language: Hindi
Country: India