Tuesday 27 December 2022

Mammo [1994]

 The scarring memories of Partition – displacement of millions; the macabre violence, irreparable loss and profound rootlessness that accompanied it; the absurdity of an imaginary line on the map and barbed wires permanently dividing people; the ensuing politics of prejudice – were hauntingly referenced in Mammo. The first film in Benegal’s ‘Trilogy of Muslim Women’ – which also comprised of Sardari Begum and Mammo’s pequel Zubeidaa, and all written by Khalid Mohamed based on incidents from his life – provided a powerful repudiation of the recently enacted citizenship law – alongside the right-wing populism, jingoism and otherization that catalysed its formulation – through a Muslim woman who’d been compelled to move to Pakistan but craves to return, as much because of the oppression that she faced there as a childless and dispossessed widow, as because she considers India her home. Riyaz (Rajit Kapoor), a writer who lives with his aged grandmother Fayyazi (the brilliant Surekha Sikri), chronicles this story from 20 years back when, as a moody 13-year-old kid – who, like Antoine Doinel, loves skipping school to watch movies in theatres – finds his and his grandma’s lives turned upside-down by the unannounced arrival of “Mammo Nani”. A person of extraordinary verve, vitality and exuberance, despite the gut-wrenching experiences she carries; fearlessly frank and opinionated; as well-read in Faiz’s poetry and Manto’s short stories as in the Quran; devout, while also harbouring stirringly progressive views; and played with extraordinary warmth, vivaciousness and delicacy by Faridah Jalal, Mammo Begum is ready to subvert political systems to be with her sister and nephew in Bombay. Alas, she can’t escape the vicious cycle of life and the devastating trauma of being forcibly evicted for a second time!

Director: Shyam Benegal

Genre: Drama/Political Drama

Language: Hindi/Urdu

Country: India

Sunday 25 December 2022

Mandi [1983]

 Mandi, or physical marketplace, manifests market economy, interplay of demand and supply, and flow of capital; it’s a place, therefore, marked by bedlam, greed, jealousy, Machiavellian manoeuvrings, and even exploitation of labour, while also championing coexistence, camaraderie and community. Shyam Benegal’s bold, chaotic, satirical, mesmeric, compassionate, and, I daresay, Feliniesque film – set in a raucous and throbbing bordello in Hyderabad – triumphantly embodied and embraced all the afore-mentioned traits. That it so marvellously avoided male gaze, voyeuristic impulses and sensationalism despite a subject such as this, and didn’t whitewash anyone even while humanizing the intensely ostracized field of prostitution, underscored this maximalist tale with nuance, delicacy and seriousness. Rukmini Bai (played with commanding brilliance by Shabana Azmi in one of the finest performances of her career) is the madam and matriarch of the afore-mentioned brothel, which she runs with intelligence, grit, cunning and flair. She cares for the place and her girls, is fiercely protective of their agency, and is especially fond of Zeenat (Smita Patil) who’s getting trained in classical singing. Their seemingly harmonious co-existence within the neighbourhood’s ecosystem, however, comes under attack on account of wealthy businessman Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) who’d like to have the land cleared, and a shrill moral policing City Councillor (Gita Siddharth). The magnificent ensemble cast comprised of a slew of stalwarts of the then “parallel cinema” movement – Naseeruddin Shah in a terrific turn as Rukmini’s volatile factotum Tungrus, Om Puri as a leery photographer, Soni Razdan as Rukmini’s sharp-tongued colleague, Saeed Jaffrey as Gupta’s reluctant ally, Amrish Puri as a bombastic Sufi cleric, Satish Kaushik as Gupta’s unctuous assistant, Neena Gupta as one of Rukmini’s girls, Pankaj Kapoor as a phony activist, etc.

Director: Shyam Benegal

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Ensemble Film

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Wednesday 21 December 2022

New Delhi Times [1986]

 Serious and meaningful films on journalism in India are as rare and elusive as serious and meaningful journalism in India – which, of course, isn’t unsurprising given that what passes off as “journalism” in this country, barring a handful of exceptions that can be counted by the fingers of one hand, is a manifestation of the grotesquerie that Wilder presented in his trenchant media satire Ace in the Hole. Films like New Delhi Times and Writing with Fire, therefore, are exceptions that prove the damning rule. Directed with here-and-now gusto by Ramesh Sharma and eloquently written by the great Gulzar, it fearlessly focussed on the unholy love triangle which has become even more conspicuous now than it was then, viz. government-corporate-media nexus. The story is centred on Vikas Pande (Shashi Kapoor), a middle-aged, upright and respected executive editor at the eponymous newspaper, who’s immensely committed to his work and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. A criminally negligent hooch tragedy and the murder of a politician at a town in Uttar Pradesh catch his attention. And, as he starts digging into these two seemingly unrelated incidents, he ends up uncovering a murky political conspiracy that goes all the way to the state’s Chief Minister who’s embroiled in a grimy power struggle with a brash and ambitious MLA (Om Puri). The dogged and potentially perilous investigative journalism that he conducts, strains his marriage to his lawyer-wife (Sharmila Tagore), earns him the acute displeasure of the politicos, and even sets him at loggerheads with the scion (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) of the ageing industrialist who owns newspaper. His friendship with Anwar, a cynical but fearless photo-journalist, added an interesting layer to the proceedings.

Director: Ramesh Sharma

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Friday 16 December 2022

Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate) [1981]

 There’re two kinds of memorable cinematic adaptations of literary texts – those where the filmmaker imbues their vision and signature while retaining the book’s narrative details; and those where s/he radically supplants its location, context and period, and even laces it with politics specificities of its own, while retaining only its thematic essence and narrative barebones. Bertrand Tavernier’s caustic, unsettling and brilliant neo-noir Coup de Tronchon – like such other fabulous examples as Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Kurosawa’s Ran, Bharadwaj’s Shakespeare Trilogy (Maqbool, Omkara and Haider), etc. – emphatically belongs to the latter category. In this fascinating rendering of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel Pop. 1280, Tavernier transplanted the tale from the American Deep South of 1910s to Senegal under French colonialism in 1938 with WW2 lurking round the corner. As may therefore be guessed, he added lashing commentaries on the horrors of colonialism, along with racism, moral rot and human corruption, into this story of violence and sociopathy. Lucian (Philippe Noiret) is a seemingly good-natured but simpleton cop in a dusty shantytown who’s cruelly humiliated by two local pimps, lampooned by his boss, scorned by his peers, pitied by the locals, and cuckolded by his sensuous wife (Stéphane Audran) who’s even kept a lover at home. However, upon being gradually pushed to the precipice, he finally snaps with stunning brutality. In parallel he starts a racy affair with a saucy, nubile widow (Isabelle Huppert) who he’d been lusting after for long. The sun-washed visuals, terrific jazz score, compelling use of single-takes and grimy atmosphere marvellously interplayed with pitch-perfect performances, tar-black humour and scalding political overtones in this work filled with macabre energy, hilarious absurdity and manic unpredictability.

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Genre: Black Comedy/Crime Comedy/Neo-Noir

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday 11 December 2022

The Son's Room [2001]

 Loss and grief, as subjects, can be both oppressive and liberating, and different directors, therefore, have tackled them in remarkably diverse ways. Nanni Moretti, in his Palm d’Or winning film The Son’s Room – which transformed his position from a maker of cult, idiosyncratic movies to more mainstream recognition – covered these with nuance, simplicity, and a delicate mix of levity and solemnity, while steadfastly side-stepping sentimentality. The film, interestingly, can be roughly broken into two very tonally divergent halves. It commenced with a charmingly joyous family – Giovanni (Moretti), a well-off psychotherapist, is happily married to the loving and lovely Paola (Laura Morante), and has two loving and lively teenage kids, son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and daughter Irene (Jasmine Trinca). The easy-going camaraderie that they share is immediately evidenced when we see the parents supporting Andrea – and even joking about it – upon his suspension for allegedly stealing a fossil from the school’s chemistry lab, and that’s accompanied by vignettes of Giovanni’s deadpan counselling of his neurotic patients. Their perfectly balanced world, however, collapses when a devastating tragedy strikes, and everything starts going recklessly haywire – Giovanni becomes beset with severe guilt, his calm deneanour starts crumbling, and he starts becoming disinterested in his job; the vivacious Paola becomes crushed and distant by grief; and the spunky Irene becomes angry and helpless. The disintegration of this perfect family, fortunately, gets a sliver of hope when they become aware of a girl (Sofia Vigliar) with whom Andrea had begun a platonic friendship. Moretti deftly donned dual hats – like he’s done throughout his filmography – in this superbly acted drama where a therapist and his family, ironically, end up in a bad need for therapy themselves.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Saturday 3 December 2022

Paris Belongs to Us [1961]

 Rivette’s exhilarating debut feature Paris Belongs to Us – the film’s emblematic title could serve as a slogan for the Nouvelle Vague in how the city played such an absorbing role in it, even if it ironically began with the quote “Paris belongs to no one” – should’ve been one of the first works of that extraordinary movement. However, chronic funding, postproduction and distribution challenges meant that by the time it saw the light of day, both Truffaut and Godard had made their legendary debuts, and as a result it was relegated to their shadows. At once expansive and close-knit, freewheeling and compact, and luminous and idiosyncratic, this fascinating co-existence of antithetical facets was mirrored by its arresting tonal diversities too – especially in the way bonhomie, melancholy, angst, idealistic fervour and paranoia were intermingled across its sprawling narrative. Anne (Betty Schneider) is a naïve and lonely literature student whose staid life is irrevocably disrupted upon becoming enraptured by a group of non-conformist and radical bohemians, thanks to a party she attends on her elder brother Pierre’s (François Maistre) invitation. There she learns about Juan, an anti-Frank rebel, who's mysteriously died; meets Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer-winning journalist on the run from McCarthyism, who’s convinced of a sinister global conspiracy; befriends Gérard (Giani Esposito), a passionate theatre director struggling to stage Shakespeare’s Pericles; and becomes mystified by Terry (Françoise Prévost), a femme fatale who was earlier Juan’s fiancée and who the doomed Gérard is now bewitched by. The luscious B/W photography of Parisian cafés, hotels, streets, corners, desolate exteriors and cramped indoor spaces, and the jazz-based score, accentuated its ominous moodiness and evocative zeitgeist. The film also boasts of a sardonic cameo by Godard.

Director: Jacques Rivette

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama

Language: French

Country: France