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.

ISLAND CITY (Dir. Ruchika Oberoi, 2015, India)

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The worker as drone is a familiar enough image these days, ubiquitous with the way corporate companies suffocate the life out of its employees so that they can maximise profits. The worker drone, dispossessed of all pleasure, is drolly captured in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City.

The first story eponymously titled ‘The Fun Committee’ is a darkly comedic parable featuring a deadpan absurdist turn by Vinay Pathak, synthesizing Tati and Kaurismaki into a sardonic comment on the emptiness of office culture, shopping malls and consumerist hedonism. Oberoi even has a go at terrorism. In this first story Oberoi uncovers that most ideologies induce systemic structures imposing a rigour that inevitably cultivates fascistic practices in both the private and public sphere.

Ghost in the Machine, the second story, is the best of the three. A major theme linking the three stories is that of imprisonment; societal anxieties entomb all three characters, repressing desires. The second story is a melodrama about the middle class figure of the repressed housewife who is re-centred as an agent and catalyst for reconstituting the family along altruistic lines. Oberoi’s instructive skill with this second story is the way she parallels the misery and euphoria of the family with the fictional popular Indian soap ‘Purshottam: The Ideal Man’, a parochial, mythological paradigm. This complicated narrative address juxtaposes the fictional utopian constructions of masculinity with the painful realities of an oppressive vision of the despotic Indian husband. With the man of the real family in a coma, liberates the family, but leaves them with a final decision that Oberoi frames incongruently. The final episode is also sensitively observed, a bittersweet deconstruction of romance that narrates the story of an impoverished young girl searching for an idea of love, which cannot exist in such a hopeless lower class milieu.

The portmanteau form is well suited to tales about the city and this has become a popular narrative mode in Indian independent cinema, having spawned a cycle of films including Shor in the City, Dhobi Ghat, Peddlers to name a few. Island City signals an exciting new talent in the shape of director Ruchika Oberoi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, and this is a compelling first work. Performances by Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash are notable.

QISSA: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Dir. Anup Singh, 2014, India) [Spoilers]

QISSA

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.

CALCUTTA 71 (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, India) – ‘Calcutta was passing through a terrible time…’

Kolkata_71

Conviction is a virtual necessity of any kind of political cinema especially the one that claims to magnify the ills and sickness of society. Out of the Bengali triumvirate including Ray and Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was by far the most radical, advocating a leftist Naxalite inspired ideology whilst borrowing liberally from European modernists like Godard and Brecht. Unlike the classicist style of Ray and Ghatak’s epic tradition, Sen’s response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, ‘Calcutta 71’, was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement. Another element separating Sen from both Ray and Ghatak was his anti illusionary mode – sustaining the aesthetics of realism were subordinate to the political content and most importantly, the dissemination of ideas. Like Godard and Eisenstein, Sen stripped away the classical form and traditions of cinema, revelling in a reflexive prism of Brecht inspired agitprop methods. Ray and Ghatak may have certainly laid the foundation for a new, personally engaged cinema but Mrinal Sen was instrumental in outlining a specific doctrine. Such a politically inspired cinematic doctrine was issued in the form of a manifesto by both Sen and Arun Kaul in 1968 arguing for ‘a state sponsored alternative to commercial cinema’.

In addition, Mrinal Sen’s breakthrough feature ‘Bhuvan Shome’, released in 1969, was also strategic in helping to urge the Indian government to offer greater financial support to those filmmakers struggling to be heard. Ghatak and Ray may have shared an identifiable humanism in the struggles faced by their characters yet such a sentiment was absent from the fiercely Marxist cinema of Sen who repeatedly resorted to the dissolution of the fourth wall. Of course, the danger with such strong willed political cinema is that it is typically weighed down by a polemicist tone. However, Sen avoids falling into this trap by offering us five episodes in the form of clear cut political allegories on one common theme, that of poverty. To underline how poverty shapes the psyche of Indian society and Bengali culture, Sen refuses to remain fixed in a contemporary context and shifts across a number of decades. The original running time of the film when it was first released in 1972 is 132 minutes. However, the version I watched was considerably shorter and the opening episode of a young radicalised Bengali revolutionary was also missing. The original brochure produced for the release of the film provides one of the best summaries of the complex set of political ideas that Sen explores:

Sen like Ghatak was involved with the Indian People Theatre Association and it is here that he discovered the work of Brecht, realising the possibilities of utilising art as a tool for the propagation of ideas and instigating wider change in society. Ray continues to be judged as an apolitical film maker when compared to both Sen and Ghatak. The problem with this kind of judgement is that any film maker who is placed alongside as Sen is likely to be accused of ideological abandonment. Obviously, the great weakness with a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ is the lack of emotional involvement. Parallel film maker Shyam Benegal argues that Sen’s later work is much more engaging and rounded when compared to his seventies films which he says left him cold. Of course, much of this criticism is related to the effects of Brechtian devices which are supposed to frustrate and agitate the spectator to think seriously about the ideas being explored. The film itself becomes more fragmented as we get nearer to the turbulent seventies and this reflected in the use of montage – Sen acknowledging the influence of Eisenstein. It is in the final episode in which Sen cuts between a group of middle class intellectuals and the young radical who is being chased by the establishment that the film most resembles the Godardian impulse of the late sixties.

1971 saw the release of both Sen and Ray’s first films in what would be parallel trilogies on the social and political crisis facing the middle classes of Calcutta in the seventies and much of the ideological debate was filtered through an emerging, disillusioned Bengali youth. Ray’s political anger may have remained in check for a long time but with ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) he silenced many of his critics by choosing to endorse Sen’s notion that it was the collective responsibility of cinema to respond, inform and agitate the audience. Personally, Ray’s ‘Calcutta trilogy’ is a far greater achievement than Sen’s three films and though ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited, 71) is the weak link, it is ‘Jana Aranya’ (The Middleman, 75) that proves to be one of the strongest and most sophisticated Indian films of this era.

In an interview conducted by Udayan Gupta for the Jump Cut film journal, 1976, this is what Mrinal Sen had to say about why he felt compelled to make ‘Calcutta 71’:

MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

The natural and historically continuous co existence between poverty and exploitation was not the story of Calcutta in the 70s, it extended from a ‘third cinema’ perspective outlined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Thus, one can conclude that a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ shares a much greater affinity with the ‘Cinema Novo’ movement of the 60s whilst a highly politicised film maker like Mrinal Sen was closer to the work of Glauber Rocha who also believed that ‘third cinema’ was the way forward in terms of resisting all forms of hegemony whilst criticising the derisory gap between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whilst Ray’s cinema was never as fatalistic or disillusioning as that of Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, the greatest achievement of ‘Calcutta 71’ remains in it’s uncompromising political content and how like many of Godard’s films of the late 60s and early 70s it has become somewhat of a very significant historical document and powerful record of the times.