OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Dir. Joachim Trier, 2011, Norway)

Disllusioned Youth.

Oslo, 31 August is an exceptional film by emerging Norwegian director Joachim Trier. It is a character study of a recovering drug addict Anders who reflects on his life so far by visiting some of the friends he has known over the years. Anders also has a job interview which ends in self hate, paranoia and guilt. This seems to be the tipping point and leads to a transient mini odyssey through the streets of Oslo. Anders lack of direction as he navigates his way through his life offers what is an understated commentary on a lost youth generation who seem to be well educated, middle class but symptomatically disillusioned. On his odyssey, Anders pauses to take a breather in a coffee shop. In what is one of the best sequences, Trier turns Anders into a human surveillance machine with conversations around him becoming magnified to reveal a familiar humdrum and prosaic banter that reinforces his discontent. Before his job interview, Anders visits one of his closest friends who we discover has settled down into a conformist ‘normal’ life as a father. Their conversations trigger painful memories for Anders who realises his drug addiction has led him to wasting the best years of his life. The boring normality of his friend’s new life also reminds Anders of the contempt he harbours for mainstream Norwegian society is actually justified. Such cynicism of human behaviour is later reinforced when Anders goes to a dinner party hosted by an ex girlfriend and yet again witnesses the grotesque and superficial niceties of the middle class. Additionally, he seems lost in the urban milieu which he inhabits but at the same time revels in his status as a rebel by exploiting his edginess. This is a film about faith and death; two of the most significant themes in the work of Ingmar Bergman whose influence can be detected throughout the narrative. This is a complex and intelligent work; one of the films of the year.

SHAITAN (Dir. Bejoy Nambiar, 2011, India)

Shaitan is a mischievous film with a mischievous title. The anarchic content certainly lives up to such claims of youthful mischief but it is a mischief that turns into a tale of contemporary middle class guilt, corruption and murder. The film starts confidently enough with sequences of real visual energy and creativity. By initially taking a deconstructive approach to narrative and genre, the film appears resoundingly iconoclastic and very contemporary in its design. However, Shaitan is a film that self-destructs as the narrative of a fake kidnapping unfolds, gradually descending into a pantomime of relatively familiar cinematic tropes. I completely lost interest in the final third and could not care less of the outcome for the characters. However, unlike Peepli Live which is marred by a dependency on the spoken word, what really makes Shaitan stand out amongst the recent crowd of Indian multiplex films is director Bejoy Nambiar’s attempts to innovate conventional visual language through a prism of distinctive flourishes with the camera. Shaitan is arguably yet another multiplex multi protagonist film and although the film’s stylised visuals may point to something new, a closer look reveals some recognisable features including the jaded cop archetype. The film’s wayward narrative trajectory is more than compensated by the hedonistic camera and hyper kinetic editing style that jumps schizophrenically through the urban spaces. If one were to compare Shaitan to the current crop of Hindi films then based on one sequence alone it would surely be at the top of the list, and this is why:

O ho ho ho, Khoya Khoya Chaand, Khula Aasmaan
Aankhon Mein Saari Raat Jaayegi
Tumko Bhi Kaise Neend Aayegi

Khoya Khoya Chaand – Lyrics by Shailendra, Music by S D Burman
Originally used in the film Kala Bazar (1960)

UDAAN / FLIGHT (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwa, 2010, India) – Breaking Away

Most of the comings of age melodramas originating from Indian cinema have tended to have any emotional discourse corrupted by all manners of cinematic hyperbole. This gamut of unpleasant exaggerations have included parents as one dimensional caricatures, the urgency to equate adolescence with sexuality – resulting in the traditional and deliberately overplayed falling in love scenario which leads to an illogical series of song and dance sequences, the need to overpopulate complex emotional situations with too many characters, the derisory notion that comic relief is enough of a presence to sustain the argument for entertainment value and lastly and most importantly, the financially motivated presence of stars who bring with them potentially disruptive star baggage and connotations. Like Ishqiya, Udaan is yet another directorial debut and it is surprisingly assured in many ways. The director Vikramaditya Motwa has worked previously before as a scriptwriter and assistant to both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap who also shares a credit as producer and co-writer. Whilst songs are included, they are not signposted in any particular way except for perhaps the final one which is when the film suddenly spills over into sentimental celebrations. Udaan is a coming of age film, thankfully rejecting many of the traits I have outlined above and allowing the narrative to deal strictly with the intelligently depicted relationship between Rohan, a teenage boy, and his abusive and controlling father. When Rohan is expelled from a prestigious boarding school in Simla, his return back home leads him on a journey to discover what exactly he wants from life. At first Rohan’s father comes across as the typical patriarchal disciplinarian with a fixation for rules and authority but their fractured relationship eventually reveals a man who cannot love anymore and who views his two son’s as a burden rather than a lifelong embrace.

It’s not hard to determine what exactly makes Udaan work well as a film – a good, solid script with strong characterisation. If we were to come across a character like Rohan, played brilliantly by the relative newcomer Rajat Barmecha, in another mainstream Indian film then he would be lacking the inner life and psychological depth needed for us to experience and attempt to understand the confusions brought upon by adolescence. Additionally, by giving Rohan aspirations to become a writer, it gives the film an added literary weight and makes the conflict between arts and engineering much more charged, thus constructing a kind of battleground on which we witness an ideological clash between the values of tradition and the iconoclast reverberations of youthful creation. Critically Udaan was well received upon its release and has won many awards though most of those are invalidated by the sheer sham of Indian film award events and ceremonies. Whilst Rajat Barmecha is the main lead and gives a compelling performance, he is equally well supported by two of India’s most prominent TV actors – Ronit Roy and Ram Kapoor. I think this was a wise casting decision because star baggage would have simply distracted from the thoughtful narrative and characterisation. Udaan is a fantastic youth film with a universal morality at work; it’s hard not to like.

PADATIK / THE GUERRILLA FIGHTER (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1973, India) – ‘Go to war…’

‘PADATIK has something to do with the contemporary political scene…To my mind, I tried to analyze the political situation the way I felt it would be done. It could have been clearer but I felt that even this should be done. We had arrived at a point when the Left movement was lying low and the leftist parties were in disarray, losing perspective, and isolated, at a time when there was a need for unceasing self-criticism.’      –Mrinal Sen interviewed by Udayan Gupta, 1976

The final part of Bengali film maker Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy expands upon the prescient 1970s dilemma of the Naxalite inspired Bengali youth evident in both Calcutta 71 and Interview to make the questions surroundings political activism a central ideological debate. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary), a study of the Calcutta youth appeared in 1971 as almost a thinly veiled response to accusations of apolitical abstention and whilst both Ray and Sen shared the young actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, their views on cinema, politics and ideology were in stark opposition to one another. Satyajit Ray was very openly critical of the New Indian cinema manifesto and particularly criticised film makers like Mrinal Sen for over indulging in the empty ideological, stylistic and aesthetic posturing of European new wave cinema including most notably Jean Luc Godard and Alain Resnais.

Writer and academic Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s latest publication ‘Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency’ (2008, Indiana University Press) has been somewhat completely overlooked by most of the major film journals in the UK. It is one of the best written and ideologically sustained accounts of the relationship between Indian cinema and the wider context. Chapter 9 titled ‘The Indian Emergency – Aesthetics of State Control’ offers a remarkably alternative reading of the development of film policy during the 70s, discussing in detail the re-shaping of the FFC and the lively culture wars between Ray, Sen and Kumar Shahani. The Centre for the Study of Culture and Society has the full chapter available to download as a PDF file for free of charge (thank you) and I think to engage much more fully with the ideological questions being raised in such a politically radical film as Padatik, and elitist as it sounds, one must have a better understanding of the wider political, economic, historical and social situation of Calcutta and Bengal in the turbulent 1970s.

What Padatik offers is both a historical document on the political mindset of the burgeoning Bengali youth and a personal struggle from the film maker Mrinal Sen to make sense of Marxist revolutionary ideology and ascertain whether or not it is a misguided enterprise. The plot is as elliptical as many of the film’s made by the nouvelle vague, concentrating on Sumit, an uncertain member of a left wing political party, probably Marxist and harbouring strong Naxalite sentiments, who escaping from police custody goes into hiding. Interestingly, both Pratidwandi and Padatik may differ in their approach but they both attempt to deal with the same political questions – does the subscription to an ideological cause necessarily make one revolutionary? In the case of Pratidwandi, Ray comes to a conclusion that was at odds with the political reality of the time and whilst Sen’s ending is also tinged with a degree of Utopian totality, Sen’s representation of Bengali youth is fixed in a reality that sees the oppressed father and patriarch of the family instruct his son to continue fighting the system. Another interesting point to note is that Pratidwandi and Padatik are not just linked by the presence of Dhritiman but both make significant symbolic use of a funeral; Pratidwandi opens with the death of Siddhartha’s father and his funeral whilst Padatik closes with the death of Sumit’s mother and her funeral – the affects of political unrest are delineated starkly and the cost is measured in the loss of family.

Shot by Sen regular K K Mahajan who like Raoul Coutard became pivotal to the visual look of the new wave cinema, Padatik is surely one of Sen’s most radical works and deserves its place amongst films from the Bengali 70s era such as Pratidwandi. Even in the final shot, Sen reverts to using the freeze frame and holds on the angry face of Sumit but unlike claims for interpreting this ambiguously or hinting at an uncertain future, it is a self reflexive pause that extols rather than criticises revolutionary struggle. It is such an honesty that makes Padatik feel alive in today’s world of political re-awakening.