AMERICAN HEART (Dir. Martin Bell, 1992)

The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.

Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.

JAGO HUA SAVERA / THE DAY SHALL DAWN (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, 1959, Dir. A. J. Kardar) – The Cosmopolitan Intersections of South Asian Neorealism

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“This is the path of the spirit paved with thorns and stones. This is man’s shadow. This is night. But morning will come…” – Khalil Gibran

Gibran’s poetic words point to a cycle of endurance, a battle to survive. This quote from Gibran is juxtaposed over the image of fishing boats at night, navigating the dark waters so to eek out a living, to sustain a village in which fishing is the lifeblood. The recently unearthed Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959) seems to be yet another reason why South Asian cinema’s intersections with neorealism remain somewhat irresolute. Most conversations regarding Indian neorealism tend to centre on two films – Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Both of these films, directed by Bengali filmmakers, show a debt to Italian neorealism and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Although Ghatak’s work could be tentatively argued in terms of a neorealist aesthetic, his style was more eclectic, hybridised and fragmented. Arguably, Nagarik (1952) is possibly the film with the most salient neorealist dimensions of Ghatak’s work, following in the burst of realism initiated by the IPTA in the late 1940s.

If we bring A. J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera into this group of Indian neorealist films, it is important to note that most of these films came from the East of India, many from Bengal. Jago Hua Savera was a co-production between Pakistan and India, and what also makes it unusual are the contributions of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz for script, dialogue and lyrics (unfortunately none of the songs have subtitles) and the cinematography by esteemed DOP Walter Lassally. In fact, Jago Hua Savera was one of Lassally’s first credits as a DOP as a full-length feature, and evidences the fresh realist style that he had developed as part of The British Free Cinema movement with Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and later new wave cinema of the 60s with Tony Richardson. I am  very intrigued by how Lassally got involved with the project. It is worth noting the sound recordist John Fletcher was also part of Free Cinema, having worked on experimental shorts like Nice Time (1957) with directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. Moreover, the editor, Bill Bouvet, was also British. In this respect, the international make up of the crew certainly demonstrates a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan collaboration that was perhaps unusual for the time in India-Pakistan.

The film is simply about the lives of fishermen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opening title reads:

‘Filmed on location at Saitnol, on the banks of the river Meghna – 30 miles south, as the crow flies, from Dacca, in East Pakistan’.

Mian (Zurain) is a fisherman with a growing family, as the titles tell us. His wife, Fatima (Shamsun Nihar), is physically impaired. Mian’s close friend is Kasim (Anees), an orphan who is in love with Mala (Tripti Mitra), the sister in law of Mian, and who comes to stay and help after Fatima gives birth. Kasim is impetuous but loyal to Mian. A principal character is Ganju (Latif) who is obsessed with the dream to own a boat, a threadbare goal that seems to characterise all of the fishermen including Mian. Ganju is a symbol of destitution. When Ganju’s boat arrives, he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his labour and later dies. This is what awaits the fisherman in Saitnol; a painful ending to a miserable existence, which is dictated by the terms of Lal Mian, a slimy moneylender (Kazi Khaliq) who owns the fishing rights to the territory. Lal Mian also has his eye on Mala and hopes that he can convince Mian to let him marry her.

In one sequence, when the fishing rights of Saitnol are auctioned, Lal Mian outbids everyone and retains control. While the fishermen want to see an end to Lal Mian’s rule, they do not have the economic resources to outbid him. After Lal Mian retains the fishing rights, he has a monopoly over the village, and goes about charging extra from the fishermen. Kardar uses a record book of anonymous thumbprints as a symbol of bondage and enslavement that stretches back generations. What Kardar captures so effortlessly is the minuet of the fishing village, charging his narrative with pseudo-poetic neorealist imagery – the boats swaying on the river, the disparate joys of a local mela. Such affection is punctuated by moments of anguish, destitution and fortitude like when Mian attempts to buy a fishing boat but only to realise he does not have enough money or a dying Ganju caressing his newly built boat which he will never sail. Indeed, melodrama often seems to be the element that complicates the neorealist tendencies of films like Do Bigha Zamin but Kardar manages to steer clear off such trapping, perhaps until the final moments as Ganju’s boat is taken away, a rare instance of sentimentality creeping into the film.

However, Jago Hua Savera, made in 1959, seems to have been the culmination of the neorealist moment in South Asian cinema, intersecting along a cross-border creative exchange. Moreover, the international cast and crew, drawing on artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Europe, also situate the film in the realms of international art cinema that was emerging more fully in the late 1950s. Ghatak would return to a similar milieu in his opus Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), exploring the lives of fisherman in Bangladesh and perhaps is indebted to Kardar’s film, notably the stark compositions of landscapes. The pared down, observational approach Kardar takes to the fishing village makes it at times feel as if we are watching a documentary, an ethnographic study but one that is enthralling nonetheless. If Ghatak’s film seems indebted to Kardar then we can also reason Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a classic Italian neorealist work that documents the tribulations of fisherman in a remote Sicilian village, was an influence on both of these films, and returns to the question of exchange that occurred between South Asian filmmakers and Italian neorealism in this period.

Kardar’s brother was Abdur Rashid Kardar, a famous and influential filmmaker and producer who started in the silent era as a producer and then later directed mainstream films like Shahjahan (1946), Dillagi (1949) and Dulari (1949). There is an excellent article by writer and curator Ali Nobil Ahmad published in The Guardian (2016) which drills down into the production history of the film. 

 

TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

tikli and laxmi bomb

The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

two days one night

Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.