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SANKAT CITY (Dir. Pankaj Advani, 2009, India) – To Live and Die in Mumbai

Written and directed by Pankaj Advani, Sankat City is a rollicking and unpretentiously inventive comedy caper that was released in the summer of 2009 to little commercial success. However, it was favourably reviewed on its initial release and I can see why it works so well as a reflexive postmodern take on mainstream Indian genre films. Sankat City could probably be placed alongside the likes of Rocket Singh and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as superior examples of the comedy film. All three films seem to share a commonality with ensuring the more heightened elements involving scams are anchored by a likable set of characters. It is their existence on the periphery of society that allows in particular Sankat City to work out such social exclusion as a cathartic narrative in which triumphalism doesn’t come across as awkwardly misguided or riddled with sentimental cliques. Director Pankaj Advani manages to sustain interest primarily through an endless amount of energy, both in terms of creative ideas and also in a hilarious ability to poke fun at the the world of film making and the superficial genres it spawns. Both Anupam Kher as a playful gangster don and Kay Kay Menon (playing against type) as a small time thief deliver fine performances whilst the irascible Chunky Pandey shows up in a deranged 1970s style double role. Writer and director Pankaj Advani’s postmodern and stylised cinematic sensibilities seem to parallel that of his contemporaries including Dibankar Banerjee, Shimit Amin and Anurag Kashyap which suggests that it is possible to work within the parameters of the mainstream whilst remaining resolutely authorial and subversive. Sankat City is avaliable to buy on DVD and comes highly recommended as an example of the new wave? of Indian cinema.

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MY NAME IS KHAN (Dir. Karan Johar, 2010, India) – The Unapologetic Muslim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The all too familiar concept known as the suspension of disbelief is far greater in the mainstream Indian melodrama than it is in most Hollywood films and when it comes to a film by Karan Johar it moves beyond the hyperbole and into a realm of cathartic sentimentality. My Name is Khan has been one of the major Indian event films of the year, underlining the continuing global popularity of Indian cinema. Compared to his previous work, much of which has been highly derivative, director/producer Karan Johar’s latest film seems relatively restrained. Most critics prefer to trash the reputation and criticise the artistic credibility of populist directors like Karan Johar but to date he has directed four feature films which certainly qualifies for a closer look at his work. The defining characteristic of these four films has been Karan Johar’s close collaboration with Indian cinema’s biggest contemporary film star; Shah Rukh Khan. The star presence of SRK has meant all four films have enjoyed widespread commercial success particularly with the NRI audience to which Karan Johar has been accused of pandering at the expense of an indigenous, domestic one.

With Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens) in 1998, Karan Johar successfully re-launched his father’s production company, Dharma Productions, which had enjoyed moderate success in the ninety eighties with films like Dostana (Friendship, 1980). The usual accusations of nepotism followed when Karan Johar’s entry into the film industry was on the film Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (The big hearted will take the bride, 1995) in which he appeared in a small role whilst supporting the director Aditya Chopra. This initial encounter with film making was instrumental in terms of establishing a team of key collaborators with whom Karan Johar would return to on many occasions. Most important was his introduction to both Kajol and SRK with whom we would go on to make three films. Equally significant was Karan Johar’s relationship with Yash Raj who initially acted as distributor of his debut film and with whom he has collaborated in the production and distribution of a number of successful films including most prominently Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow May Not Come, 2003) directed by Nikhil Advani. Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra’s close working relationship has meant that Yash Raj more or less dominates when it comes to the populist mainstream Indian film as a global brand.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the rise of Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and SRK run parallel with each other. Unfortunately, the critical reception for the majority of these films has been none too favourable. This continues to prevent a serious critical analysis from taking place of Karan Johar’s work. A lot of this hostility reflects a critical and cultural snobbery that exists amongst writers and academics towards the apparent ideological limitations espoused by populist cinema. Admittedly, some of the films Karan Johar has produced have been somewhat disastrous in terms of their glib ideological discourse and I can see why some would prefer to maintain a cautionary distance. However, this is exactly what makes My Name is Khan such an important evolutionary step in the career of Karan Johar as it operates in an explicit post 9-11 context. It is a contextual dimension which has been decidedly absent from the first three collaborations with SRK. In many ways, My Name Is Khan could be read as their first fully engaged ideological collaboration and also appears quite personal given SRK plays a Muslim character suffering from Asberger’s syndrome. Undoubtedly, the morality of the film is both a little simplistic and deeply sentimental but I am not entirely sure if we should let this emotionally manipulative approach detract from what is an unusually optimistic and perhaps even unconventional representation of a Muslim as the central character.

Prior to the film’s release, SRK’s comments on the IPL’s team selection in which Pakistani players were deliberately overlooked created a stir in the media, unleashing a torrent of sensationalist reporting in which SRK was criticised for his unpatriotic sentiments. It was enough to whip the right wing nationalist religious and political groups into a frenzy of misplaced protest. Writer and academic Vinay Lal’s comments are very illustrative here:

‘Shahrukh Khan, often described as the reigning star of Bollywood, is the most recent enemy of the nation identified by Bal Thackeray, the aging and agitated but still agile leader of the Shiv Sena. The sin with which Shahrukh is charged is none other than the suggestion, aired by some others as well, that the cricket teams which comprise the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have done an injustice to the Pakistani players by failing to make a bid for a single Pakistani player. Why the IPL teams did not make any such bid is an interesting question in itself, and what it says about the sentiments which predominate among the truly moneyed classes in India, is a matter that I shall have to leave aside for the moment. Shahrukh is alleged to have betrayed the nation by his remarks, but of course the matter is more complex. As a Muslim, he has always been suspect; and one of the canards to which the Sena subscribes is the view that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation. Shahrukh and the other Khans of Bollywood, Salman and Aamir, and now Saif Ali, have long been resented for their domination of the Hindi film world.’

Turmoil in the Great City: Shahrukh and the Shiv Sena February 14, 2010 by Vinay Lal http://vinaylal.wordpress.com/

The Shiv Sena disrupted screenings of the film in India with attacks on cinema houses. Vinay Lal’s comments position SRK as an Indian Muslim who has never disguised or masked over his religious identity yet the family image of SRK in which the mandir and mosque co exist side by side constructs a truly secularist and progressive idea of Indian society that admittedly offers one of the best explanations for SRK’s worldwide appeal and iconic status as a popular Indian film star. The recent mainstream Indian event film has tended to be a film of two halves and My Name Is Khan follows a similar formula in which the first half is dominated by frivolity whilst the second descends into despair. Whilst the film remains faithful to Karan Johar’s sweet and sour dichotomy, it is the much wider post 9-11 context explored through the character of Rizwan that transforms this into the ideal vehicle for examining anxieties, fears and dilemmas confronting the Muslim community in America and the West. Much of the film’s sincere yet simplistic ideological drive hinges on the mantra, ‘My Name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist’, adopted and regularly articulated by the Forest Gump like Rizwan Khan. This unapologetic approach becomes a rallying cry when Rizwan sets out on a journey across America to meet the President so that he can defend his Muslim identity and counter the xenophobic attitudes which have taken hold of society after the aftermath of September 11.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the film rests in its problematic and stereotypical representations of the African American community that Rizwan meets. Many of the sequences in Georgia made me feel slightly uncomfortable as I am certain Karan Johar and the writer could have easily stayed away from perpetuating regressive African American representations. Much of the film is constructed around Rizwan’s journey and the conventions of the road movie genre feature strongly in the narrative as he is brought into contact with a cross section of the Muslim community including the fanatical and extremist aspects. Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans is also referred to explicitly and yet again I am not too sure this aspect of the film in which Rizwan leads a fight to help the abandoned people of a small town in Georgia convincingly fits into the narrative.

Nevertheless, both Chak De India and My Name is Khan have offered a different spin on SRK’s star image as both films have found him playing Muslim characters and both films have tried to explore the relationship between his on and off screen image. Chak De India was the first film to fully explore SRK’s Muslim identity in the context of a new Indian society, responding to the claims of Hindu Nationalist parties like the Shiv Sena ‘that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation.’ (Vinay Lal, 2010) In this context, SRK has admittedly been quite open in the deconstruction of his star image and with My Name is Khan, we see him offer prayers and even appear in the confines of the Mosque, a space which has been defined by the media as somewhat fanatical and unsafe. In a way, My Name is Khan may not have appeared as a risky commercial venture given the fact it has become the biggest grossing Indian film worldwide but on closer scrutiny and especially with SRK playing a fully drawn Muslim character, audiences who preferred the romantic and secularist hero could easily have stayed away.

However, one could argue that this would never have happened given the expensive marketing campaign and the anticipation generated by such a prominent event film. As for Karan Johar, the family melodrama dominated his first three films but with My Name is Khan he seems to have finally shifted the focus to characterization and a concerted, if not simplistic, attempt at ideological engagement with contemporary political and social issues. Nine of the ten highest grossing Bollywood films in the UK feature SRK, underlining his dominance as India’s leading film star. In the UK, SRK’s films tend to outperform most of the major Bollywood releases and it is of little surprise that My Name is Khan has performed exceptionally well at the box office. The negative of such hegemonic star dominance is that alternative and independent Indian films rarely get a look in when it comes to distribution. The current worldwide gross stands at $36 million (box office mojo figures) which is very impressive but I am not sure if this could have been more considering the potential cross over nature of the film. In terms of its technical aspects, My Name Is Khan is just as good as most major Hollywood films and I think that the Hollywood studios are still waiting for the moment when a Bollywood film finally does cross over on a scale comparative to that of Slumdog Millionaire.

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The URBAN SLUM in INDIAN CINEMA

BOOT POLISH (Dir. Prakash Arora, 1954)

CHAKRA (Dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981)

SALAAM BOMBAY (Dir. Mira Nair, 1988)

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2008)


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Produced by Raj Kapoor in the same year as his masterpiece Awara (The Vagabond), whilst Boot Polish takes its aesthetic cue from the neo realist influences of De Sica, in particular Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), the ideological tendencies echoes Chaplin’s sentimental treatment of poverty. Much has been made of who exactly should be credited as director of Boot Polish. Though Raj Kapoor produced the film, it was somewhat of a personal project as it brought together the more conventional elements of Indian melodrama with neo realist aesthetics which had already left a notable impression with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land). Prakash Arora who had worked as an assistant director to Raj Kapoor is credited with Boot Polish but it is the only film he ever directed. Arora may have been at the helm but with Kapoor simultaneously directing his muse Nargis in Awara, such an epic undertaking must have decidely prevented him from acting as director on Boot Polish.

Nevertheless, the parallels between Awara and Boot Polish are most evident in the representation of slum life as both offer what was considered at the time a realist depiction. Whilst Awara is a prestige project concerned with class conflict, Boot Polish constructs a socialist agenda focusing on a sentimental representation of street children, slum life and child poverty. All of these apparent social ills tie in with an optimistic inclination fostered by Nehru’s secularist and reformist vision for a new Indian society in which children are in control of their own destiny. Of course, much of this Nehruvian sentiment finds its way into the music of Shankar-Jaikishan and the lost and found narrative motif which even today finds sympathetic acknowledgement in films such as Salaam Bombay and most strikingly, Slumdog Millionaire. Ashis Nandy’s comments seem to illustrate a number of crucial points in regards to Indian cinema’s repeated and continuous fascination with the urban slum:

‘The right metaphor for the Indian popular cinema, alias conventional, commercial or Bombay cinema, turns out to be the urban slum. Ratnakar Tripathy, who first suggested the metaphor to me, seemed to hold that both cinema and the slum in India showed the same impassioned negotiation with everyday survival.’

Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum’s Eye View of Politics, Ashis Nandy, 1998, Oxford University Press, India

Arguably, the urban slum acts as a forceful allegory for the reality of the dispossessed and the social disparity that exists in many societies not just India. One can trace the influence of a film like Boot Polish to Mira Nair’s 1988 Salaam Bombay! in which the street kid, Krishna or Chaipau as he is referred to by the adult world, struggles to earn a measly 500 rupees so that he can return to his village and be reunited with his family. On its release, Nair’s ideological intentions were attacked by many critics with some accusing her of exploitation and failing to address the the contexts of poverty. I’m not sure if I agree with this line of argument as Nair unveils a reality that makes a lot of the middle classes nervous and perhaps even accountable for their motivated decision to marginalise and distance those millions which have generally been denied a voice. It was as though Nair’s response to Gayatri Spivak’s seminal post colonial critique titled ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ was an unequivocal and resounding yes! In 1988 Salaam Bombay! worldwide commercial success earned it the title of India’s first cross over film yet of course this led to further accusations yet again directed at Nair’s deliberate attempt to make a film aimed solely at a middle class audience in the West.

Boot Polish; produced by Raj Kapoor and released in 1954. The two orphans in the film were played by child actors Rattam Kumar as Bhola and Baby Naaz as Belu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, Nair’s influences can clearly be traced back to the neo realist traditions of post war Italy whilst also arguably owing a considerable debt to the direct cinema documentary movement that emerged out of America in the 60s. Unlike the romanticism inherent in the images of urban slum life in Raj Kapoor’s stylised production, Nair’s approach rejects many of the classical rules, embracing non professional actors, location shooting, an episodic narrative structure and most importantly, an observational approach that echoes a faith in documentary as truth. In what is a further twist of postmodern irony, the street children in particular are shown to both appreciate and mock popular Indian cinema through a colourful reinvention of the lyrics and dance numbers to Bollywood songs.

In many ways, the cinematic representation of the urban slum is tied to the lives of street children and poverty. Both Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) and Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950) are also important films in the development of what is today commonly referred to as slum cinema or the street urchin film. More recently, the international success of the Latin American film City of God (Mierelles & Lund, 2002) revived critical debate in how the slums should be represented and if the criminal elements are deliberately romanticised. It is not hard to see how City of God appropriated a gangster stylisation and thus ensuring its appeal with the youth. Interestingly, for all its stylisation, a film like City of God does not shy away from ideological confrontation as it does seem to provide some sharp analysis of why the slums exist and how they ultimately imprison the youth. However, the slither of optimism as underlined by Rocket’s elevation out of the slums is a sharp contrast to Krishna’s painful imprisonment in Salaam Bombay! The realist treatment of slum life in the cinema of Raj Kapoor and Mira Nair arguably found its most populist, sentimental and celebrated evocation in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Interestingly, Loveleen Tandon who shares a director’s credit with Boyle on the film worked as casting director on three of Nair’s films (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and The Namesake) whilst also having been part of the art department on Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998).

Chakra (1981) was released the same year as Babenco’s Pixote and is one of the most authentic and undiluted cinematic representations of the urban slum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, Boot Polish and Salaam Bombay! are two just two of many examples of Indian cinema’s attempts to confront and represent the reality of slum life. I have nearly finished watching Chakra (Dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981), an example of parallel cinema and it is probably one of the more authentic and brutal depictions of the urban slum I have come across. I will come back and look at Chakra as an example of slum cinema as it seems to be a key film in the parallel cinema movement. Equally important is Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi which I have already discussed in a previous post. However, it seems appropriate to finish with another comment from Ashis Nandy’s (1988: 11) essential essay on the importance of the urban slum as an ideological backdrop:

‘The slum may or may not be ugly, it may or not symbolise absurdity, but it always has a story to tell about the state of the vitality, creativity and moral dynamism of the society that defines the relationship between the slum and suburbia.’

This seems to explain why the urban slum continues to be a repeated point of fascination for film makers as it offers a vitally important ideological opportunity to explore Indian society as a microcosm whilst also offering the marginalised with a credible voice with which to articulate their frustrations, dreams and nightmares.

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Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda / Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) – The Unreliable Narrator

The first of Benegal’s films to receive state funding (NFDC), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’s resonance comes from a sophisticated use of narrative subjectivity. Comparable to Kurosawa’s Rashomon in its gradual and shifting points of view, this is a moving examination of the storytelling process and one of the rare occasions that Benegal has explored cinema as a construct. The narrator, Manek (Rajit Kapur), is not only unreliable but his perception of the truth concerning the three beguiling female centred stories he relays to his friends is questioned throughout, culminating in a genuinely cryptic ending that seems to unravel the entire film making process. Though Rashomon may serve as a direct inspiration, the cinema of Kiarostami seems closer if one was to contextualise Benegal’s masterpiece as it poses fundamental questions that concerns film making and cinema – whose truth is being represented, how is it constructed and how should we respond as a spectator? This is what academic Sangetta Datta has to say about the film in her accomplished appreciation:

‘The title is also a clue to the film. The seventh horse of the sun is the youngest; he moves perpetually towards the future, towards light. The title itself signifies the concept of time with the Hindu myth of the sun god riding in his chariot driven by seven white horses. Man will constantly be drawn towards love and imagination; lives will always be lived and stories will always be told.’

BFI World Directors: Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, 2002: 199