Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Partition & Identity: 3 Films, 3 Perspectives

The Partition (more appropriately, the Creation) of India and Pakistan has caught the imagination of many people on both sides of the borders over the last 6 decades in both, the literary and the cinematic circles. Authors and poets like Khushwant Singh, Kartar Singh Duggal and Amrita Pritam have, through their writings, created an enduring image of the partition that will perhaps serve future generations better than many historical accounts. Movies on the partition, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag. Most movies tend to focus on the massacres, get buried under clich├ęs or worse, try to pin the blame on one group or the other. However, few have sought to rationalise the experiences and its effects. As I recently saw some movies on the issue, to my mind, there are three great films I found that offer three very different perspectives of the time and its effects.

The first is Deepa Mehta’s Earth. Based on the novel by Bapsi Sidhwa, the film provides the most immediate experiences of the Partition. Seen through the innocent eyes of Lenny, a young Parsi girl living in Lahore in 1947, it is a disturbing tale about personal transformation and the choices people make in the face of rapidly changing social settings. It’s unique in that, while it looks at 1947 in the most direct way, looking at the brutalities committed, it also examines some themes which have been largely ignored by film makers: the transforming personal relationships between the people of different religious groups, the experiences of fringe minorities like Parsis who were too few to have an opinion and were forced to be silent spectators of the atrocities. Unrelenting in its depiction of violence, the scene when the Ice Candy Man (Aamir Khan) finds the massacred remains of his sisters on the train from Amritsar is perhaps the most harrowing moment of the film. Embellished with superlative performances (including, without a doubt, Aamir Khan’s best), Earth works beautifully in conveying its universal themes as it chooses to look at the events through the innocent eyes of Lenny. It lays bare that the violence that ensued was not an assertion of identity, but of inhumanity. Deepa Mehta does well by likening the bloodlust of the masses to the lust that the ice-candy man has for Lenny’s Hindu maid. There really is not much of a difference. All this and more make Earth a deeply unsettling film about the cracks that were formed by the Partition and the price a civilisation paid, and as will be seen, is still paying for it.

If Earth (and most other Partition themed movies) speak about the violence that people on both sides faced, Garm Hava is perhaps the only film that shows a different side of the Partition. All films on the Partition take the exodus itself as a given; that people of different religious communities actually wanted to go to “their land”. However, what it fails to explain is what prompted the exodus, not just in Amritsar which was close to the border, but also far off areas like Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and others. Garm Hava is perhaps the only film about the partition that does a magnificent job of providing an answer.

Written by Kaifi Azmi, Garm Hava (Scorching Winds) tells the story of Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahani in the performance of a lifetime) and his family in Agra in the immediate aftermath of the Partition. Gandhi has been killed and violence has ebbed. Nevertheless, the mass exodus of Muslims from India continues. In this tense climate, Salim Mirza runs a shoe factory with his elder son while his elder brother Halim is a politician. The movie looks at the discrimination that Muslims faced during the days. More than the violence, it was the economic oppression and deprivation forced many Muslims to leave their homes and migrate to Pakistan. It also shows the problems that the government’s policies for accommodating migrants created for the Muslims living in the country. As Mirza struggles to keep his factory solvent and stands to lose his house after his brother’s migration, you see a whole different aspect of the Partition; one where the politico-economic climate made it impossible for Muslims to live in India. And as Mirza loses his family and friends one after the other in the migration, it takes a toll on the human relationships; his relationship with his elder son, his daughter’s relationship with her beau and others. It’s when you sit back and see the effects of these changes on the whole, that a darker, sadder, more painful and (I think) accurate picture of the Partition emerges. As a stoic old man, Salim Mirza’s character represents, I believe, the struggle of many Muslims to assert or even find their identity in post-independence India. For these reasons, I think that Garm Hava is the finest film on the Partition that we have made; one that tries to understand and make us understand the events that led to one of the biggest migrations in the history of mankind.

The third film I want to talk about is of a slightly different kind. One may even find the choice odd considering the period it is set in. The film is Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), a film set in a village in Punjab in 1979 at a time when Pakistan saw a military coup and General Zia ul-Haq came to occupy the seat of power. It tells the story of the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan as seen through the eyes of Ayesha (Kirron Kher), loved by all in her quaint little village, who sees that transformation in her son. At the same time, a Sikh man from India comes on pilgrimage to the village looking for his sister, Veero, who was left behind in 1947 leading to bitter revelations and forcing Ayesha to face the fast changing realities and the questions to her sense of identity and belonging. There are two important things that the film demonstrates: one is the issue of the treatment of women during the partition, not only by the people of a different religious community but also by their own families. Looking at the events from a gendered perspective, it shows that women were perhaps, the single-most oppressed group and not any religious community. In the name of honour and tradition, women faced persecution from all sides and were the worst victims of the Partition. Moreover, in the subcontinent, the woman was (and unfortunately, to a great extent, still is) defined by the men in her life; her father, brothers, husband and sons. When these people start to question her actions, her identity, her pain is beautifully encapsulated by director Sabiha Sumar in her realisation of the character of Ayesha.

Secondly, and perhaps on a more macro scale, Khamosh Pani shows the repercussions of the Partition. It beautifully shows on celluloid how it was a contradiction of sorts to try and create a secular Pakistan. The rationale for the Partition was religion and the cultural differences resulting from it. The real reason of course was political power and greed. Once those motives were served, leaders sought to create a modern, secular state out of Pakistan. However, the real reason could not be forgotten. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before someone like General Zia would play the religion card once again to consolidate his power. In showing this, director Sabiha Sumar makes it clear that the Partition is hardly an event left for historians to consider and debate about. The spectre of the Partition and what it stood for continues to haunt us to date.

This has become a rather long post. In the end, all I can say is that these three films are very different from each, both in terms of tone as well as approach towards the Partition. They offer three distinct perspectives of the same realities. I think, of the movies on the Partition, these are the three best that I have seen and together, captures the widest range of experiences of the Partition on celluloid. They speak of the many mistakes that were (and still often are) committed. If we do not learn from this history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don't You Forget About Me: John Hughes (1950-2009)

It has been over a year since John Hughes died. He was one of my favourite directors of all time. Sure, he did a lot of bad films. But his five good films, to me, were so damn good that he is one of my favourites anyway. For the longest time, I was trying to write a post about John Hughes but never could write something I thought to be good enough. I referred to his work on this blog though here and here but could never complete a full post discussing his work. There are many failed attempts tucked away on this laptop that will remain there till this hard disk crashes or this laptop goes. But, nevertheless, as I saw the documentary Don’t You Forget About Me, a tribute to John Hughes and an account of four filmmakers to get an interview with John Hughes, I decided to take another stab at writing a post. The result is this; let’s see if this one has an end.

John Hughes has been described as the “philosopher of adolescents” and very rightly so. No filmmaker has captured teenage experiences on camera as effectively as John Hughes did. Also, no one took these experiences as seriously as he did or made it such an integral part of their life’s work. Consequently, no one has succeeded in representing them on film as well as he has. In an age of Twihards, Friedberg and Seltzer movies and Size 0 prom queens, the work of John Hughes shines bright still, and here’s why.

Most people see Hughes’ work as defining the teenage experience in the 1980s. Sure, that is true. However, if we scratch the surface, the themes are universal, not only across time but also place. Middle class and upwards, teenagers across geographical and cultural boundaries find themselves relating to his films. I used to be one of them. In fact, in some ways, I still am. I mean, John Hughes went to high school himself in the 1960s, a very different time from the 80s. Yet, he focused on the themes, the experiences and these could be transposed to just about any time. Hence, the enduring appeal of his work. Unlike most 80s movies, his films have aged remarkably well for the most part. Through his films, he showed the bittersweet experiences of teenage years; from the friends, the joy, the hopes and dreams to the peer and parental pressure, the insecurities, the angst and the painful realities. And he did this with a light hand, but without compromising on the honesty. This is, I think, the prime reason why I believe The Breakfast Club is, hands down, the greatest teen film of all time. Not American Graffiti and certainly not Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

His movies captured the exuberance of teenagers as well as the confusion. His depiction, though laced with humour, had a tinge of melancholy that made us think when we laughed at say, Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His characters, as well as the actors playing them, were imperfect and he celebrated those imperfections and used them well. Even his most conventional romantic comedies were something more than the superfluous junk churned out today at an alarming rate. They were not stories about the most beautiful girl in the world with a perfect life and personality being unable to Mr. Right. Some Kind of Wonderful was about angst, peer pressure and friendships along with being a love triangle. Pretty in Pink explored the themes of individuality, beauty and class differences despite coming closest of all Hughes’ work to a conventional romantic comedy. Hughes’ greatest strength lay in the details in depicting these themes and his unique yet believable characters.

Today, films about teens or ones targeting teens are either American Pie spin offs, special effects extravaganzas, Twilight adaptations or shockingly shallow chick flicks (they don’t even deserve to be called romantic comedies). Occasionally, stories about real teenagers do show up in films like Rocket Science and Juno. However, these are few and far between. In these times where opening weekends, marketing and promotion are more important than characters and scripts, one longs for one of Hughes’ quirky characters to return to the screen. It could be Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; or Allison or Bender from The Breakfast Club; or Ducky in Pretty in Pink. These are all from Hughes’ mind; maybe even his own life. But what is remarkable is that a bit of that quirkiness exists in so many of us and Hughes’ was able to capture its essence and put it on the screen for us. Even today, when all through high school and college, people are stereotyped into categories, Hughes’ work is a reminder that there is a little bit of everyone of these stereotypes in each one of us and that we are all bound by our common experiences of hopes and drems; fears and insecurities.

This was meant to be a movie review for the documentary, Don’t You Forget About Me. However, it didn’t quite make it there, did it? *sigh* It is a good film that succeeds in one of its two goals and that is paying a tribute to Hughes’ contribution. It features interviews from people who worked with Hughes as well the people who reviewed his work or drew inspiration from him. I would recommend it for fans of Hughes’ work and even those familiar with it. However, perhaps the best tribute was paid to Hughes this (now) highly popular blog post.

There will never be another Hughes. There probably also will never be a film that will best The Breakfast Club. That is Hughes’ cinematic and cultural contribution. Don’t you forget about him.

P.S.: I guess I reached the end of this post after all. Still not sure if it's good enough though.
P.P.S.: For those reading this post and unacquainted with Hughes’ work, rent and watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Sixteen Candles. Now!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Great thrillers are such a rare phenomenon. Ones which don't use science fiction or the supernatural are even rarer. These are films that horrify you simply by providing a glimpse of the dark side of human nature; play with you psychologically and keep you guessing till the very end. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such film. It blends a classic mystery with a distinct visual style and some horrific violence resulting in the best and most unsettling thriller I have seen in many years.

The story is about Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative reporter who faces a jail sentence after losing a libel suit to a major industrial tycoon. With 6 months to go before he has to serve his sentence, he receives a call from the lawyer of a corporate giant, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) for a meeting. Vanger offers him a handsome fee to conduct one final investigation into the 40 year old murder of his niece Hariet Vanger (Julia Sporre). Unbeknown to him, his actions are being watched by a professional hacker Lisbeth (Noomie Rapace), a highly enigmatic girl with heavy tattooing and many piercings with a dark past filled with acts of bizarre violence. She is on probation for a crime herself and has a guardian (Peter Andersson) with a penchant for sexual deviance. What starts out as a dead end investigation soon develops into a highly dangerous situation, threatening to expose old, but explosive secrets of the Vanger family. And the highly dysfunctional Vanger family likes to keep its secrets buried. 

The story is rich in detail. Although conventional in some ways, the screenplay is tight, maintains the tension throughout and successfully holds the audience's attention its sprawling 152 minute run time. It takes its time to establish the settings and the characters. In this process, it becomes a painful, horrific depiction of the twisted nature of the human mind, though not a deep psychological study of it. The real strength of the film lies in its characterization. The movie takes its time to establish its principal characters and especially in Lisbeth, gives us the most interesting movie character in years. It is this character which elevates the film to dizzying heights and more importantly, transcends it. There is so much potential in this character that she alone is enough to make me watch the remainder of the trilogy. Noomi Rapace plays the character to perfection finding the right mix of feminine allure, hostility, pain, anger, melancholy and mystery. It is a difficult character and Rapace does complete justice to it. In every step of the way, she is complimented by an excellent Michael Nyqvist as the diffident journalist with complications of his own.

In addition to the characterization, it is the production style of the film that struck me the most.  The visuals of Sweden with its frost and snow is soaked in dread, melancholy and a sense of impending doom. With its equally frosty supporting characters, the visual style helps set the tone for the film. The background score is atmospheric and effective in creating that sense of horror and tension. The scenes of violence, rape, bondage are thoroughly harrowing in their relentlessness. The flashback sequences for Lisbeth left me thoroughly mind-fucked, pardon the expression. The rape scene is perhaps the most disturbing I have seen since the rape scene in Irreversible. Despite the (relatively) limited nudity, the brutality of these moments will truly make you squirm in your seat.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a terrific adult thriller. It is sombre, moody and has moments of incredible brutality. It is also has a tight story that keeps you guessing till the very end despite employing all the conventions in the book. But above all, it has a terrific central character who you will not forget easily, even long after you have left that dark cinema hall. Treat yourself to this one. You will be doing yourself a favour. Trust me.

P.S.: A Hollywood remake of the film is in the making. David Fincher is set to direct and Daniel Craig will play the role of Blomkvist. I, for the life of me, cannot imagine anyone playing the role of Lisbeth as well as needed. The only close choices that come to mind are Kristen Stewart and Carey Mulligan. What do you think?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Aisha (2010)

Greetings from Singapore.

Apologies for the radio silence for the last three weeks. After Udaan, there seemed to be no new movie, Hindi or English that seemed worthy of my time or yours. But after nearly 3 weeks of self-imposed cinematic exile, I couldn't take it anymore and decided to spend $11 at the only theatre (incidentally also half-way across the city) playing Aisha and here's what I thought:

Time and again, I have often said, both on this blog and in person that for a film, being formulaic is not a fault by itself. Formulas exist for a reason: when used well with the right ingredients, they work. If you have a conventional romantic comedy to make, there is a basic plot outline you need to follow. To execute it, there are certain obligatory scenes that you need to put in to make the story reach its conclusion logically. There must be a pair of charming lead actors who not only work individually but also as a screen couple. Pepper the remainder of the film with good music (if in Hindi) and some genuine, fresh, light, breezy moments; infuse a little wit and humour in the rest et voila! You have a fairly safe formula film. When done well, this can result in a Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, Jab We Met and others. However, tampering with this formula unnecessarily can dilute the impact and sink the film faster than the Titanic. That is the problem with Aisha.

Aisha finds a great formula by drawing inspiration primarily from Jane Austen's Emma. Welcome to the lives of people in upper class Delhi, which is striking in its similarities with the 19th century English village. A small community of people where everyone knows each other and live a classy (read: borderline pretentious) lifestyle with their own a set of social rules. In this small cocoon, we meet Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) who considers herself to be an expert matchmaker. In her life are her father, her best friend Pinky (Ira Dubey), a potential love interest Dhruv (Arunoday Singh) and her new matchmaking "project" Shefali (Amrita Puri) who she believes will be a perfect match for Randhir (Cyrus) the archetypal Punjabi Delhiite. Also, in her life is Arjun (Abhay Deol), an investment banker and friend who thinks she should mind her own business and stop meddling around with others'. As Aisha tries to bring Shefali and Randhir together, things complicate, chaos ensues and disaster looms.

Aisha is formulaic and it embraces that fact quite whole-heartedly. It gets some parts of the formula right. It had the basic plot points in place. Sonam Kapoor and Abhay Deol are terrific actors with great chemistry and even better lines. There is good humour in places and a very good supporting cast that often delivers laughs even on the dullest lines. Cyrus as the typical Delhi boy with his Punjabi English and his lack of style is hilarious, particularly in the hotel scene. Amrita Puri is brilliant as the naive girl from Bahadurgarh who is suddenly thrown into the web of upper class Delhi and taught the rules of the game by Aisha. For Ira Dubey, acting is a genetic gift which runs in her family. She does best with sarcasm and also manages to deliver in the more emotional sequences. 

However, there are too many things Aisha gets wrong. It digresses from the obligatory scenes to add unnecessarily plot points. The whole Dhruv-Shefali track looks fake, unnecessary and forced. It seems to have been added only to add to the (otherwise short) runtime. Aisha comes off as annoying, dumb and silly in these portions, a disaster for a film titled after that character. The story does come back on track. Unfortunately, by then it is a little too late. Also, certain plot points like the Randhir-Pinky track and the characters of Aarti (Lisa Haydon), Arjun's colleague from New York and potential love interest are just not developed at all. The writers could have spent the precious runtime there. The writing is also clunky and dull in important places and that spark, so essential for a romantic comedy, is clearly missing. However, the worst thing is that the writers waste time chasing supporting characters while giving precious little time to develop the romance between the leads. While both Sonam Kapoor and Abhay Deol make the most of the few real scenes between them and try hard to create magical romance, the writing lets them down. That is unforgivable.

Ultimately, Aisha could have been not only a good formulaic romance, but a great one much like movies I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It had some really good performances, a fantastic foot tapping score by Amit Trivedi and excellent production values. Unfortunately, the half-baked writing in key portions and the unnecessary plot digressions create a mess out of which the film gets out of, but barely just and takes too much of our time doing it. An average film and consequently, a disappointment.