Friday, 6 December 2019

Naseem [1995]

The Babri Masjid demotion, carried out in broad daylight by a throng of fanatics and lumpens with tacit approval of the establishment, unfolded a dark chapter in India’s contemporary political history in the way muscular majoritarian forces brazenly trampled upon the country’s secular fabric. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, the gentle giant of parallel Indian cinema, deftly portrayed the simmering political tension leading up to this disgraceful event and the ensuing disillusionment at this brazen betrayal of trust, and in turn interpretated what this entails collectively and personally, in his beautifully poetic, meditative and poignant film Naseem. At its most elemental, it’s the tale of a delicate, tender and heart-rending friendship between Naseem (Mayuri Kango), an innocent and wide-eyed schoolgirl belonging to a middle-class Muslim family in Bombay (Mumbai), and her ailing, gentle-natured and cultured grandfather (played by the legendary Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi). She loves literature, hanging out with her friends, spreading empathy and kindness, and listening to the humorous anecdotes that he loves recounting from his days as a young man living in Agra – surrounded by his loving wife and mischevious friends – in pre-Independent India. Naseem’s naïvete and cocooned world, and her grandfather’s old-world idealism and charming mamories, formed a striking contrast to the crumbling world around them. The parallel narrative formed a delightful dichotomy of what was dreamed and how it turned out – as made bleakly evident by the disconcerting present. The stellar ensemble cast comprised of Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Naseem’s perplexed father, Salim Shah as her elder brother finding it tough to absorb the murky developments, Surekha Sikri as her deadpan mother, and Kay Kay Menon as a deeply radicalized guy, among a host of others.

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza
Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Political Drama
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Paar (The Crossing) [1984]

Goutam Ghose’s Paar, adapted from Samaresh Basu’s Paari (Journey), is an intense, harsh, bellicose, confrontrational and bleak movie simmering with political angst. The narrative, which is split into two interrelated halves, is centered around an impoverished Dalit couple brought to life by extraordinary physical and emotional turns by Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. When, with a socialist schoolteacher’s (Anil Chatterjee) guidance, the historically exploited Dalit community in a village start battling for their rights and even has a person from among them (Om Puri) winning the Panchayat election, they face retaliation, violent payback and ultimately bloody carnage at hands of the slimy landlord (Utpal Dutt) and his brash brother (Mohan Agashe). This forces the couple to flee to Calcutta; however, when their hopes for a job at a struggling jute plant doesn’t materialize, bereft of the last cent and forced to the absolute end of the line, the desperate man and his helpless pregnant wife take the horrendous job, that too for a pittance, of swimming a drove of pigs across the mighty Hooghly river. The extended sequence that followed was harrowing and gut-wrenching. The horrors of caste-based discrimination, oppression and violence formed the film’s central tenet – be it in the upper caste zamindar’s systemic abuse of power, the violence that they unleash when the power balance seems to tilt, or in the nightmarish job that they’re callously compelled to undertake not just because they need that money, but also because no one else simply will. There was also a stirring flavour of agitprop and guerila filmmaking – perhaps inspired by Mrinal Sen – especially in the sequence where a faceless reporter is trying to deconstruct what happened in the village.

Director: Gautam Ghose
Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Political Drama
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Monday, 2 December 2019

Still Walking [2008]

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is a nuanced, Ozu-esque family drama with a delicate balancing and interplay between tranquility and simmering underlying tensions, warmth of a reunion and suppressed memories, renewing of bonds and inadvertently touching on raw nerves, ever yawning generational gaps, and between life and death. Regrets, unresolved elements from the past, and mortality, therefore, formed key themes of what was a personal work for the director (he’d made this just a year after his mother’s demise). The death anniversary of their eldest son Junpei, who’d accidentally drowned many years back while rescuing another kid, forms the occasion for congregation of the Yokohama family and the setting of an interweaving study – Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor and gruff family patriarch; Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), the fussy and frank-speaking mother; their second son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a floundering art restorer with a complex relationship with his father; the beautiful widowed single mother Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) who Ryota has married, to his conservative parents’ dismay, and her young son; the Yokohamas’ lively daughter (You), who’s come with her easy going husband and their precocious kids; and, most disconcertingly, also the kid who Junpei had saved and who’s now grown into a struggling man. Set over the course of 24 hours, the gently roving camera affectingly portrayed the various characters, through rambling discussions, pointed conversations, awkward silences, subtle attempts at reconciliation and quiet reflections, as the brilliantly chaotic first half made way for a more meditative 2nd half. Interestingly, this was made in the same year as two other exquisite films on familial dysfunctions, bonds and complexities – Olivier Assayas’ ravishing Summer Hours and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s low-key Tokyo Sonata.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Genre: Drama/Family Drama
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Saturday, 30 November 2019

The Irishman [2019]

Martin Scorsese has made a triumphant return to his glory old days with his magnificent masterpiece The Irishman. Sprawling, ambitious, multi-layered, elegiac, alternately epic and intimate, and audaciously framed, fellow septaguanarians Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino spectacularly rolled back their years with bravura filmmaking and acting masterclass. While Mean Streets remains the most emblematic Marty gangster film for me, this is stylistically closer to Goodfellas and Casino – forming a trilogy of sorts – in that they’re based on real-life accounts, are narratively similar (mobsters looking back at their rise and fall) and set against expansive historical-temporal canvases. Adapted from Charles Brandt’s euphemistically-titled narrative nonfiction I Heard You Paint Houses, the movie – riveting every minute of its 3 ½ hour length – chrocicles the life of narrator and central protagonist Frank Sheeran (a tour de force De Niro), a WWII veteran who becomes a Mafia enforcer and labour leader, along with an engrossing parallel account of the world of organized crime in general as well as watershed political events through the 60s and 70s – the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s presidency and assassination, the Watergate Scandal, etc. Sheeran’s eventful life, moral ambiguity and the burden of crimes and violence that he carries to his graves, and the timeless clannish themes of loyalty, brotherhood, honour, guilt, betrayal and omerta, played out through his evolving relationships with Mafiosi boss Russell Bufalino (a remarkably restrained Pesci) and the infamous labour union legend Jimmy Hoffa (a boisterous Pacino). The fabulous ensemble cast includes a terrific Stephen Graham and Hervey Keitel in a cameo, while the tonal shift from vigorous to mournful was aided by the terrific soundtrack.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Crime Drama/Gangster Film/Biopic
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ash Is Purest White [2018]

With Ash is Purest White Jia Zhangke created a film that is at once expansive and intimate, broad canvased but with a tight central focus, slow-burning and yet possessing a thrilling sense of immediacy. And, through his novelistic portrayal of a complex relationship over a 3-act structure, and in turn a layered exploration of China’s rampaging socioeconomic transitions, its cultural mores based on patriarchy and machismo, and the strict moral code of the jianghu underworld, the film memorably blurred the personal / political divide. In the 1st act, Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) are an inseparable couple in the mining town of Datong, until their relationship screeches to a halt when she gets imprisoned for 5 years for protecting him from violent assailants with an unlicensed gun. In the beautifully picaresque next act, Qiao, freshly released from jail, travels to search for Bin, with the massive Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze as the backdrop, only to find desolation, loneliness, and that Bin’s now moved on from his past life including her. And, in the final act set another few years later back in Datong, Qiao runs Bin’s erstwhile gambling parlour, while also taking care of a disillusioned and irascible wheelchair-bound Bin. The film abounds in self-referential allusions which should be rewarding to those who’ve invested in Jia’s filmography; the 2nd act, where Qiao is seen in the same outfit and setting as Still Life, made for a stirring sense of déjà vu. Leisurely paced, deftly photographed and comprising of pop soundtrack, it boasts of a magnificent turn by Jia’s iconic muse in the way her body language kept subtly changing over the course of the narrative.

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