Friday 29 September 2023

Malayankunju [2022]

 Sajimon Prabhakar merged the sub-genre of disaster/survival movies – one that’s not very common in Indian cinema – with strong social commentary – on a topic that’s largely avoided in Indian cinema – in Malayankunju. An ambitious combination such as this meant that the film came with its set of remarkable highs as it worked excellently on certain fronts, alongside a few problematic and disappointing lows. It’s squarely centred on Anikkutan (Fahadh Faasil), a seemingly ordinary man who works as an electronics technician out of his home in the mountains, where he resides with his widowed mother. One, however, doesn’t need to scratch deep to see that he's filled with flaws, neuroses and demons. He’s difficult, troubled and rude; he carries unresolved baggage from the past which has led to an estranged relationship with his sister; and he’s filled with caste-based prejudices. Things, therefore, start slipping out of control when his neighbours – a couple belonging to the so-called lower caste – have a baby, whose cries disturb his sleep. Meanwhile there’re public service announcements of an impending natural disaster, which does strike in the form of devastating flood and landslides. Faasil gave a stunning turn as the edgy, taciturn and unlikeable character; the day-to-day activities and interactions preceding the disaster imbued the script with visceral undercurrents; and the disaster itself was crafted with immersive brilliance. That said, by linking Anikkutan’s casteist nature with his past – and thereby assigning a rationale to that – the director did a grave disserve to this noxious issue; further, while what transpires upon his being trapped by land collapse struck a strong emotional chord, the director conveniently provided a means for the cleansing of his toxicity through a heroic deed.

Director: Sajimon Prabhakar

Genre: Drama/Thriller/Psychological Drama/Social Drama/Disaster Movie

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey [2022]

 Vipin Das’ darkly humorous film – its playful title, by ironically referencing to a line from the national anthem, highlighted how women are often limited as individuals by placing them on pedestals in terms of their social roles – covered a despicable and pervading societal evil through hilarious fantasy fulfilment, deadpan satire and gleeful hyperboles. On most occasions this was a firecracker work laced with rousing feminist stance and lashing depictions of normalized patriarchy, toxic behaviour and hypocrisy. However, its tricky narrative choices risked trivializing such a serious topic by diminishing a grim reality – marital abuse, denial of agency and voice to women, lack of economic independence that leaves housewives trapped and helpless – into amusing escapism. Consequently, it felt lacking in the kind of nuance, depth and scorching brilliance that The Great Indian Kitchen had manifested; and, by counting the number of slaps instead of articulating that even one slap is one too many – which Thappad categorically did – it also missed a beat. Nevertheless, it had sufficient chutzpah, wackiness and satiric ingenuity to make this a crackling watch despite its simplistic constituents and convenient sidestepping of certain inconvenient topics like abortion through deux ex machina. The eponymous Jaya (Darshana Rajendran) has always been at the mercy of the men surrounding her – her irascible father intent on making all decisions for her; her unctuous uncle (Sudheer Paravoor) who doles out intrusive advices under the guise of caring for her wellbeing; her college teacher (Aju Varghese) whose progressive homilies are a sham; and finally her patriarchal, misogynistic, heavily abusive and manipulative husband (Basil Joseph). The well-enacted film comprised of a number of standout set-pieces, including arguably the funniest karate kick in recent memory.

Director: Vipin Das

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Family Drama

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Sunday 24 September 2023

Pada [2022]

 Pada is that enthralling “political thriller based on true events” where all the three components of the sub-genre worked brilliantly both independently and in relation to each other. Its politics – that of the ceaseless systemic oppression of tribal communities by the establishment – is profoundly persuasive, powerful, dissenting and progressive and, in an eloquent demonstration of authenticity, portrayed neither through the gaze of the privileged class nor that of the upper-caste; as a thriller it’s moody, gripping and dazzlingly crafted; and the incident was chronicled with the here-and-now precision and controlled urgency of narrative reportage. In 1996, four seemingly regular men, in an astonishing display of political consciousness, fearless bravado and radical revolutionary spirit, held the then Collector of the city of Palakkad hostage for several hours in solidarity with the harrowing plight of Adivasis in general, and, in particular, to have a recently passed legislative bill – that further diluted the miniscule land rights of this immensely marginalized indigenous community – revoked. They identified themselves as belonging to “Ayyankali Pada” or Ayyankali’s Army, in honour of the iconoclastic Dalit social reformer, and nearly achieved the impossible – through their fiery act of rebellion and resistance – of compelling the state to pay heed. Vinayakan and Kunchacko Boban were riveting as two of the faction members, with commendable turns also from Joju George and Dileesh Pothan (the terrific Joji’s director) as the two balance members, Prakash Raj as the level-headed Chief Secretary, Arjun Radhakrishnan as the sensible Collector and T.G. Ravi as a socialist-minded mediator, amidst a large cast that was mobilized to exhibit the state of frenzy. The pulsating background score and brooding visuals deftly complemented the film’s bleak premise and fatalist undercurrents.

Director: Kamal K.M.

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Docufiction

Language: Malayalam

Country: Kerala

Wednesday 20 September 2023

While We Watched [2022]

 In his nuanced, compelling, politically urgent and deeply solemn reportage essay While We Watched, Vinay Shukla freely traversed from the macro to the personal – a country engulfed with unfettered majoritarianism, frenzied nationalism and religious zealotry; the rotten state of mainstream TV media that feeds on hysteria and hatred, and spews it back through virulent disinformation, thus shaping and proliferating the right-wing narrative; the extraordinary struggle that a journalist must endure in order to remain independent and ask uncomfortable questions – while crafting an elegiac paean to Ravish Kumar. The former Senior Executive Editor with NDTV – he worked there for nearly 30 years and anchored a number of flagship programmes, prior to his resignation immediately upon the media house’s hostile takeover by the oligarchic Adani Group – was as celebrated for his courage, defiance, resilience, integrity and plain-speaking (with wry satiric undertones), including being bestowed with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, as he was incessantly vilified, abused and threatened for neither pandering to the government lines nor cheerleading for the right like his bile-spewing peers. Shukla crafted discomfiting juxtapositions by interlacing the increasingly dystopian external milieu – cow vigilantism and mob lynching by bigoted supremacists; character assassinations and threats of violence against people freely designated as “anti-nationals”; crackdown on social and political dissenters using official agencies, etc. – with melancholic interiority, achieved through intimate close-ups of Kumar, growing desolation at seeing his colleagues leave (farewell cakes served as a running motif), his moments with his family frequently broken by malicious calls, etc. This, along with the terrific Writing With Fire from previous year, powerfully depicted the crumbling fourth pillar of democracy, by fearlessly yet tenderly documenting rare exceptions that’re stirring and disquieting in equal measures.

Director: Vinay Shukla

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: Hindi/English

Country: India

Sunday 17 September 2023

Sparta [2022]

 Seidl had conceived Rimini and Sparta – his diptych centred around two emotionally and geographically dislocated brothers with broken moral compasses, and with a dementia-afflicted father having past Nazi affiliations – as a single film titled Wicked Games, but split them during post-production, which, ironically, turned out to be a fortuitous choice. While the sardonic and melancholic former film has had a successful run in the festival circuit, the latter has faced allegations of breaching the boundaries of ethical filmmaking and, consequently, cancellations. In some of his prior works – Import/Export, Paradise: Love, Safari – privileged Austrians have been shown traveling to African and East European countries in order to partake in activities that’d be considered either illegal or morally reprehensible back home. Sparta is a murky, grubby and intensely discomfiting addition to that list. Ewald (Georg Friedrich) is a taciturn, mild-natured 40-something man who’s relocated to a grungy Transylvanian town where he’s found work as an industrial engineer and has moved in with a beautiful Romanian woman. He’s, however, experiencing inability to consummate their relationship due to a dark, closeted impulse that he harbours – viz. attraction to young boys and guilt on account of that. Unable to suppress his urges any further, he moves to an impoverished village where he converts an abandoned school into a judo training centre for kids from broken families, to enable carefree proximity to pre-pubescent boys in an intimate and secluded setting. Seidl’s sparse, non-judgemental portrayal of a troubled and conflicted non-offensive paedophile, whose perverse desires are juxtaposed with the physical abuse and toxicity that the kids endure at the hands of their parents, posited disturbing dialectical questions and therefore made for an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience.

Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: German/Romanian/English

Country: Austria

Friday 15 September 2023

Rimini [2022]

 The hulking, hustling, hard-drinking, debonair, has-been Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) – a middle-aged lothario perennially recalling his past glory, and attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) – might lead one to draw comparisons with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The resemblances, however, end right there, as it was helmed by the Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, whose politics and aesthetics stand diametrically apart. Rimini – one half of his diptych, which also comprised of the unapologetically scandalous Sparta – is a dreary and desolate film packed with gaping existential, familial and societal voids. Furthermore, its bone-dry cynicism, sexual grotesquerie, and cutting political commentary were captured in his customary style – spare visual framing, formal exactitude, and deadpan malice – which coalesced the grimy and sordid with radical melancholy. It began with Bravo briefly reuniting with his brother Ewald (Georg Friedrich) – the rotten centrepiece of the other half of the diptych – and their aged dad (Hans-Michael Rehberg) – afflicted with dementia and residing at an old-age home in Austria – upon his mother’s death. Once a popular crooner, he is now a lounge singer who charms a diminishing crowd of old-timers with his silky voice and retro garments at a chintzy hotel in the titular Italian resort town, while earning additional bucks by seducing his geriatric women fans to bed. The unanticipated appearance of his daughter, who lives amidst impoverished squatters, inspires him to rise beyond his shallow artifice and also leads him to touch new depths of depravity. Three odiously funny moments stood out – Bravo’s father spontaneously breaking into a former Nazi Youth anthem; a tipsy Bravo inadvertently trying to work his charms on Tessa; Bravo, with his pompous racism, playing host to impoverished illegal migrants.

Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: German/English/Italian

Country: Austria

Saturday 9 September 2023

Nelly & Nadine [2022]

 Swedish documentarian Magnus Gertten’s remarkable found footage film Nelly & Nadine didn’t just tell an extraordinary story of queer love, social defiance, resilience in the face of dehumanizing persecutions, and preservation of memory, it had a fascinating backstory too. He’d been obsessed, since 2007, with a grainy reel of women Holocaust survivors arriving in Sweden on 28th April, 1945 – where, among a gang of joyous and cheerful faces, there’s a lady bearing a solemn, perplexed expression – and which featured in two of his prior works. While he’d been able to identify most of the people in it, the last remaining puzzle finally fell into place during a screening of his previous film that was serendipitously attended by a middle-aged French women called Sylvie Bianchi. As it turned out, Bianchi’s late grandma – Nelly Mousset-Vos, Belgian opera singer and former member of the French Resistance – had been in a passionate relationship with that enigmatic woman, who, as it emerged, was Nadine Hwang, the daughter of a Chinese diplomat and iconoclastic gay feminist Natalie Barney’s lover before the War. The two met and fell in love in the ghastliest place imaginable – the Ravensbrück concentration camp – and, upon liberation, they reconnected couple of years later and emigrated to Venezuela where they lived together in sublime bliss for many years. Gertten stitched the canvas with delicacy and through a disarmingly complex polyphonic form – Nelly’s profoundly intimate diary entries, infectious Super 8 home videos shot by Nadine, personal reminiscences of Nelly’s genial granddaughter (with whom the archive had remained unopened for many years), and other historical artefacts and interviews. Aesthetic sparseness, lyrical narration, and evocative score splashed this haunting docu with warmth, depth and melancholy.

Director: Magnus Gertten

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Holocaust Film/Biopic

Language: Swedish/French/English/Spanish

Country: Sweden

Thursday 7 September 2023

See You Friday, Robinson [2022]

 Mitra Farahani is Iranian by descent and Parisian by residence; further, she produced Godard’s The Image Book and has been involved in the restoration of Ebrahim Golestan’s films. These parallel strands both informed and shaped her epistolary, experimental and irreverently staged documentary See You Friday, Robinson. In 2014 she engineered a weekly email correspondence between the trailblazing Franco-Swiss auteur and the relatively lesser known but nevertheless important Iranian filmmaker – both important cultural icons, but who’d never crossed paths despite having been key figures in French and Iranian New Waves, respectively, which happened concurrently – and as part of which the two veteran giants exchanged messages every Friday, over 29 weeks, from late-2014 to early-2015. Godard – being the gargantuan intellectual that he always was and the mischievous, elusive non-conformist that he remained until his demise – filled his mails with cryptic, satiric, pun-laden missives, and attachments that ranged from Goya to Matisse, and Shakespeare to Joyce. And, alongside these – in what remains a memorable takeaway for JLG aficionados – deadpan home-made videos of him chomping on his cigar, drinking red wine diluted by water, and even doing something as hilariously banal as hanging clothes to dry. Golestan’s responses were no less interesting, wryly expressing his inability to fully decipher the messages while emphatically acknowledging Godard’s brilliance. Golestan’s massive mansion, meanwhile, made for a dramatic contrast to Godard’s cosy house. In a poignant coincidence, both men experienced hospitalization and were reminded of their mortality during this period, which perhaps forged a deeper kinship. The film was whimsical, playfully essayistic and consciously oblique, even if lacking in any significant reflections or insights emerging out of its fascinating juxtaposition, and felt tad unfinished in its assemblage.

Director: Mitra Farahani

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Experimental Film

Language: Persian/English/French

Country: Iran