Chidambaram (1985, Dir. Govindan Aravindan, India [Tamil])

When Shivagami (Smita Patil) arrives at a Mooraru government run farmhouse in Niligri as a newly wedded bride she is enamoured by the mountainous landscapes and in these fleeting moments of rapture Aravindan carves and crafts this awakening as a synchronic event that ties Shivagami to nature, an elemental conceptualization. Chidambaram is structured as a classical parable and morality tale on fragile masculinities with a latent critique of caste politics while retaining characteristic poetic refrains that define Aravindan’s rhythmical approach. It is a work that remains largely transcendentally tactile with bird song punctuating the soundtrack in an everlasting chorus of repose. Lensed by regular DOP Shaji N. Karun, the impressionistic photography imbues the film with a painterly texture, a classic Aravindan signature.   

In an early sequence, Shankaran (Gopi), a superintendent of the farm, invites Muniyandi (Srinivas), a lower caste labourer, to have an evening drink with him. Jacob, the bigoted farm supervisor, objects to the presence of Muniyandi, openly revealing his casteist prejudices. While Shankaran ignores Jacob’s hostile sentiments, Muniyandi seems to belittle himself when he spontaneously bursts into a song lamenting his enslavement to the master, a gesture that makes Shankaran uncomfortable, hinting at the complicated hypocrisies at work in the shredded mentality of the men. When Muniyandi gets married and requests an extended leave so he can consummate his new relationship, Jacob arrives prematurely at Muniyandi’s home and instructs him to return immediately while lecherously sizing up his new bride. Smita Patil typically underplays, exuding an intelligence and naivety that marks Shivagami as incorruptible.

It is Muniyandi and Shivagami’s lower caste status that makes them susceptible to an exploitation that incorporates Shankaran as the unlikely perpetrator, reiterating the ways in which casteism is systemic and omnipresent. The dynamics between Shivagami and Shankaran, which is framed as a friendship, is only hinted at briefly as something far more sexual, in a flashback insert when Shankaran wanders aimlessly in search of absolution for his transgression. Muniyandi’s realisation that someone has visited Shivagami when he is at work on night duty is depicted elliptically, Aravindan refusing to explicitly point out who it might be. For a lowly caste oppressed labourer like Muniyandi all that matters is his honour, which he is convinced resides in his sanctity of marriage and his wife. While it comes as a shock to discover that it is Shankaran who has strips away what little dignity Muniyandi has left, the wound of betrayal that is inflicted is a traumatic one, nightmarishly visualised in the dreaded image of Muniyandi swinging from a rope in the cow shed, having committed suicide in an insufferably tragic act of self-destruction.

The final third details the residual psychological deterioration of Shankaran who is consumed by the terrifying, debilitating guilt of his actions, which in turns leads him on a haphazard metaphysical journey for absolution. When Shankaran looks upon the dead body of poor Muniyandi he bolts through the forest in horror, trying desperately to block out the blinding dagger like rays of sunlight streaming through the trees and subsequently throwing himself into a pool of water, a symbolic gesture, so to cleanse himself of his misdeeds. The sacred, ancient Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is where an aging Shankaran retreats, coming face to face with Shivagami, a haunting mythological moment that arguably represents Shivagami as an ethereal yet tortured figure. Carrying with her the mark of violence left by her late husband, Shivagami’s supernatural appearance is arguably a projection of Shankaran’s painful imaginings trying in vain to reconcile with a past from which he cannot escape no matter how greatly he seeks exoneration.

THE TWO JAKES (Dir. Jack Nicholson, 1990, US)

The Two Jakes is less a sequel and more of a flamboyant continuation and expansion of the sun kissed noir universe of Los Angeles that Polanski brought to life in Chinatown. Everyone knows a project of this type had no chance of working without the creative involvement of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, all of whom were reunited. Whereas Chinatown was a subversion of film genre, expressly the traditions of film noir, a resolutely anti-genre piece shot like a European art film, very much like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Two Jakes is unashamedly and resolutely a homage to the great riches of Hollywood film noir. It is well documented that Towne’s script for Chinatown went through numerous brutal changes, many of which Towne fought but ultimately could not prevent given Polanski’s authorial control. In many ways, The Two Jakes, is closer to Towne’s original vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling festering wound alluded to in interviews, mapping a broader nexus between oil, land and money, in which an underbelly of corruption and violence continually rises to the surface as a familiar subtext.

What makes The Two Jakes such a worthy successor to Chinatown is arguably the iconographic amplifications of noir and the endlessly pleasurable ways in which pastiche becomes a celebratory enterprise; a pulpy cinematic novel played out in classical film noir encounters. Towne draws the inevitable links back to Mulwray and Cross, framing Gittes as a broken, guilt ridden figure haunted by a murky past of incest and ownership, and who retains his self-righteous contempt for the police and big business. The startling LA art decor production design, dazzling costumes and widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond are the real stars along with a rich supporting cast made up of Harvey Kietel, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach. Fatalism remains at the core as does the theme of flawed masculinity, although eclipsed by a perpetual sense of post war trauma. I wonder what Polanski would have made of it all?

Modernism by Other Means: the films of Amit Dutta – Srikanth Srinivasan (Lightcube, 2020)

Srikanth Srinivasan’s (aka JAFB who writes at his legendary site The Seventh Art) first monograph is a great book about Indian cinema. It is a great book about a filmmaker. Srikanth lists himself as a film critic on the jacket of his book, which he rightly is, but this work is very much that of an accomplished and nuanced film scholar, and indeed which has often been the striking characteristic of his eclectic film writings over a period of fifteen years and counting. I still don’t think he gets the credit and attention that he deserves, underlining the cultural discourse in which film writing is narrowly canonized; remaining within tenuous, highfalutin parameters, with much of it tipped into the favour of Anglo-centric feels.

I first came across Srikanth’s work in 2007 when I was starting to use the internet to write about film, at my first site pretentiously titled ‘Ellipsis: The Accents of Cinema’, which is now defunct. Those were the years when film writers would regularly crawl across the internet to leave comments to new posts in the hope of initiating a conversation and dialogue. Sadly, such diligence and commitment came to an end with the rise of social media and expressly Twitter, which kind of ruined what could have potentially been something quite significant in terms of sustaining a connected global cinephilia with the space to let writers develop their own style and forge a readership. Now with Twitter, everyone seems to be barking out the same film rhetoric, much of it lazily recycled and generally lacking nuance.

Anyhow, if you have been following Srikanth’s adventures over the years, which also saw him take a cultural hiatus to France, his interests in experimental Indian film and filmmakers, about which he has written extensively, continues to elucidate a major blind spot when it comes the prevailing film discourse on Indian cinema, which as he notes in his introduction, is inclined towards ‘mainstream and Parallel Cinema’. I necessarily don’t agree with this point as I would reason the scholarly work on Parallel Cinema is in dire need of resuscitation and further study, with much of the focus having shifted to the much feted Indie scene. And although monographs on filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal have been far more forthcoming over the past ten years, the non-linear history of Parallel Cinema remains relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, I would reason Srikanth’s monograph occupies a new space, carving out a critical insight that forges a wider cultural intersectional understanding of Dutta’s work, articulated through the elegant, intellectual and strident analytical prose.

Indeed, Srikanth points to the short shrift that experimental Indian film has been given, something he dually rectifies with what is an accessible, exceptional and detailed investigative reading of director Amit Dutta’s output, arguably one of India’s most important contemporary artists working today, and who in many ways extended the premature iconoclastic creative experiments of Parallel Cinema. Having been made with the co-operation of Dutta is significant. Overcoming the politics of access which often remains as an obstacle when it comes to researching or writing on the histories of alternative Indian cinema is telling in the comprehensive and rigorous approach Srikanth takes, journeying chronologically through Dutta’s work and showing us his evolution as an artist who has worked almost in isolation from the mainstream and relatedly showing a disillusionment with the dubious curatorial choices and agendas of film festivals. It is worth noting the monograph broadens and consolidates the retrospective Srikanth curated on Dutta’s work in 2017.

The formative period at the FTII which forms the basis of the first chapter that looks at Dutta’s early films draws out the connections between oppositional film practices, the ability to experiment at length at a privileged institution and how Dutta’s early inspirations drew heavily on his own experiences and expressly ‘indigenous myths’. Pertinently, Srikanth identifies how the creative manipulations of time and space would become a defining theme in Dutta’s work, crafting a ritualistic and measured tone buoyed by a slow rhythm. As Srikanth works meticulously through Dutta’s films, the lucid prose maps a wider cultural framework that connects the traditions of Indian art to an idea of using film as a self-reflexive prism with which to deconstruct narrative, genre and film style as something autobiographical in nature. And what Srikanth teases out so vividly is how real life artists including painters become a defining concrete and spectral presence in Dutta’s work, a constant return to investigate folk tales and mythology whereby it becomes intrinsic to his mixed media methods of communication and investigation. If anything what Dutta’s output demonstrates is how infantile and possibly regressive much of the so called alternative Indian cinema actually is. And in this respect, Dutta’s work seems almost revolutionary, occupying a futuristic pro-filmic space.

With the chapter on ‘Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009)’, Srikanth argues for the sociological dimension of Dutta’s work, although somewhat reluctantly because of the lack of overt political engagement throughout his work, a hallmark of many avant-garde artists. Given Srikanth’s extensive and impressive film knowledge and understanding of international cinema, he is able to draw out the wider intertextual connections that can often go amiss, referencing films by Ray, Greenway, Tarkovsky, Resnais etc. and how they inform Dutta’s directorial choices, an aspect of the monograph that anchors itself in the riches of hybridity, fusion and exchange. The broader cine-geography onto which Srikanth maps Dutta’s work reiterates a cultural duality in which internationalism and indigenous practices are part of an Indian art tradition and aesthetic consciousness that stretches back to the 1920s. Undeniably this monograph examines Dutta’s capacity to create new art forms through the prism of experimental filmmaking and thereby the recurring and informed links to Indian art history becomes an essential feature since one could reason Dutta is part of a late new modernism.

Alongside the delineation of key themes (nature and civilization, memory, space) and shifting patterns of working with technology, there is a deep understanding of aesthetics including the pursuit for an organic film style that runs throughout the chapters with astutely exhaustive close textual analysis of key sequences from virtually all of Dutta’s films. The evolution of a new film style ‘free of cinematic influences’ as Srikanth notes becomes an abiding argument that is developed throughout the chapters and contestably emerges as allusive to the way Dutta has constantly metamorphized as an artist. The chapter on ‘The Seventh Walk’, a remarkable project Dutta made in 2013, is in many ways key to the monograph because Srikanth is able to argue why this work is ‘the nearest he has ever come to immersing himself in the natural world’.

Modernism by other means is a fitting title for an artist who is defiantly contemporary, a polymath whom Srikanth understands and probes broadly with a final stretch of the monograph dedicated to non-film output, all of which is decisive in forming a fully rounded and intimate portrait of Dutta. Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

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PATTY HEARST (Dir. PAUL SCHRADER, 1988)

The much publicised kidnapping and coercion of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army is the focus of Schrader’s 1988 film, a critical look back at the protracted complex political choices that underpinned the counter culture of the 1970s. It is an unusual film to have emerged from 1980s Hollywood cinema and is also one of Schrader’s most political works. Reconnecting with the proletarianism of Blue Collar, Schrader examines how the will to adopt and maintain a political posture is riddled with a gamut of intersectional insincerities that are class and race related. Schrader treats the first part like an exercise in Brechtian tableau, imbuing the SLA with an ideological sincerity while sympathetically framing militancy as wholly reasonable given the wider inequalities.

At the core is Natasha Richardson’s gruelling performance as Hearst who conveys the right degrees of ambivalence to make one uncertain of her motivations and ideological beliefs. Much of the film deals with the assimilation of Hearst, brainwashed to join the group, suggesting the decorative nature of counter culture was simply a momentary allure to middle class white people wanting to interminably escape the system while indulging in faux acts of sexual and political liberation. However, the government’s brutal annihilation of the SLA, carried out with impunity by the police, critiques the gradual erasure of counter culture militancy as something unambiguously ideological; a benign cultural struggle for political discourse, mainstream lifestyles and conformity.