THIS SHAKING KEEPS ME STEADY (Dir. Shehrezad Maher, 2018, Pakistan / U.S.)

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In a measured yet painterly wide shot towards the end of what is a hybridised work Maher trains her erudite eye under a bridge, a sort of non-space with a phantasmal ambiance. The familiar concrete structure of the bridge and the calm waters of the river act as a visual memory to a story narrated to us by an ambulance driver. The story is about a woman who tried to commit suicide jumping from a bridge. It is a traumatic memory that forms a composite of recollections by ambulance drivers that are juxtaposed to fictional reconstructions of real life tragedies for television. Closer to an atmospheric and experimental video essay than a documentary, Maher’s choice to fragment recollections into a non-linear narration lets us hear the neglected voices of Karachi as distinctly porous. Re-enactments staged for news media and TV dramas point to the artifice of performativity but this betrayal of reality is seemingly challenged by the ways in which memory also distorts history. But it is the stories narrated by the ambulance drivers that resonate with you long after the film has ended, a reminder of the ways in which an impoverished underclass props up a society with unsung acts of altruism.

You can find out more about Shehrezad Maher’s work here: http://www.shehrezadmaher.com/

 

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. 

 

JANG AUR AMAN / WAR AND PEACE (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2002, India)

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In November I will deliver a paper at the University of Salford on the ostracism of Indian cinema in cinephilia. If Indian DVD labels have categorically failed to distribute films adequately to the consumer then filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan who has only the most tenuous of links with the Indian film industry has worked independently to make documentaries and distribute his work through his website. Patwardhan’s work has been available for a while in India and he has always been careful to whom he licenses his work. Patwardhan’s documentaries have been screened in the UK at film festivals and he most recently toured with Jai Bhim Comrade, participating in a masterclass at the Sheffield Doc Fest. Nonetheless, getting to see his work has been problematic in the past. Some of his early work including his shorter documentaries is on YouTube.

The UK release of War and Peace, Patwardhan’s critically acclaimed 2002 documentary on the nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, made available for the first time on home video by Second Run, a specialist UK DVD label, has bravely released four major Indian films since they started ten years ago in 2005. This may seem slight compared to the many European films they have released on DVD but when you put a stellar label like Second Run up against Arrow Video, Masters of Cinema and many of the other major specialist labels then Second Run having introduced the films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and now Anand Patwardhan to UK film audiences is a major achievement indeed. Second Run also released Celluloid Man, a tribute to Indian film archivist P. K. Nair, in 2014, directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a leading figure in the contest for Indian film preservation. The DVD of War and Peace includes a newly recorded interview with Patwardhan, a debate that was aired on Pakistani TV after the documentary was broadcast and deleted scenes. Also included is a booklet of essays featuring an interview with Mark Cousins, a supporter of Patwardhan.

Since Patwardhan is a social activist who has campaigned against the many of the injustices he has documented his uncomplicated approach to filmmaking makes his work very accessible. Though War and Peace focuses on the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan that reached its peak during the Kargil war, Patwardhan’s journey is a global one, which sees him go to both America and Japan, exploring the terrifying legacy of the Atomic age. Patwardhan made War and Peace over four years and it is an exhaustive work, touching on casteism, fundamentalism, propaganda, corruption and the toxic fustian jingoism of the BJP, a right wing political party sadly back in power in India under the dubious leadership of Modi, a man who stoked the fires of communalism in Gujarat. War and Peace belongs in the canon of great documentaries and so does Patwardhan who continues to be a defiantly radical figure in the world of documentary cinema, actively raising the ire of the global elite for his unquestionably resolute collectivist politics. It is Patwardhan’s interviews with the ordinary people of India and Pakistan that reveal an essential truth, pointing to an underlying class struggle glossed over by the machinations of mixing nationalism with religion. War and Peace shows hegemony at work, the enforcement of the status quo, and the conservation of a disquieting cross border social and political paralysis.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST (Dir. Mira Nair, 2012, US/UK/Qatar) – The Changing Man

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Director Mira Nair’s latest feature is somewhat of an uneven film but it is an important one in the context of post 9-11 cinema. Based on the best selling novel by Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist re-situates Nair’s Diasporic gaze to a post 9-11 geopolitical context in which commerce, politics and religion are intertwined. Given Nair has always been caught between two cultures, she has naturally been inclined to favour the social outsider in many of her films. This was a precedent set in her earliest films especially Salaam Bombay! in which Chiapau’s (Shafiq Syed) arrival in Bombay positions him as an outsider attempting to adjust and fit into the new environment around him. Chiapau’s desire to make enough money so he can return to his village in order to pay off his debts makes him a creature of survival but Nair’s later films such as The Namesake (2006) saw a shift to Diasporic anxieties to do with belonging, identity and a wider existential search. Sometimes it can be critical to have read the original source material when viewing an adaptation of such significance. Unfortunately I have not read the novel upon which the film is based but it may be worthwhile comparing the two and considering what compromises may have been made in the adaptation process. Nair says it took five years for the film to get made since financing kept falling through. The difficulty in attracting adequate financing can be attributed to the film’s supposedly controversial and commercially unappealing subject matter, that of contemporary Pakistan.

This is certainly Nair’s most ambitious film to date and its rich, sympathetic depiction of Lahore echoes similar Punjabi sentiments evident in her most successful film, Monsoon Wedding (2001). In fact, Nair’s husband has referred to the film as ‘Monsoon Terrorist’. Given the dire security issues in Pakistan, which makes it an impossible place to film in, Nair found an area in Delhi to act as a replacement. Although the film has a global feel to it, taking place across a number of cities including New York and Istanbul, it is Lahore that offers Nair the opportunity to deal with her own ancestral connections and prescient ones to do with America’s hegemonic foreign policy towards Pakistan and its people. This is why Nair chooses to use a framing device in the form of an on going dialogue between Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) and Bobby Lincoln (a journalist turned ‘spook’ working for the CIA played by Liev Schreiber) because it becomes an extended symbolic exchange of ideological perspectives between America and Pakistan in regards to foreign policy. The story of Changez sees him become a successful financial analyst at one of the top firms on Wall Street but after September 11, anti Islamic sentiments triggers a reawakening within him concerning his direction and place in American society. Changez’s decision to return to Lahore and teach at a university makes him an enemy in the eyes of an American government that acts with impunity when it comes to protecting western interests. Given the references to Ahmed Shah Masoud, a potential future leader of Afghanistan who led the resistance against the Soviet Union, it is clear to see that Changez is represented as a potentially transformational figure with an intellectualism that would appeal to the youth in Pakistan.

Riz Ahmed does a splendid job in the lead role and continues to show great range as a leading British actor with an increasingly international profile. Intellectualism as resistance is a theme evident by his father who is a famous Punjabi poet and the rejection of his exploitative role as a financial analyst condemns capitalist ideology as a form of internal oppression that inevitably leads to a loss of identity. In the film, two particular moments stand out in the opening half which probably explains why the film struggled to attract financing. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally significant ideological moments since Nair daringly allows us to see the reaction to 9-11 through the gaze of a Pakistani male. Such subjectivity is important as it has barely registered in many films that have tried to depict the so called war on terror. The first moment concerns the pleasurable reaction of Changez as he watches the planes crashing into the twin towers in his hotel room. I’m not sure if this moment breaks a taboo but it certainly offers an unsanctioned truth about the way a lot of oppressed people around the world reacted to such events and its a moment that will more than likely have some reviewers in America condemning the film for even attempting to humanise a Pakistani like Changez. The second moment concerns the the xenophobia which was rife in the wake of the attacks. On his way from a business trip, Changez is detained at the airport and dehumanised when he is strip searched by the security. Such open and discriminatory persecution is really the beginning of the end for Changez and his American dream. Both of these moments are critical in delineating the alienation of Changez from his environment.

Nair’s films are also important in their use of music. The Reluctant Fundamentalist returns to a similar musical pattern of a film like Monsoon Wedding which saw a fusion of classical and contemporary music on the soundtrack. Nair taps into the contemporary Pakistani music scene which over the last few years, sponsored by The Coke Studio, has produced some eclectic and innovative collaborations between old and new artists. The film opens with a lengthy traditional Punjabi Qawwali (devotional Sufi music) ‘Kangna’, performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, which is used to underline the middle class tastes of what seems to be a progressive Pakistani family. Interestingly, the film opens with the professor Anse Rainier and his companion exiting a showing of Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s most recent film Bol (Speak, 2011), a portmanteau of stories that depict the oppression faced by Pakistani women on a daily basis. Bol is used predominantly to anchor the events within a contemporary Pakistani landscape and remind us of the centrality of Lahore as a key milieu in the narrative. Perhaps the most ideologically significant deployment of contemporary Pakistani music is when Changez leaves his job and makes the decision to return to Lahore. This sequence is juxtaposed to the introspective song ‘Mori Araj Suno’ (Hear My Plea) which makes explicit use of the poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of Punjab’s most famous and revered poets. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a radical leftist who used his poetry to criticise the state of the nation and Nair makes a striking parallel here by juxtaposing the song with Changez’s transformation from capitalist to eventual teacher. Nair and all those involved especially the writers should be praised for their refusal to demonise Changez and let the film reach a conclusion that opens up a space for a dialogue and discourse that lets the Pakistani male become an active symbol of social and political change. I have still have a suspicion this one will end up in my end of year list since I find both Mira Nair and Riz Ahmed to be inspirational figures.