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.

BHUVAN SHOME (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, India) – ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle’

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I’ve only really started to look at Bhuvan Shome so here are some tentative thoughts about the film, which I hope to return to at a later date.

Bhuvan Shome is often cited as having initiated the New Indian Cinema movement. Released in 1969, along with Sara Akash and Uski Roti, as a triptych, the films were aided by loans from the FFC, a state institution set up in 1960 by Nehru. In its early years the FFC tended to back already established or successful filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray who was central to attempts to cultivate a high brow cultural identity of state-led film patronage. With Nehru’s passing in 1964 and Indira Gandhi’s rise to power, the FFC underwent some significant changes including the installation of a new chairman B.K. Karanjia, Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s New Cinema decree and finally the FFC’s decision to support low budget, offbeat films. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi approved the loan for Bhuvan Shome, setting in motion Parallel Cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a film that is more important in terms of where it is placed in Indian film history, as a cultural, historical artefact, and less substantial as a piece of cinema. It may still be Mrinal Sen’s most successful commercial project and is often talked about with great affection by those critics and audiences who have championed Parallel Cinema. 1968 is a crossroads for the New Left movement and although I would argue Apanjan, directed by Tapan Sinha, exploring the impact of the Naxalite movement, predates Bhuvan Shome, acting as a precursor to the beginnings of Parallel Cinema, Sen’s film shares the privilege of marking the official start of the movement.

If we look at 1969 considerately, two other films are of relevance here; Yash Chopra’s Iteffaq and Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. The discourse and canonization of Parallel Cinema gravitates to the triptych but I would argue it is a lot more complicated than the linear historiography that is often presented about this critical moment in Indian film history. It clearly is a moment that needs to revised and reclaimed in a much wider international context that saw Indian cinema conversing ideologically and stylistically with New Cinemas in both Europe and Latin America. Perhaps I am pushing it a little by acknowledging Ittefaq, clearly a product of the Hindi film industry, but still it is a cursory failure that briefly pointed to a compromised experimentation with film form by an emerging populist director. As for, Days and Nights in the Forest, this is a Ray film, which I have often said is overlooked, but since it was not directly part of the FFC project, Ray’s film can be situated in a modernist framework in which the triptych also falls into. On hindsight, it is Uski Roti, which is identifiable as a true break in terms of formalism, not Bhuvan Shome or Sara Akash, although the latter do use obvious self-reflexive devices. Yet as we all know Uski Roti was never released in cinemas, nor were many of Kaul’s early films. What makes Bhuvan Shome instructive in trying to historicise Parallel Cinema is not only the wider cinematic debates it triggered particularly from Satyajit Ray, a seemingly less antagonistic continuation of the very public conversation that ensued between Ray and Sen on the politics of Akash Kusum, but that it carried with it a new form of state patronage, one that had moved on from Nehru’s modernist ideals to something slightly more unconventional but not avant-garde. In many ways, this was Indira continuing to determine film policy, something that she had been involved since the late 1950s.

Vinay Lal describes Bhuvan Shome as an ‘expressionist exploration of the politics of class’, which amounts to a political reading of a film that is often labelled as a light comedy, offbeat and expressly apolitical in some respects. Lal bring up the equation of class which is critical and Bhuvan Shome does undeniably have a comical undertone. In many respects, it would be perhaps less objectionable to label Bhuvan Shome as a melodrama about class. The story follows Mr. Shome, a bureaucratic senior officer in the Indian Railway, who embarks on a duck hunting expedition in Gujarat, only to meet a spirited village belle, Gauri. Sen takes a loosely episodic approach to the narrative, focusing largely on the comical, gentle interactions between Shome and Gauri. It is Shome’s class snobbery that comes undone as Gauri exposes him for the buffoon he is, and steadily making him realise that going native, adopting the ways of the local, points to an affirmative class interaction. Gauri humanises Shome and disentangles the officious penchants, sending him back to the city and the office as a man transformed by her charms. But how should we read the story of the state bureaucrat and the ‘rustic belle’? What does it reveal about Indira Gandhi’s attitudes of the time, towards film and culture? Or perhaps there is a danger here of over determination, of trying to find a correlation between the politics of the film and the cultural, ideological politics of the day? The Naxalite movement was at its peak when Bhuvan Shome was released, and the unrest in Calcutta was about to be memorialized in both Ray and Sen’s work. At the start of Bhuvan Shome, Sen acknowledges the Naxalite movement, inserting actuality into the montage of Bengal with footage of protest, unrest. This might be the only historicising that takes place in the film but it certainly signposts the alternate politicised space Sen was about to take up in the next phase of his career, films which have been questioned for their supposed radicalism.

Like much of Parallel Cinema, not much attention has been given to the films themselves, and their is a dearth of textual analysis especially in terms of exploring film form, aesthetics and representational issues. Much has been written, although superficially, about Bhuvan Shome’s significance to Parallel Cinema yet little discourse exists about the construction of the film itself. In fact, amongst the triptych it is Sara Akash that asks to be re-inserted fully into the genesis of Parallel Cinema’s historiography, mainly because, of the three filmmakers, Basu Chatterjee was the one who moved most sharply to take up a centre ground, becoming part of Middle Cinema. In that shift and for supposedly selling out, Chatterjee’s career is the one which has become most prone to attack.

For further reading on Bhuvan Shome see Megan Carrigy’s chapter on the film in The Cinema of India (ed.) (2009) by Lalitha Gopalan, London: Wallflower Press.

For Vinay Lal on Mrinal Sen see: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Culture/Cinema/Mrinal.html

 

THE THRESHOLD (Dir. Pushan Kripalani, 2015, India)

1Pushan Kripalani’s superbly acted two-hander Chekhovian chamber piece resonates expressively with the barest of cinematic narrations; a married couple in their sixties have reached a crossroads that results in Rinku (Neena Gupta) telling her husband Raj (Rajit Kapoor) that she is leaving him. Kripalani attentively details the regrets and hostilities laid bare in the candid exchanges between husband and wife, conjuring an unpleasant tone of acrimony. Since this is a two-hander a lot of the emotional resonance rests on the shoulders of the two actors, Rajit Kapoor and Neena Gupta, who together, unveil a nakedness in their vivid interactions, often making us recognise a truth in their micro gestures, blurring the line between fictional constructions and real, personal histories. Kapoor and Gupta are a tour de force. One can sense an intimacy here between the actors borne out of a close improvisatory collaboration between the actors and director. As Raj begins to realise that Rinku has made up her mind and will inevitably leave him, their punitive exchanges dig up past memories that in the case of Rinku catalogue historic tales of neglect, pain, isolation and a life unfulfilled.

While the story never becomes about who has suffered the most, never choosing to present the victim in the relationship as solely Rinku, Kripalani is concerned much more with the impossible task of trying to capture the way people fail to communicate the essence of their frustrations, forlornly reduced to an interminable state of mental torment. Such anxieties are compounded by various societal and cultural determinants surfacing angrily in Raj’s chauvinistic mentality. Rinku’s longing to experience what it is to be ‘free’ and her resentment of Raj’s altruistic whims also points to an unbearable compromise, which they have learned to live with over the years, a lie made up of many others. Yet Raj needs Rinku for companionship because he sees the loneliness that old age inflicts. Their sadness is not tragic but resolutely melancholic realised visually in the placid imagery of the mountainous sceneries and more significantly the house, which Raj has built for Rinku, an immaterial expression of misguided affection that harbours a dreaded paralysis. What Kripalani captures so astutely is the site of separation, and the psychological crises it produces, inserting timely, underused fades to black to organise the separation as one made up of uninhibited interruptions. The Threshold is anchored by two exceptional performances; demonstrating mastery in magnifying the minutiae of martial malcontent.

The distribution-exhibition picture for Indian independent cinema in the UK is a miserable one, beset by monopoly and ignorance, and while The Threshold is yet another dazzling Indian indie film that could easily succeed with art-house film audiences, a cinematic abyss has opened up in the UK that has effectively marginalised many notable Indian independent films of the last five years. Masaan, the most coveted Indian indie film of the year, was not released in UK cinemas, and this was a film that won acclaim and awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Since the traditional distribution-exhibition paradigm is perpetually broken and with the DVD market/industry in India effectively on its knees, a different, progressive model needs to be proposed and implemented if we are to see the greater circulation of so many of these films. Although the NFDC has spiritedly launched its own DVD label, there is a need for an independent home video label with a global reach that can work with Indian film producers at an early stage in helping to develop and procure a viable marketing strategy for independent Indian films to be distributed either digitally or on the DVD/Blu-ray format. The Threshold is certainly one of the best films of the year but I am increasingly concerned about Indian independent cinema in the UK not getting the recognition it deserves.

UGLY (Anurag Kashyap, 2013, India)

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Director Anurag Kashyap really knows how to cast his films, finding actors (rather than working with stars) with the right level of anxiety in their faces, inculcating a strange volatility in the audience. Ugly could almost be a companion piece to Peddlers, a film produced by Kashyap and which is stuck in distribution hell with Eros. Both films are vicious tales about the city and its contemporary, hollow middle class inhabitants. Kashyap’s depiction of their psychology borders on derision, but the narrative meanders and gets caught up in the trap of trying to make all the pieces fit together especially towards the end. The story revolves around the kidnapping of a 10 year old girl but this becomes merely a device for Kashyap with which to get beneath the sordid milieu. A central métier is Kashyap’s inborn penchant for characterisation, assembling a vestige of stereotypes: the struggling actor, the depressed housewife, the desperate casting director and the embittered police chief, totaling a cesspool of monstrosity and urban depravity. Kashyap is right to take the position that his characters have created their own wretched circumstances and deserve not one shred of sympathy; he wants them to suffer as a way of expressing his own personal scorn. It also seems right that Kashyap made this film after Gangs of Wasseypur, exhibiting range but expressly reiterates a chief genre interest for urban noir that has emerged as a defining visual look. He also seems both enamored and repulsed by the Indian film industry and its systems, a theme that he has dealt with before and that resurfaces in the ridicule faced by the character of the struggling actor. Ugly is a minor work. Maybe it is a film that will stand up to repeat viewings as it certainly harbours a rawness and urgency about it that has been lacking in the past few films Kashyap has made.

HARUD / AUTUMN (2010, dir. Aamir Bashir, India)

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Harud is singular in many ways when it comes to the representations of Kashmir in the sphere of Indian cinema. It does the impossible. It tells the story of Kashmir by simply telling the story of a family. Harud communicates elemental ideas about human relations thereby transcending the way political biases have in the past, and continue to do so, ruined flawed attempts to give a voice to the people of Kashmir. Many of the films about Kashmir that have been made in the mainstream view the region and its people as simply a conflict which means the very people who define Kashmir are rendered invisible in narratives that seem far too preoccupied with digressing into the differing political positions of the various Indian and Pakistan governments. By framing Kashmir as a political conflict between India and Pakistan is important for contextualisation. However, the cinematic historiography of Kashmir has not only simplified the complexity of the dispute over territory but has failed to give a platform to the people of Kashmir who are desperate for the world to hear their urgent need for self determination and ultimately independence from both India and Pakistan.

Actor turned director Aamir Bashir does right to play this close to the ground, focusing on the level of everyday human experience of a family trying to come to terms with the loss of a son who has simply disappeared, joining the thousands of missing people who have ended up in the hands of the Indian and Pakistani military for supposed terrorist activity. Of course, resistance and dissent by the Kashmiri youth is deemed terrorism when in truth it could just as well be labelled as an on going struggle for freedom. Much of the story of Harud centres on Rafiq, the younger brother of Yusuf who has gone missing. Yusuf is a cipher in many ways; ambiguously drawn and Bashir refuses to really get drawn into the political ideologies that motivate most of the characters we meet. This is a bold move as he wants to depict Kashmir as a human place that is hauntingly exemplified through the disillusioned emotional state of Rafiq which is constantly teetering on the brink of self destruction. What Bashir shows us is that the youth in Kashmir have very few options and in the case of Rafiq he is trapped by his obligations to his parents and the injustice he feels about his brother.

Bashir’s film is unremittingly bleak, contrasting starkly with the photography visualising Kashmir as a unmistakably beautiful land. In a way, the tragic conclusion is inevitable. Such an intensely militarised country can only lead to one thing, suggesting the fragility of life is predicated on political lines; the people of Kashmir and its families are the victims of a much broader geopolitical game that has no end in sight. I have been busy praising Haider this year as one of Indian cinema’s best films. Yet it is clear to see Harud’s influence on shaping some of the ideas Bhardwaj deploys in Haider. Although they are two very different films, they are arguing for the people rather than the politics, giving us a new and defining perspective on such a contentious dispute/conflict.

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