Class devours itself. And the politics of class creates an indescribable antagonism that often spills over into violence, and in the case of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, class is explicated through the prism of satire in which modernism is a debauched, sulking creature. Intrinsic to Wheatley’s treatment of Ballard’s writing is an abandonment of logical narrative contrivances in which a spasmodic flurry of visual and tonal meta-cinema explications rise up from a corpus of anarchic British iconoclasts, of which Wheatley now holds company with, notably Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey (an American exile who made his best films in England). High-Rise as dystopian science fiction is an equitable genre reading to make. But Wheatley’s deliberately modernist cinematographic voice is augmented by a meaty political tract, featuring the Utopianism of Old Labour with a contemporary sagacity of Yuppie, white privilege. And beneath the deplorable sentiments of an opportunistic class ridden society is an atavistic impulse threatening feeble democratic notions of social mobility. Wheatley orchestrates a transgressive, masala like parable of mischief, conducting an indescribably palpable ideological discord of congenial malfeasances. What rise indistinctly to the surface is a gamut of modernist disturbances: psychological disembodiment, sexual malady and consumerist neophytes – a cinematic orgy of 1970s British cultural tropes. Wheatley has crafted something bravura with High-Rise, a work of staggering cinematic resolve, a wretched, cannibalistic tour through the cabals of political and social modernism.
Preceded by ‘Nagarik’ (The Citizen) which only got a release after Ghatak’s death, his second film ‘Ajantrik’ is the quirky story of one man’s undying love for his car, a 1920’s Chevrolet affectionately referred to as Jagaddhal. Ghatak says that he procrastinated over the story for twelve long years before making it into a film. Arguably one of the most idiosyncratic art films to have emerged from the fifties, ‘Ajantrik’ utilises a remarkably layered sound design and unsentimental narrative approach to produce a poignant and funny depiction of the awkward relationship between man and machine. When asked in an interview of the films most personally satisfying for him as a director, Ghatak chose to highlight four in particular including Ajantrik referring to its ‘brevity of expression and for certain technical achievements’. Film critic and academic Jonathan Rosenbaum go as far as to draw some enlightening parallels with the work of Jacques Tati:
‘I have no way of knowing if Ritwik Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it…There’s a similar association made between Bimal (Kali Banerjee), the cab-driver hero of Ajantrik, and his own broken-down car. The fact that this car has a name, Jagaddhal, and is even included in some rundowns of the film’s cast, also seems emblematic of this special symbiosis.’
Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2006
On the most basic level Ghatak imbues the car with a riotous personality that comes to symbolise wider ideas including that of technology, the machine age and above all, rapid modernisation. Such are the affections Bimal harbours for his battered Chevrolet, his presence and existence becomes defined by an innate attachment. One could definitely label this as a road movie, with Bimal’s episodic journey across the plains of the Ganges delta providing some illuminating compositions of rural landscapes. However, it is the observation of the Oraons tribe through the elaborate dance rituals that offers a glimpse of Ghatak’s personal ethnographic fascination with marginalised cultures and people – a preoccupation underlined in an article titled ‘About Oraons: (Chotonagpur)’ written in 1955 by Ghatak and a short ‘preparatory test film’ which he shot whilst filming ‘Ajantrik’. He had hoped to make a film on the ‘life of the Adivasis of Ranchi region and on the Oraons of Rani Khatanga village’ but this like many other ideas were never realised due to financial difficulties and an uncompromising approach.
The first rule of stardom – never believe your own hype. Not unless you are SRK who has not been making the best career choices of late. When was the last time SRK really made a great film that he can lay claim to? You might have to go back to Paheli, Swades or even Asoka – all respectable films which were well received. The same cannot be said for poor SRK’s recent choice of films, which have not only been terribly inflated vanity projects but measured by a desire to emulate the feel easy stylisation of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Oddly enough two of his most recent films – Chak De India and My Name is Khan have in fact saw SRK come closest to his real life persona and even tapping into his ambivalent Muslim identity. Both films seem to have something valuable to say about stardom whereas Don 2 and Ra. One offer a version of romantic heroism, which is precluded on a strangely pretentious narcissism. Ever since SRK hit the gym after Om Shanti Om, his face has gone through a period of star transformation whereby the new, leaner and metrosexual SRK feels like a conceit driven to indulge deeper personal fantasies to do with body worship. The trip to the gym seemed to work for someone like Salman Khan but only because he never truly took him or any of his films that seriously to begin with. Dabaang brought Salman to a much wider audience than ever before, helping to kick start a re-interest in the masala action film genre and reconstructing the romantically infatuated male protagonist into a new age revenge machine.
Ra. One was touted as a big budget science fiction spectacular on par with Hollywood productions in which the special effects play a leading role. Some critics resolutely trashed Ra. One while some were unsure what to make of it all including SRK’s wooden performance. I never expected Ra. One to be a brilliant film but given all the hype surrounding the special effects, the film never really delivers in that category either. The story draws strong influences from the Terminator films, Tron, Lawnmower man and many different Hollywood comic book films. Ra. One attempts to merge familiar science fiction concepts with comic book heroism but suffers from a highly formulaic script, strangely OTT performances, ropey special effects and a schizophrenic narrative structure. In many ways, the film is a spectacular failure for a major film star who seems to going through an increasingly public middle life crisis. Had the film been able to harness the imagination and energy that went into the brilliantly executed Bandra train sequence that sees G-One (SRK) bouncing through the compartments to stop a runaway train (one of the few points in the film in which narrative interruption via the soundtrack feels justified) then the film may have had the potential to rise above its genre trappings into moderately pleasing escapist fare. However, not even this brilliantly executed sequence can save Ra. One from disappearing into the abyss of Bollywood stardom.