PALE FLOWER / KAWAITA HANA (Dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1964, Japan)

Masahiro Shinoda directed Pale Flower in 1964 for the prestigious Shochiku film studio. Shinoda’s remarkable film was part of the 1960s Japanese New Wave cinema and the film’s iconoclastic temperament led to it being banned. In 2003 Home Vision Entertainment released Pale Flower on DVD whilst this year Criterion issued their version on both DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve not come across Shinoda’s work before and my encounters with Japanese cinema have tended to favour popular auteurs. I’m beginning to realise the vastness of Japanese cinema in terms of output stands alone in many ways when compared to other film industries. Shinoda’s loose, elliptical approach and dynamic visual style bears close parallels with the work of Seijun Suzuki. Pale Flower would work superbly as a double bill alongside Suzuki’s demented Branded to Kill. In many ways, the initial narrative set up of Pale Flower in which a hardened Yakuza gangster Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is released from prison, having killed another member of a gang, invokes the memory of American crime and noir films. It is a familiar convention – the gangster or criminal who is released from prison but realises he cannot fit into society anymore and slowly becomes more and more withdrawn. Whilst Shinoda adopts this narrative convention, he decides to choose an entirely different path altogether for his central male protagonist. On his release, Muraki seems more bored than alienated with the world around him. It is Muraki’s entanglement with a mysterious young woman Saeko that subverts such a narrative expectation because it becomes a mutually destructive relationship.

Symbolically, the woman’s addiction to drugs/gambling represents both the corruption of Japanese youth and the rise of a new kind of modernity whilst Muraki’s allegiance to a code is ideologically conducive of an old, fading Japanese culture. In many ways, Muraki is like the antiquated cowboy who looks out of place in the new society and for Muraki the retreat to the sanctity of the prison gives him seclusion from a world that has little meaning for him anymore. Visually, Shinoda’s film is stunning to look at and the striking monochrome cinematography gives the imagery a very clean yet noir like aesthetic. The performances by Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga are compelling throughout. A film like Pale Flower was a direct manifestation of the changing sensibilities in Japanese cinema during the 1960s but unlike The French New Wave which challenged dominant mainstream conventions, from the outset The Japanese New Wave seemed more ideologically engaged. It was only much later that The French New Wave became much more of a political cinematic entity. Nevertheless, compared to Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda’s cinema was less political than his contemporaries and there is no denying that Pale Flower has been influential in the development of the Yakuzka gangster film in Japanese cinema. Director Masahiro Shinoda produced most of his best and most acclaimed films during the 1960s.

DELHI BELLY – (Dir. Abhinay Deo, 2011, India)

After the critical and commercial success of Dhobi Ghat, Aamir Khan returns with his second release of the year as a producer. If one was to unpack Delhi Belly and look carefully then it is plain to see the film uses many conventional elements of the multi protagonist crime comedy but adds a mischievousness that is both infectious and very funny. Abhinay Deo is a new film maker and whilst his debut film Game (released also this year) fell flat on its face Delhi Belly seems to suggest that given the right script, actors and producer he is more than capable of producing some exciting and inventive work. One could argue that Delhi Belly has all the hallmarks of another quality multiplex film and with the plethora of colourful expletives and reflexive characters it certainly seems to be the case. Aamir Khan and UTV Motion Pictures have developed a strong grip over the way their films are marketed and Delhi Belly has certainly been sold as an event film. The marketing for the film particularly the posters, trailers and accompanying music videos are mischievous and playful as the film itself. Written by LA based Akshat Verma, Delhi Belly almost seems in many ways a parody of Three Idiots, deconstructing many of the popular elements of the mainstream Indian film comedy. An interesting point to note is that Akshat Verma is credited in the opening titles as an assistant director, indicating his close involvement in the project.

Unlike the characters from Shor in the City, another multi protagonist narrative, who all seem trapped in some way in their lives, Delhi Belly gives us three wayward middle class characters who are experiencing the pains of youthful boredom whilst repeatedly coming up against a vein of traditionalism that they assumed had vanished. Much of the success of Delhi Belly lies in the script and it is well known that Aamir Khan has cultivated a reputation for taking his time to choose film projects. In many ways, recent films like Delhi Belly, Dobhi Ghat and Rocket Singh illustrate the centrality of a good, solid script. The use of swearing throughout the film was refreshing as it was delivered inventively and energetically by the cast especially comedian Kunaal Roy Kapur as Arun who really does steal many of the scenes (whilst the toilet humour may be juvenile it is also insanely funny) and much of the film with his hilarious performance as a photographer turned blackmailer. The opening titles, one of the best I have seen all year, juxtapose the wonderfully morose song Saigal Blues to a steady montage of shots detailing the dysfunctional qualities of the apartment shared by our three protagonists. What does feel like somewhat of a clique is the final denouement and I’m not sure if the film succeeds in sustaining the energy of the first half of the film. More strengths are the vivid production design and an alternate kind of soundtrack with the final number delivered by none other than Aamir Khan (tribute to Mithun) in one of the more bizarre ‘item’ numbers of recent years. New kid on the block Imran Khan definitely needed a boost to his middle of the road career and his encouraging performance as the disillusioned Tashi hints at a darker side to his acting skills. Delhi Belly holds together splendidly (no intermission folks) and comes highly recommended in terms of mainstream or should I say middle cinema from India. Like Kaminey, Delhi Belly is a very postmodern work that blends together many styles, ideas and aesthetics into a hyperkinetic cinematic whole.

SHOR IN THE CITY / NOISE IN THE CITY – (Dir. Raj Nidimoru & Krishna D K, 2010, India)

The multi protagonist narrative film has emerged as a favourite amongst the multiplex crowd in India and with Shor in the City we find a continuation of the familiar cocktail of crime, gangsters and expletives witnessed before in contemporary films such as Sankat City, Johnny Gaddaar and Kaminey. (See The Guardian Newspapers article on the Multiplex Indian film published last week) Collectively these films constitute a new genre of Indian cinema that one could argue extends from the Mumbai Noir lexicon. However, Mumbai Noir has mutated somewhat aesthetically (not thematically though) into the stylised multi protagonist urban crime film that adopts a portmanteau narrative structure involving chapters, colourful characters, kinetic editing, visceral camera style and a self reflexive edginess. With the rise of the Multiplex film and niche cinema the Bombay film industry has seen a flowering of new production companies who are supposedly willing to take a risk on more edgier, daring and controversial subject matter. In this instance Balaji Motion Pictures (run by Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor) backed Shor in the City and has already proven itself commercially as a multiplex player with recent films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. I’m not sure to what extent this claim holds any validity when one looks closely at films such as Shor in the City. Essentially the appeal of these films is constructed around a level of dark humour that is filtered through a discourse of intertexuality. Such a postmodern approach not only underlines the technical sophistication of directors who have been trained abroad (mainly in American film schools) but confirms a similar and growing cine literate appreciation in the middle class urban youth audience. Of course we have been here before in the 1970s and early 80s when Shyam Benegal referred to his films as part of a new middle cinema and it is easy to position Shor in the City and respective films in such a category that negotiates between the commercial and art cinemas of India in such a way that offers an attractive artistic compromise for film makers, producers and audiences.

Shor in the City revolves around five stories in the city of Mumbai. They are urban stories that attempt to meditate on familiar aspects of the city including power, poverty, class and conflict. Structurally directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K are largely successful at weaving together the different narrative strands into a satisfying, if not far fetched, conclusion. The title card at the end claims every one of the events in the film was based on newspaper stories and this certainly holds true when one considers that micro details are emphasised as a way of validating an authentic reality. Admittedly songs do creep into the film but they are not signposted in anyway whilst melodramatic histrionics are equally restrained by the sympathetic characterisation. A fundamental point of thematic unity for many urban based multi protagonist films is the visibility of the city of Mumbai. Shor in the City gives us characters rarely seen indoors but instead shows us people constantly on the move and carried along by the flow of daily life. It is a perpetual flow of bodies, vehicles and buildings that overwhelm our powerless and fragmented protagonists in search of an anchor on to which they can fix their dreams, fears and hopes. Whilst the Ganpati celebrations seem to bring Mumbai together as a secular and collective community, the disparate lives of our struggling protagonists caught up in the euphoric religious celebrations points to the way in which most urban cities are home to an invisible underclass trying desperately to prove their worth. Like Abhay in the film who has returned from America to set up a small business in Mumbai, the city swallows him up until he gradually becomes another part of the unidentifiable mass of humanity. Shor in the City was critically lauded on its release and certainly serves to illustrate the creative vitality of the middle cinema multiplex film. What is somewhat dispiriting is the unwillingness of UK distributors to back these films as many recent independent multiplex films have simply been rejected. It doesn’t make commercial sense as they would find an audience in the UK especially amongst the youthful Diaspora.

NO ONE KILLED JESSICA (Dir. Raj Kumar Gupta, 2010, India) – The Power in Delhi

I had been looking forward to this one given director Raj Kumar Gupta seemed to show some promise with his debut Aamir but like most Hindi films of late this falls short of expectations and in many ways descends into a melodramatic sentiment un-keeping with the first half of the film. Based on what is arguably one of the more controversial murder cases in Delhi involving the indiscriminate slaying of model Jessica Lall by the son a powerful politician, this slickly made dramatisation by UTV Motion Pictures is undoubtedly well intended especially given the pedigree involved. Yet it seems to me a case of a film star hijacking what could have potentially been a far greater film had they agreed to maintain a distance and show some restraint. Of course, I am referring to the unconvincing performance by Rani Mukherjee who whilst dominating the second half of the film in an attempt to underline the media backed campaign for Jessica’s injustice smoother’s any sense of social indignation with a sustained bout of overly pretentious liberalism. The makers of the film should have really kept the focus with the character of Sabrina Lall as actress Vidya Balan excels in the role of the benign sister forced to struggle with the bitter realities of power relations running throughout the entire establishment.

Vidya Balan is currently one of the best actresses of her generation but one does feel the commercial demands placed on stars leads to dubious career choices – both Hey Baby! and Kismet Konnection saw her look uncomfortably out of place in the company of medioctry whilst Ishqiya hinted at a distinct edginess absent from many of the mainstream actors. Both Nutan and perhaps more interestingly Madhabi Mukherjee comes to mind when deliberating over Vidya Balan’s abilities as an actress. She is largely wasted in the second half of the film and one can clearly see a contest was played out between the two main leads in terms of screen time – it is of little surprise Rani comes out on top given her box office prowess but I’m not so sure if this was the right decision. Swearing (with most of it bleeped out for dramatic effect), smoking and a chic bitchiness emerge as superficial traits that mark Meera’s crusading journalist as yet another heroic one dimensional cinematic anecdote. Whilst it may be acceptable to argue that Meera is supposed to be unlikable as the unsavoury politicians that we come across, her presence in the second half of the film literally devalues the credibility and sincerity constructed initially with what is a mildly compelling reconstruction of Jessica’s murder.

Had this taken a more Rashomon approach to narrative storytelling it might have made more of an emotional impact but instead it chooses to adhere to a familiar path in terms of the family melodrama. Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of the film sees a twist of cinematic irony ring true when a passive Delhi audience spurred on by the youth activism witnessed in a screening of Rang De Basanti initiate a candlelight vigil to be held as a mark of anger at India Gate. In addition, the media’s role in helping to elevate the injustice of Jessica’s flawed and corrupt trial to a national level poses some serious questions on the relationship between politics and the mass media which on many occasions privileges sensationalism over the much maligned concerns of the oppressed. Another noteworthy ideological proposition is whether or not the media should discard any sense of objectivity and personalise those news stories which are close to certain journalists own ideological agenda. No One Killed Jessica is director Raj Kumar Gupta’s second film and whilst it falls short of his debut, it tries nobly to do justice to the memory of Sabrina Lall – yet another victim of the ruling power elite.

AAKROSH (Dir. Priyadarshan, 2010, India) – Caste Politics

A remake of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, Priyadarshan’s transfers the politics of race relations to that of caste in the ruralism of Bihar. Hailing from Kerala, Priyadarshan forged his career making a string of commercially successful comedies in Malayalam with actor Mohanlal. Including his extensive output from the eighties, Priyadarshan has to date directed over eighty films and is perhaps one of the most prolific directors working in the world today. I have not seen any of his films with Mohanlal, many of which he has remade since his shift into the Hindi film industry, but Virasat (The Inheritance) which he made in the nineties is one of my favourite Hindi films and might actually feature Anil Kapoor’s best performance. Aakrosh is a stylised attempt to bring to light to the continuing cancerous existence of caste politics and honour killings in rural India. Ideologically, the discriminatory and brutal caste divide encountered by the two officers, played by Akshay Khanna and Ajay Devgan, in Bihar uncovers predictably an insipid collusion between the police, religious elements and landowners in which law and order is dispensed independently and at will.

The politics of caste has been dealt with by most of the major Indian auteurs including notably Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal; Benegal’s work is particularly seminal in this context. Priyadarshan freely admits that whilst Aakrosh does deal with a serious yet largely invisible social problem, the demands of commercial cinema means the parameters of ideological engagement are somewhat constrained and defined by genre determinants. Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession, 2008) perhaps indicates Priyadarshan does have that capacity to move fluidly between mainstream and more personal, independent projects. For a detailed analysis of Kanchivaram, read Srikanth’s entry on his blog. Aakrosh should have found an audience given the film is a technical triumph and puts together some memorable fast paced action sequences. The ending is marred though by a terrible oversight of ideological fantasising.

ZANJEER / THE CHAIN (Dir. Prakash Mehra, 1973, India) – Angry Young Men


 

 

 

 

 

 

The angry young man phenomenon that emerged out of the tentative screenplays of writers Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) in the 1970s was in part shaped by the Indian Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi that lasted between 75 and 77 yet predominately the origins of Amitabh Bachchan’s often repeated ‘Vijay’ persona was ideologically conflated with the anti-hero of the forties and Indian mythology. In Zanjeer, similarly like many of the angry young man films of the 70s that featured Amitabh Bachchan what remains strikingly magnified today is the exemplary quality of screenplays produced by Salim-Javed. Their work reached its epoch in Shakti that paired Dilip Kumar with Amitabh Bachchan, exhausting many of their creative ideas whilst leaving open the potential of continually reinventing the angry young persona for Indian cinema’s most culturally iconic of film stars. Watching Zanjeer today, it has been transformed through postmodern homage and imitation into a kitsch cinematic catalogue of star persona’s, social anxieties and zeitgeist hyperbole.

The ultimate pleasure it offers an audience is situated in a nostalgic yearning for the masala cinema of the seventies. If Zanjeer was a revenge film and Shakti a film about father and son then Deewar’s rags to riches narrative seemed to be the one that offered the most visceral and provocative ideological connection with the state of Indian society; Deewar features perhaps the most realised of the Vijay persona’s as it succeeds in blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, upon its release Zanjeer may have been declared as groundbreaking in terms of the mainstream but the melodramatic gestures makes one firmly position this as a film that grasps traditions. The radicalism may have been in the volatile persona of Amitabh’s Vijay but around him, traditional forces constantly remind us that in the midst of such cynicism, an impulse to recognise the vitality of popular genres is what makes much of the work of Salim-Javed so instrumental to mainstream Indian cinema.