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 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.
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
The title of the film comes from the arabic word ‘Qissa’ which means folk tale. The Punjabi Qissa has a strong oral tradition and families from the Punjab can recite Qisse or tales that are both specific to genre and a family history. Anup Singh draws widely on such a cultural tradition, narrating a tragic family tale by mixing melodrama with a decisive supernatural accent that borrows iconographically from horror tropes. However, the folk-tale form is complicated by the direct references to the partition of India, mixing past and present histories. This is director Anup Singh’s first film after 12 years and he has described the struggle to finance Qissa in many interviews. Singh trained at the Institute of Film and Television at Pune and his teachers included Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. His first film Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River, 2003), partly funded by the BFI and NFDC, is a tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. Qissa is the first film of the newly formed co-production treaty between Germany and India, and the cast and crew is an international one.
The story follows a lower middle class Sikh family who are displaced and sees them rebuild a new life in a new India after partition. Umber and his wife have three daughters and the birth of a fourth child, another girl, makes Umber, desperate to replicate ignoble traditions and prove his virility as a man, declare the child a boy. Gender confusion ensues with Kanwar. As she gets older, her gender identity is questioned internally, until one day they decide to marry Kanwar to Neeli, a feisty Sikh girl who has no idea what secrets and lies plague the family. Kanwar’s marriage creates a desperate crisis, enslaving Neeli to a terrible reality, leading to the sad destruction of the family. Although it becomes apparent that Umber is a self-destructive figure, his patriarchal anxieties consuming him, the real tragedy of this tale is Kanwar. In many ways, Singh uses Kanwar’s gender crisis as a wider metonym for the trauma of partition, suggesting the blurring of gender identities mirrors the crises of family and national identity families were forced to undertake as a result of partition. Nonetheless, the attempt to erase Kanwar’s femininity by her father and in effect the family who remain complicit in such oppression criticizes patriarchal culture in a post partition context.
Perhaps it is only as a ghost that borders become invisible. Umber Singh (Irfan Khan), an exile and victim of partition, is displaced from Pakistan to India, and reconciliation with such a cataclysmic disturbance never emerges and in fact never can. Umber, already a ghost of partition, is shot dead when he tries to rape his daughter in law. He is damned and doomed to live in a permanent state of exile, drifting as a form of punishment for his sins, haunting the memories of his daughter. In the living, Umber already is a patriarchal monster, but when he is killed, his transformation into a symbolic monster predicated on historical and patriarchal lines makes him altogether more potent. Umber’s inability to reconcile with his status as an exile and refugee of partition is one of the most unequivocal links to Ghatak’s work, a key influence on Singh as a filmmaker, since the trauma of partition affected Ghatak personally. Irfan Khan’s moving and complex portrayal of Umber Singh (a career defining role), a man burdened with the memories of partition, is equally matched by Tillotama Shome’s memorably anguished performance as Kanwar. Qissa is due for release later this year in India. The film has already had its UK premiere this year at the London Indian Film Festival. Given the strong buzz around the film and its continuing presence at film festivals Qissa has the potential to do well commercially.