AUTOHEAD (Dir. Rohit Mittal, 2016, India)

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Rohit Mittal’s macabre slice of docufiction plunges the depths of Mumbai’s underclass. The concept of Autohead involves a documentary crew observing a rickshaw driver, Narayan (Deepak Sampat), who gradually reveals a murderous defect in his unpleasantly compelling disposition. Mittal’s docufiction recalls most readily Belvaux and Bonzel’s magnificently twisted Man Bites Dog (1992). Analogously, the crew become embroiled in the dubious actions of Narayan, recording his homicidal designs with a hesitant yet droll voyeuristic gaze. Deepak Sampat who plays Narayan is brilliantly cast in the main lead and delivers a chilling performance. Since the majority of the narrative is spent in Narayan’s unsavoury company, his deliciously warped direct camera address becomes the film’s signatory formal device, deployed with an amusingly unreliable postmodern affectation. Indian cinema has repeatedly depicted the auto rickshawallah as the noble and submissive sub-proletariat, and Mittal has fun subverting this conventional imagining. Narayan is a social misfit, derided by his mother, friends and the prostitute he longs for her, and while he emerges as a disturbed sociopath, his skewed view of the world is filtered through the prism of popular Indian cinema permeating the nocturnal milieu of Mumbai. It all leads to a lurid ending in which the ethics of the crew are brought into question that seem suitably appropriate for those typically involved in the observational, participatory documentary form. Mittal’s assured directorial debut is a bleak, self-reflexive rendering of film as an illusory accessory and morally dubious instrument that in some instances can augment and mask reality to a worrying degree.

THE BATTLE FOR BANARAS (Dir. Kamal Swaroop, 2015, India) – The Crowd

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There is a spectacular political trice at the end of Swaroop’s participatory documentary. At night, on the banks of the river Ganges, which is teeming with euphoric revellers and a swathe of India’s police, Modi emerges victorious, returning to Banaras, where he had stood for election as a BJP candidate. As he makes his way down to the banks, the crowd parting restlessly, Modi continually raises his hands in reverence to the electorate and to the people of India. The crowd, a metonymic focus of Swaroop’s documentary, now markedly acquiescent than ever before, is no longer the impulsive, unpredictable and incensed mass. The insipid demagogy of the BJP and Modi have won out, the crowd is now benign, overwhelmed by political spectacle. And the declaration of Modi’s victory, unfolding on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred site for Hindus, reconnects the modern to the ancient in a grand democratic totem. Modi’s speech, narrating an anecdote about Neil Armstrong, and referring to himself as a ‘son of the land’ invokes a cosmic nationalist dogma, displacing the memories and history of secularism with an insincere centrist appeasement. Swaroop’s plural and largely unbiased account of the electioneering in Banaras in 2014 is an ideologically prescient encounter between cinema and history, but it is one the BJP have suppressed (the film has not past the censor board) since Swaroop’s work does not fit a polarising, nationalist agenda.

Swaroop does exceptionally well to detail the contesting political parties in Banaras, positing a deeply complex yet richly connected and inclusive democratic process, in which the Indian electorate is shown in dialogue with contesting ideological voices. On so many occasions, Swaroop sutures the contradictory voice of the electorate into the narrative, whereby ordinary people of Banaras speaking candidly about the dubious electioneering gives the work a distinctly communicative, inclusive legitimacy. However, when political leaders speak, they do so at a distant and through the apparatus of the mainstream corporate media. By denying the politicians an authentic voice and subsequently a privileged position, which is often facilitated by a wider institutional infrastructure, Swaroop’s semi-observational approach catches those details, which are often edited out by the media, so to construct democracy and politics as a kind of theatre. It is the extraneous minutiae particularly the body language of the politicians, notably Modi, who is shown desperately trying to project an underdeveloped image of the statesman that Swaroop exposes as a false yet uninterrupted performance. Swaroop’s vatic documentary is an intellectual enquiry, probing the image of the crowd and its many avatars, notably the concept of hysteria, in this case ‘Modi hysteria’, which once amplified, completely takes over the crowd and creates an unsettling doubling in the people, as exemplified in the visually ubiquitous ‘Modi mask’ the electorate naively don as both a worrying form of submission and idolisation.

SONG OF LAHORE (Dir. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Andy Schocken, Pakistan/US, 2015)

posterThe incandescent documentary Song of Lahore narrates a hopeful story about culture and the arts in Pakistan which has witnessed since the 1970s a steady decline and erosion of both. Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken frame the recent emergence of Sachal Studios, set up to try and bring together some of Pakistan and Lahore’s best classical musicians, in a much wider historical framework stretching back to the Indian Mughal era and their patronage of music. The turning point in terms of debasing the cultural significance of music as an ancient tradition passed on through generations is located in the totalitarian reign of General Zia who by imposing Sharia law re-situated music as something worthless and sinful. Such puritanical sentiments are still deeply entrenched in the psyche of Pakistan, made altogether worse now by the presence of the Taliban, the most philistine of ideologues. Song of Lahore follows the success of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, beginning with their inspired rendition of Brubeck’s Take Five, and ending in a collaborative performance at New York’s Lincoln Centre with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz Orchestra. It is an impassioned plea positing music as cultural exchange, comradeship and reinstating the edifying significance and place that classical music deserves in a nation suffering from cultural, historical amnesia.

PLACEBO (Dir. Abhay Kumar, 2014, India)

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Abhay Kumar’s feature length directorial debut Placebo, a fiercely inventive documentary, had its world premiere last month at the IDFA in Amsterdam. What makes the project especially significant from a funding point of view is the director raised much of the financing through ‘crowd funding’. A trailer released in February 2013 helped to attract attention and as many as 82 companies have supported the project in various capacities.

I haven’t had a chance to see any of Abhay Kumar’s earlier short films, for which he has received many awards at film festivals, but Placebo is another noteworthy debut that we can add to the expanding catalogue of new wave Hindie cinema. Placebo is very ambitious for a first feature film and although at times Kumar crams his documentary with a plethora of ideas he still succeeds in creating something very special. By entering a closed world, Kumar takes his camera into one of the most privileged educational institutions training some of the best minds in India and lifts the lid on a world characterised by insurmountable pressure. Much of the documentary draws its energy from an experimental playing of the form, freely mixing interviews, some terrific animation sequences, memories and even science fiction/fact to conjure up a potent feeling of dread that pervades the student campus. By adopting a stream of consciousness fits the unpredictability of the various students who emerge in many ways as unreliable narrators.

An emotional intimacy comes from the ethical questions posed by director Abhay Kumar’s exploitation of his brother’s fragile state who becomes very much a test subject for the camera, cataloging the trauma and aftermath of his moment of madness. In doing so Kumar constantly turns the camera on himself, with his subjects openly criticising him for the way he hides behind the camera, using it to mask his own sense of isolation and discontent. Such self reflexivity seems almost necessary to remind us that any barriers between the documentary filmmaker and subject are non existent. Although Kumar is not interested in developing linearity, instead breaking and smashing our attempts to forge a narrative, one very significant social thematic does emerge, that of institutional neglect. The outrage voiced by the students on the campus, calling for the resignation of the principal, is the documentary at its most political, criticising the pastoral failings of such a prestigious institution in dealing with the ongoing problems of bullying, depression and castesim.

POSTSCRIPT: Director Abhay Kumar contacted me in regards to ‘factual errors’ so I have amended the review accordingly to reflect the truth concerning the financing of the film. My original review said Anurag Kashyap was involved in the project when in fact he was not:

Anurag Kashyap has not been creatively involved in the film and AKFPL became defunct and Anurag merged with Phantom (who also have nothing to do with our film). Guneet was supposed to help us with finances but they did not have funds and we did not have time so that deal never happened. If you saw the film you would have noted that we were supported by the Finnish Film Foundation.”   -Abhay Kumar, 20 Jan 2015