Saturday, 19 July 2014

Shatranj ke Khiladi

After a long time, I saw this film again and survived the beauty. Shatranj ke Khiladi is in a language which is not Ray's forte. It starts with the bass-baritone of Amitabh Bachchhan (I would have loved to hear the same naration in his voice of now-a-days) describing the two protagonists Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali playing chess. Shama Zaidi's and Javed Siddiqi's exquisite Urdu informs us that these two gentlemen would like to fight only harmlessly instead of witnessing the blood and gore. Quite a surreal decision of action at a time when the country was being gobbled up by the British. Avadh, in particular, was in imminent danger because General Outram, a man of action, is planning to "take over" Avadh. The British were here to make money and would do anything required. In a telling conversation with his sub-ordinate officer Weston, General Outram declares that he has no business to continue to tolerate the King of Avadh. The arrogance is nauseating.

The King of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah is an example of what happens when one's heart is not in what he is supposed to do. He was not interested in governance. He comes across as a good poet, a meek man and a sentimental fool. Half a century before his meek surrender, Hydar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan had given the British the hardest of the resistances they received in India. So there was no lack of precedence or inspiration. Wajid Ali Shah chose to suffer ignominy while Tipu Sultan had laid down his life in his effort to protect his state.

The two chess-players, the protagonists, choose to live in the past, bragging about their forefathers. When a common acquaintance tries to make them aware of the impending danger, he is pooh-poohed in a regal manner. Chess can be played in two different systems - the Indian and the international. The Indian style was in use till a few years back. As a child, I used to know both for example. In the Indian style, the pawn moves one place even in the first move. When Munshiji points out that chess, although invented by the Indians, was promoted by the British, he is promptly told that all that the British did was to empower the pawn to move two places in the first move. This scene is delivered with such raw display of idiocy, negativism and backwardness on the part of Mirza Sajjad Ali that the audience wonders whether Mirza is completely detached from reality. Sooner or later, audience comes to terms with the fact that he is not, in the sense that he knows that his obsession with chess independent of the turmoil all around is shameful. He himself says so. However, he continues just to play.

This film, strikes the viewer brusquely. It is a fine depiction of human insensitivity. The insensitivity of Outram is cliche. The British of that era, who came to India to make money, were known to be insensitive to the locals. But, apart from that, it is the insensitivity of the zamindars towards maintaining freedom is what cost us the freedom.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Camille Claudel

Among all of Rodin's sculptures, the one that appeals to me most is the so-called Cathedral Clasping Hands. This is a sculpture of two hands of two persons about to clasp. A quick google search about why the word Cathedral features in its name shows that it is a symbol of hope. If one is not a devout Christian or if one is not religious at all, one might think that a Cathedral has nothing special to do with hope, or at least not the only thing. Be that as it may, this sculpture easily is the most stunning one of his works precisely because it conveys such a positive feeling - of hope, desire, lust, affection and sublimation. Rodin was a true creator - brilliant, methodical, full of life force, charismatic - and hence it is not too surprising that one of his favourite students would have such a bonding with him. Camille Claudel was an extraordinary student. She was talented and knew that too well, consequently perhaps somewhat haughty. Rodin was an arrogant teacher. He initially did not care too much about this hot-headed young girl. After all, he would get many such students, the best in Europe would come to him. Rodin was rumoured to have taken to bed all his female students. In the case of this particular student too, the bed did intervene, but that is just a small part of the communion they shared. The meeting between the minds of Rodin and Claudel was a communion of the best of the minds. Their creativity soared. The hands clasped.

This 1988  Bruno Nuytten film captures the genius of Claudel, her professional and personal relationship with Rodin and her emotional disturbance greatly. The film opens with Camille picking up the right kind of clay in a suitcase from inside a pit at the middle of night. She needs that clay, there cannot be any compromise on it, whatever the hour of the day, whatever the difficulty. That is the kind of dedication and love she has for her sculptures. Very rarely one sees someone so much in love with her activities. This love gets mixed with the love for her mentor and we get a story of love, hate, confusion, compassion - everything that life is made of. 

It is truly painful to see a genius suffer. In the case of Camille Claudel, the society fortunately did not get a chance to interfere too much. She was a strong personality. She also had the support of her father. Her sufferings happened because of her interactions with Rodin. She spent a great deal of her later years in an asylum. 

Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu put up superb performances. One had heard about the book on Camille by Reine Marie Paris, but without this film, I would not have known about the working of two great minds. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Shobdo (pronunciation: the first o as in "doll", the second o as in "roll", the d soft)

Spoiler alert: this post cannot be written (not at least by me) without revealing a part of the plot.

An artist is someone who creates new beautiful things. Some artists are adept at life skills. However, very often one sees an artist so engrossed in her art that she fails to respond to common stimuli of the world. Also perhaps fails to perform duties which others find easy to do. The world struggles about how to fit an artist in a social context. It takes a lot of wisdom to know that one out of ten human beings could be very different from nine others. The society cannot resist but stereotypes, forces its rules and sometimes manages to destroy the artist and transform her into a pitiable person in limbo.

Shobdo, meaning sound in Bangla, is about an artist, albeit in an art which is barely recognized as an art in contemporary society. This film is about a foley artist. An artist who creates the background sounds in a film. An artist so engrossed in his world of subtle sounds that he sometimes fails to hear common conversation. Come to think of it, this is true of many professionals. A teacher demands silence. A scientist is usually immersed in deep thought and ignores the rest of the world. Poets are usually accepted as impractical human beings. So are sculptors, painters and many others. Thus there is artistic freedom and allowance for many categories of well accepted art forms in society. Of course, this has not been achieved in a day. Societies over centuries have dismissed, denounced and labelled artists as misfits. After long hard struggles and after several artists with strong personalities have promptly put the society in its place, modern societies have learnt to behave somewhat non-intrusively as far as artists are concerned.

That brings us to the protagonist of this film - Tarak, a foley artist who develops a problem of hearing conversations because his mind is inevitably caught by surrounding sound elements (insignificant sound bits which would normally be ignored by others).

All of us have heard the saying in our childhood that "A little learning is a dangerous thing". Nowhere else perhaps this is more dangerous than when you have a doctor who thinks she is well learned but is not. Tarak's wife's inconveniences (at not always being heard by her husband) prompts her to talk to an acquaintance who refers her problem to a doctor Dr. Swati. The avalanche started. She is a professional psychiatrist. She makes it her life's mission to "cure" Tarak. God knows why. Her aggression is at an unprofessionally high level. Poor Tarak, who anyway has had little exposure outside his own world of sounds, has no chance to counter such a dangerously articulate, apparently enlightened and innately egocentric product of human civilization. She along with her ageing mentor, who keeps on pronouncing that he is the best, make a formidable team. The situation needed someone like a Charles Strickland to establish the artist's identity and firmly reject the society's intrusion. Alas, Tarak is too naive, too modest, too gentle. He says very clearly though that he has no problem whatsoever. On the other hand, he is actually gifted to hear more than others do.

What unfolds is a saddening story of an unequal struggle between Tarak, the artist and the so-called mainstream society.

Churni Ganguly and Ritwik Chakraborty have put up superlative performances. In an extraordinary outburst which perhaps no psychiatrist will do in real life and has been incorporated in the film to increase dramatic elements, the character of Dr. Swati played by Churni Ganguly calls Tarak "uneducated" and "stupid". The doctor's conduct of herself at this stage is unacceptable, not common in society and is dangerous to someone else, in this case Tarak. In case this is how she treats her other patients frequently, she would be considered deviant enough to undergo psychiatric treatment. Tarak on the other hand simply and politely tells that he has no problem. He is just someone who is somewhat gifted to do a particular thing very well.

The direction is extraordinary in the sense that no judgment is implied. It is up to the viewer to interpret Tarak as a poor misguided soul or an artist who deserved to be left alone.

It does touch a chord to see that Bangla cinema is continuing to take up challenging themes and portraying them very well. 

Saturday, 4 August 2012


This post is too Bengali. To derive maximum pleasure out of this post, you have to be well-versed in the life and times of some of the prominent Bengali public figures.  I am happy to share with you my pleasure obtained from seeing one of the most striking plays I have seen in recent times.

This post is also more personal than the others. Debabrata Biswas is arguably the best রবীন্দ্রসঙ্গীত  singer that was ever born. Many of us have been fascinated by his rendering of রবীন্দ্রসঙ্গীত. I started hearing him in my teens and he has me captivated ever since then. There are altogether about a couple of hundred songs only and once in a while it has given me great pleasure to discover a song sung by him from someone's personal collection. The guy was a genius. I never had the opportunity of hearing him live - I was born too late for that. There was a time when I had all of his songs that were available in recorded form. These were in cassette tapes. Over the years, I have lost some of them from my collection. There was a time when, as soon as the prelude music started, I knew which song was being played. I have lost that touch. However, the deep impression that he left on me at a formative stage has shaped my life.

রুদ্ধসঙ্গীত is the second word from the title of the book that Debabrata Biswas wrote. Bratya Brata Basu wrote a play of that name a few years back. Living out of Kolkata, it is practically impossible to see these plays. I saw it recently on the website of a Bangla newspaper. The full play. This post is about that play. A priori, one would think that the play is on Debabrata Biswas. However, as the play progresses, one realizes that on the pretext of making a play based on the singer's life, Bratya Basu has caught the turbulent time in his play. It was a difficult time, just after India's independence. On one hand, there was Nehru at the helm of government making new strides in many areas of science and technology taking the nation ahead. On the other hand, the Communist Party of India had declared that yeh azadi jhoota hai because in their opinion, the baton of power had just changed hand from the British to the Indian rulers who were characteristically no different from the British. And IPTA took this responsibility of convincing the mass about that by their songs, street plays etc. At the forefront were several talented artists like Utpal Datta, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Sambhu Mitra and of course Debabrata Biswas.

Things fall apart very quickly in the communistic household. All the above named people were extremely talented in their own fields. And many of them felt stifled by the party. They began to realize that there is a huge gap between their own artistic creativity and the way the party wants to use that. Different people reacted differently to that. Utpal Datta just quit the party and did what he could do best - acting (of course he was ridiculously accused of being a CIA agent, the best he could do was to just ignore that, and that is what he did). Salil Chowdhury summarily left for Bombay to create some of the best music, Sambhu Mitra could not care less for the party once he saw that he was not being allowed to do what he knew he could do. Ritwik Ghatak was accused of various cheap, false charges by the party and gave an aggressive fight back before leaving. The person who saw all this coming and made a quiet, dignified exit was Debabrata Biswas.

Biswas moves on in life and becomes the apple of everyone's eye. He sang for Ritwik's films and sang with the dances of Manjushree Chaki apart from his own programs. There is an unforgettable scene in the play where Manjushree Chaki, who has a rare communion with Biswas, breaks the news to him that she will leave India soon. Manjushree Chaki invented new oriental dance forms at a very young age even when she was a student at Presidency College. With Biswas singing to her dances, she had a gratifying life in Kolkata. Going out of Kolkata would definitely disrupt her passionate involvement with dance. Why she did not take a strong decision is something that I do not know. However, Bratya Basu makes an excellent scene out of this rather sorry situation and the way Biswas handles it. There are minor factual errors in this scene and I am somewhat surprised why these errors exits because the drama does seem well researched. Manjushree Chaki was married in 1958, not in 1961 and went to Africa, not to USA immediately after her marriage.

The rest of the drama revolves around Biswas's problems with establishments like the Viswa-Bharati Music Board and Anandabazar group. In both cases, he runs into problems with strong individuals. I suppose Bratya Basu wants to portray Biswas as just a human being who is not above artistic arrogance. He has human follies. He could not ignore barking dogs, could not resist from hitting back, courted troubles that could be avoided. He got both accolades and brickbats just as any artist does. I personally would think that the immense appreciation he received from Bengalis all over the world should have overshadowed the few stabbings that he got in the back. He was a very positive man in his youth. He wasn't so when he died.

Debrabata Biswas has shaped and will continue to shape minds of generations. This drama goes a long way to relate us to him once more. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Usually my postings are brief because the hope is that the reader will see the movie. Hence I do not want to reveal too much of the plot. However, this post is longish. Because it is about Rashomon. The film has so many dimensions that it is impossible to overemphasize its beauty. Also, it is a famous film. So, you have probably seen it. So the purpose of this post is to publicize my take on this film rather than making the viewer aware of the film.

On a rainy day, three men stuck in the rain in a temple, break a conversation about a bizarre story that two of them have seen unfolding for the last three days. There are three characters involved in the real life story. One of them is dead now. We come to know the story from all the three characters involved, including the dead man who appears via a medium. Lo and behold. The three versions are different in crucial places.

It perhaps takes great many years for us to learn that in social happenings - in human interactions - there is often no such thing as the absolute truth. All of us can recall circumstances involving several people where each one perceived the situation differently. This is natural. It is human to do so. Now introduce dishonesty. That is natural too and that is very human too. Now a given situation, if narrated later by one of the characters involved, will be very narrator dependent. There is no way of knowing what actually happened. Sometimes, the question of what actually happened might not make sense. We, the bulk of human beings, are a game playing bunch. We often play games with our own minds, let alone with others'. Thus a happening is not always absolute, we perceive it and narrate it later according to what we would have liked to happen. Often the narration is suited to make some material gain possible. This is very simple. However, often the narration is changed to suit our game playing mind. Then there is no immediate material gain in sight.

A man Takehiro Kanazawa and his wife Masako Kanazawa were travelling throught a forest. The infamous bandit Tajomaru was resting idly under a tree when a sudden cool breeze ruffled him. He decided to have the woman. As simple as that. Straightforward simple desire. Tajomaru is a skilled fighter, a brilliant swordsman and has a matching cunning. Hence he does not see any problem in fulfiling his desire without killing the husband. So he waylays him. Takehiro was stupid enough to fall in Tajomaru's trap. Then, although Takehiro is an agile fighter, Tajomaru effrortlessly ties him with a rope. Tajomaru returns to the wife Masako and tells her that her husband has been bitten by a snake. He sees in the eyes of Masako a concern that makes him at once envious of the husband. He wants the wife to see her husband's humiliation. Very bandit-like, very negative, very gloomy. However, Tajomaru is enjoying himself. So he takes her to the place where her husband is helplessly tied. On reaching there and seeing how Tajomaru has deceived her husband, she gets furious and attacks Tajomaru with her dagger. Tajomaru is amused, plays cat and mouse with her for a while before overpowering her to submission and finally having intercourse with her. This far is undisputed in all three versions.

The final shot of Tajomaru overpowering her shows that she is beginning to enjoy this forced physical interaction! We need to remember that this is shown as narrated by Tajomaru.

The question is who killed the husband. Takehiro was found dead afterwards. And this phenomenon is narrated in three different ways by the three characters concerned. Tajomaru says he killed. But why? To begin with, he wanted "to have the woman even if he had to kill the husband", but he himself declared that it would be all the better if he did not have to kill. Successfully executing his plan, he had the woman anyway, by his cunning. So why kill in the end? Tajomaru blames it on Masako. She is the one, according to him, who coaxed him into killing. She did not want two men to witness her disgrace and continue to live. She says she would go with the man who manages to kill the other. This is Tajomaru's version of events. However, Tajomaru does not seem to be a man to fall for such instigation. He has had many a woman in his life. Nevertheless, he considered Masako special enough so as to kill another man for taking her along. In the end, Masako gives him a slip. So does he repent? No, Tajomaru is not the kind of man who repents. He just concludes that she was like any other woman. Is Tajomaru telling the truth? It is hard to believe that Masako, who was so concerned about Takehiro would pitch the two men against each other knowing fully well about Tajomaru's sword-fighting skills. After all, Tajomaru was about to leave after the act. Did Tajomaru really kill him even though he himself says he did?

Curiously, each of the three characters - Tajomaru, Masako and Takehiro - wants to shoulder the responsibility for the killing as if each of them finds it too demeaning that in his or her presence someone else manages to kill. The killing of a harmless albeit somewhat not-too-smart a man seems to be such a tempting honour that no one is able to let it go. The next person to testify is Masako. She is full of self pity, the exact opposite of Tajomaru. Masako claims that she accidentally killed her husband. And this accident happened because she lost control of herself. And she lost control of herself because her husband hated her for having sex with the bandit. She does not own up anything. Every event is blamed either on fate or on another human being. She had sex because Tajomaru forced her, she felt miserable because her husband Takehiro put the responsibility squarely on her shoulder, she fainted because of Takehiro's neglect. Her dagger killed Takehiro because she fainted. According to her version, nothing was in her control. Why is she painting herself as such an object of play in the hands of destiny?

Takehiro, since he is already dead, gives his version through a medium. His version too starts after the intercourse has taken place. He had to tolerate that in front of his eyes because he was tied up. As if this is not enough, he witnesses the bandit telling his wife to go with him and his wife responding in affirmative with dreamily beautiful eyes. He says that in all their years of togetherness, he has never seen his wife so beautiful. Is this really true? Is this a figment of imagination arising from male insecurity? Whatever it is, that is not all that she said. She implored the bandit to kill Takehiro and according to Takehiro this inhumanity surprised even the coarse bandit. Tajomaru kicks her for this, she somehow manages to get away and Tajomaru just releases Takehiro and leaves. Takehiro is left on his own exactly like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. He chooses to kill himself with the dagger.

This is not where the movie ends. Surprisingly, there is a fourth version. But then this movie is full of surprises. It is best to stop here so that the few of us who have not seen this movie yet are intrigued.

This is a tale of human virtues and vices. One of the characters that proclaims throughout the movie that such and such people are lying, is himself caught lying in the end for something very mundane. But then he also does something that is supremely humane. That is how we all are. A bit of this and a bit of that. A bit of goodness and a bit of baseness. Some virtues and some vices. A mixed bag. That is how the world is what it is. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Peepli Live

Peepli Live is a 2010 satire by directors Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui.
This is the story of a family in a village called Peepli somewhere in the hinterland of north India. This satire easily compares with Jaane Bhi Do Yaron. The film starts with the protagonist asking someone what will happen if his land which he mortgaged to take a loan - a loan which he could not repay - is after all gone. There is no answer and the land indeed is lost by the family consisting of Nathadas, his elder brother Budhia, Natha's wife Shalini, his mother and his children. Then one day Natha hears that somewhere an impoverished farmer took his own life and then his family got as monetary compensation from the government a sum of money that is considered a good amount in a village. That sparks an idea. Natha, by way of talking, expresses that he might do the same as well. News spread like fire and the real fun started.

The film dissects the political class - both the rugged, dusty village type and the suave, urban type - to the core. Nasseruddin Shah  once more gives a superlative performance in the role of a central minister. With minimal fuss, he handles the media, in a manner, which should be called brutal. He is a smooth talking, easy going chap and has no respect for human lives as he demonstrates his knack of turning any given situation in his favour. The media is of course no better. They sniffed news as Natha's intention became somehow public and that is it. Hundreds of channels descend on the little village - not to save Natha from his poverty, which was the cause for his intention - but to raise their own rating, so that they get richer. This puts the politicians and media in the same boat, they are no different. All they were trying was to get the most out of the situation for themselves. The approach was not very different than those of Neandarthals. Thousands of years of civilization has done nothing to us.

The character of Nathadas Manikpuri is played by Omkar Das Manikpuri who, as far as I know, has acted only in this film. The expression of confusion that he manages to maintain on his face throughout the film is extraordinary. The character Natha is indeed confounded by all that is happening, he has no idea why such a slew of journalists, netas, police etc. is unleashed on his native village. Omkar Das portrays his character very well His elder brother's role is played by Raghuvir Yadav.

Such a subject matter, unless dealt  with subtly - with a lot of humour thrown in - has the potential of making a very unpleasant film. This is what the directors have been very successful in avoiding. They hold the audience captive till the end. Sometimes there are elements for riots of laughter. However, this is not the kind of film which leaves you soothed. It is not an esoteric film either. It is a raw portrayal of what we have reduced our democracy to. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, that is what the film intended to do anyway.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Things fall apart

Chinua Achebe's novel Things fall apart has not been made into a film as far as I know.I am writing on it because I felt like seeing the events unfold in front of my eyes when I read it recently, although I have been only once to the continent where it is set and I am truly unaware of the traditions and customs there. Or so I was till I read it.

It is a touching tale of the protagonist Okonkwo. Nested in a cozy corner of lower Niger, the village of Umuofia  has everything from the old world - bonhomie, camaraderie, friendship and also supestitions, fear, some horrible customs. In this village and indeed in several villages nearby, Okonkwo  is a hero - brave soldier, caring father, ruthless judge and like all men of action, sometimes going overboard. He will invariably remind you of Oedipus.

However, unlike in the Greek tragedy, Okonkwo's destiny is made by himself, not by fate. He plays a bigger role in shaping his destiny than fate does. The challenge comes in the form of the European invaders and missionaries.

Sublime satire, superlative description of cruelty without the blood and gore and thoroughly non-judgemental narrative make the book an unforgettable experience.