TUMBBAD (Dir. Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad, India/Sweden, 2018)

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A bewitching and meaty horror with an elemental sensibility, Tumbbad uses the archetypal Indian trope of the Mother Goddess to give us a perennial treatise on greed. Tumbbad’s tactile and sensory approach recalls atmospheric films like The Keep (1983) and Sorcerer (1977), combining the supernatural, mythology and history into something deeply atavistic. The expressionistic use of ancient landscapes juxtaposed to the tumultuous weather (it rains a lot!), particularly in the opening section, gives the film an unsettling Herzogian timbre. The narrative unfolds over a number of decades and is segmented into chapters, beginning in 1918 (?), imbuing the film with a historical arc that augments the ambitious scale of the production. Tumbbad reunites the talents of Soham Shah and Anand Gandhi who both collaborated on the seminal Hindie film Ship of Theseus in 2012. Recently screened at the Venice Film Festival, the film’s arrival coincides with a growing interest in the horror genre in Indian independent cinema that bodes well for what should be an international release.

THE KEEP (Dir. Michael Mann, 1983, US) – Atmospheric Exegesis

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Given Mann’s consolidation as perhaps American cinema’s greatest film auteur does a film like The Keep hold any bearing on his reputation today? What can the film tell us about Mann that we don’t already know? The Keep is the film that Mann has rarely acknowledged. It had a troubled production history and Mann’s original 3 hour plus rough-cut was eventually submitted as a 2-hour version. As a result of negative test screenings, Paramount took to cutting the film down to 96 minutes, all without Mann’s consent. One can certainly reason why Mann has sort of disowned the film. Apparent from the studio cut is the incoherence of the narrative structure and although I would argue logic is not a necessity for a narrative to function and communicate, here one can readily notice sequences have been excised purely for a cruel commercial necessity. This is no way makes the film’s narrative difficult to follow but one wonders at the logic of Mann’s greater narrative design. Nonetheless, The Keep is still an inexplicably mesmeric work as Mann’s cinema has always relied on a taut visual literacy embedded in the bold architectural aesthetics.

Primarily, what makes The Keep a point of fascinating authorial enquiry is the film’s status as a supernatural horror, the only occasion when Mann has ventured into this genre territory (although this complicates Manhunter’s genre status). But horror is only one vagary in a hybrid genre address that also draws on tropes from the war film, the holocaust sub-genre, and the thriller. However, it is the supernatural horror aspects that are resolutely vivid, tapping into a corpus of ancient European mythological folklore manifested in the archetypal signifiers such as the priest, the protector-warrior figure or talisman, the princess, the scientist or boffin and of course the demonic entity and monster. Horror archetypes of this nature offer the film a certain genre logic augmented by an expressionist design. Much more significant in terms of real world ideology is the politics of World War II and the Holocaust which forms the backdrop to the film. However, suspicion abounds if the studio did away with the so-called extraneous narrative material that probably would have helped to draw out a clearer ideological schematic between Jewish historian Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and the Nazis. Instead what we are left with is a sort of crude symbolic tryst that is merely decorative and fails to serve a deeper ideological ferment.

In many ways it is instructive to treat The Keep as resolutely atmospheric work and this is where the film is at most communicative in terms of stylistic explication; Tangerine Dream’s discombobulated score, the tenebrous cinematography by Alex Thomson and the categorically ingenious production design by the altogether legendary John Box (who had also worked on The Sorcerer – Mann’s film feels like the ideal cinematic brethren to Friedkin’s now reclaimed masterpiece), synchronically create an aura of cabalistic dimensions that are played out in the appositely augural ending. I really hoped we would have seen a director’s cut by now but that may never come to fruition given Mann’s more than solid reputation. However, given the cult following The Keep has attracted over the years certainly raises hopes that one day it will be reconstituted but for now we have to be satisfied with reimagining what could have been rather than what is.

NH10 (Dir. Navdeep Singh, 2015, India) – Hindie Urbanoia

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The quartet of Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl founded Phantom Films in 2011. Since then Phantom has produced a notable slate of Hindie films with differing mainstream sensibilities. Films such as Lootera, Queen and Ugly have featured popular Indian film stars. This has been balanced out with edgy scripts, new directors, genre vagaries and unconventional narratives. NH10 released this year, holds comparably interesting ideas, although not everything gels cohesively as it should. The narrative involves a young, urban middle class Indian couple, Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) who reside in Bangalore. One day, Arjun takes Meera on a road journey to a villa he has rented for her birthday. However, en route they become entangled in some of the more unsavoury politics of rural India such as an honour killing.

Some critics have suggested the parallels with a contemporary British horror film Eden Lake, which is evident in some respects, but at work here is the concept of urbanoia that typically pits middle class urbanites against the treachery of the rural. Horror writer James Rose has written extensively on urbanoia in regards to another British horror film, The Descent. Nonetheless, Rose traces the origins of urbanoia right back to the 1970s and films like Deliverance. In fact, NH10 is a postmodern text, recalling such films as Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left, and Eden Lake. NH10, like The Descent and Eden Lake, which subverts the tropes of urbanoia, also frames the narrative through the perspective of a female anti-hero. In many ways, NH10 is far more intriguing as an unconventional star vehicle for Anushka Sharma than it is as an example of Indian urbanoia. Sharma, a co-producer on the film, attempts to step outside the narrow mainstream roles that have defined her career so far, taking on an alternative female character. While this appears to be a bold career move, the problem with such progressive stardom is Sharma has never been a particularly good actress. Nonetheless, the final badass fight back that she unleashes in the last third of the film points to a gawky physicality that Sharma exudes best when performing.

In ‘Ambiguous Journey to the City’ Ashis Nandy talks about the complicated ideological contestation between the city and the village, which he argues has been imagined and re-imagined in Indian cinema: ‘certain core concerns and anxieties of Indian civilization have come to be reflected in the journey from the village to the city’ (Nandy, 2001). Nandy contextualises this ostensibly politicised narrative in the initial framework of partition, suggesting it is a troubling once since the void between the urban and rural is marked by an epoch of suspicion, fear and ritual. The interaction between the urban and rural in the context of urbanoia is decidedly adverse and a similar idea plays out in NH10. However, the imaginary monster often posing the main threat is refashioned in the form of a feudalistic, hierarchal matriarchy. Not only is the village positioned as the other, but also its suspicion of outsiders, in this case the urban middle class of Bangalore, is denied an exclusive misogyny since Meera is accosted by one of her colleagues in a presentation for having it easy because she is a woman.

The troubling gender politics of the rural harbour an ubiquity also evident in the supposedly progressive urban Bangalore, which makes Meera’s final stand, fuelled by revenge, as a resolutely personal one. A concern with NH10 is that the film comes perilously close to demonizing the rural, offering what is a generalised view of the village as lawless, unfriendly and territorial. Nonetheless, many urbanoia films take a similar stance so NH10 may simply be reiterating the conventions. Another pertinent trope, which marks this out as a horror, is Carol Clover’s final girl theory, and this is where the film seems most explicit in terms of recalling the traditions of the slasher genre, since Meera recognises she must slay the monster if she is to survive and achieve some personal catharsis. Interestingly, the gender politics at work in the finale are very timely indeed, offering female audiences with an affecting Indian female anti-hero, somewhat of a rarity in mainstream Indian cinema, who dispenses violence against the men of the village that reverberates into the real national concerns of rape, harassment and misogyny directed towards women. Is Meera a growing attempt by Indian cinema to rework the angry young man construct as a means of accounting for the shift in gender politics, giving rise to the angry young woman?

Navdeep Singh showed great promise with his rural noir Manorama Six Feet Under, released in 2007. NH10 certainly marks him out as a director who understands genre cinema. One a final note, the songs in the film are misplaced and completely unnecessary and although their inclusion does not overly impact on the film, it seems a little odd why they have been included given the genres of horror and thriller seem unable to accommodate for such artificial devices of melodrama. Ultimately, NH10 works best as a B-movie with an inviting ideological subtext. The film was a sleeper hit and a sequel has been talked about which could develop further the angry young woman trope.

THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr, 2011, Hungary) – The Wind

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Bela Tarr’s last film could just as easily be retitled ‘The Wind’. Labels such as slow cinema insist we look at films in a certain way but here is another theory that seems to have run its course, duly causing a backlash. There is no denying for a film lasting over two hours and thirty minutes Tarr is preoccupied with real time, not screen time. If this is supposed to be the end, the apocalypse, then everything becomes distilled to the point of abstraction. Tarr relies on primal, ethereal textures so that we can taste the potatoes that they eat, feel the ferocity of the howling wind that envelops the house like some demonic possession and smell the pestilence ravaging the bodies of the exhausted man and his servile daughter. I’m inclined to say The Turin Horse is a film about textures. The perpetual storm, framed as an unholy harbinger is accentuated by the wind, an apocryphal force. Tarr’s strategy of repeating daily actions ritualises ordinariness to the point of exasperation. Amidst this routine enacted by both characters in the farmhouse, suspended in time, is a disrupting metaphysical unease conjuring an all-pervasive dread. Not sure if The Turin Horse is the Nietzsche inspired masterpiece that some have declared it to be but it is a mighty fine way to conclude what is an inimitable body of films.