When a lowly chain (zipper) repair man (Chain-wala) Mahendra sets out on a journey to look for his 12 year old son who has gone missing, through the maze that is India, this story sets into motion the unravelling of a reality that continues to remain on the fringes of social discourse.

While Canadian filmmaker Ritchie Mehta surely set out to make fiction, he has marvellously crafted a rich and mesmerising tale shot frame by frame in the style of a documentary, which just makes his story even more earthy and grounded.

Mahendra Saini is able to make a few hundred rupees everyday as he takes to the streets of Delhi with his loudspeaker, cajoling people to have their broken chains/zippers repaired. A small tool bag as his only accessory, this man cares for nothing but making a living for his family. The authenticity of the man and his life shines through in his stoic and somewhat honest presence. While he is struggling to make ends meet, he decided to send his young son to another town to work at a factory. We encounter the story when Mahendra, his wife Suman and their daughter Roshni are waiting for the son Siddharth to come home for Diwali. He never arrives and that starts the process of searching for the boy, who is presumed missing/kidnapped/lost.

The story traverses an extremely difficult terrain, cinematically and sociologically. The story is told through the eyes and in the space of semi-urban lower middle-class India. There are really a few handful of frames that take the audience away from the stark realities of Mahendra and his family’s poverty, their life. So while Ritchie Mehta navigates the presentation of poverty, he inserts the sociological discussion around child labour and makes that the vehicle of the film. While poverty and economic struggle remains the backdrop of the narrative, essentially the search for the young boy and the social commentary attached to it, becomes the film.

The most enjoyable part of the film was the fact that Mehta takes a real life encounter and tells it how someone in a small neighborhood in Delhi would narrate their life story. It’s like folklore, the streets, the people, the everyday life of Delhi. Even linguistically Mehta keeps true to its social reality and sticks to ‘only Hindi’ dialogue, making it creatively soulful and truly a story of the grassroots.

Mahendra can’t find his son, as he travels to the small town north of Delhi to visit the factory where his son was working. Nothing is known about his escape, barring that he had no trouble at the factory and didn’t even have the time to get his belongings. With little information to go by, all Mahendra finds is some hearsay about a fictitious place called “Dongri” where kidnapped young kids are taken. He doesn’t know where it is or how to find it. With this little information he travels back to Delhi, quite despondent but resolute that he will find his son.

By some random coincidence, one day when repairing a young woman’s bag he asks her if she knows anything about Dongri (a question he had asked many other people, but to no avail). The woman flips out her smart phone and just like that tells him that this place Dongri is in Mumbai. It is interesting how in this particular scene and many others Mehta places his character in such close proximity to technological tools, simple things like a computer that most of us take for granted. Mahendra is illiterate and thus has little recognition of all these tools and modern day conveniences.

He sets out for Bombay and to look for Siddhartha at Dongri. When he finally gets there, he is only disappointed as he finds nothing. In Mahendra’s struggle to find his son, we see Mehta’s poignant poetry that follows the heartfelt search of a father, who has lost his son because he wronged. It’s like a punishment for forcing his son into child labour. While Mehta tries to cast no moral judgement of Mahendra, I couldn’t but help feel a little reprimand of him as his wife questions him on how a father could send his young son just so he could make a few extra rupees, while the child’s place was in school, playing in the street in front of the house. The only justification being poverty.

The boy is never found and Mahendra must return home after having exhausted all avenues. Its not his resignation to the situation or the fact that he must continue with life just because he has to that leaves you in shock. Its the idea that a young boy can go missing and his father has to confess that not having seen his son for so long and lost in trying to find him, he doesn’t even remember what he looks like. This emotion, this truth rips right through your heart and that’s Siddharth: brilliant social critique through the eyes of an ordinary father.  

Image source: rogerbert.com

Haider .. Vishal Bharadwaj’s new Shakespearean avatar that takes Hamlet and places him in the heart of the Kashmir valley in 1995. This is a place that is beset with political conflict and violence. There is considerable disenchantment, bordering anger, among the people at what has been happening in the Northern most province of the Indian republic. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act has no support among the ordinary people and the numbers of young men being picked up by security forces, suspected of being directly implicated in the militancy movement, are climbing with every passing day. The politics of conflict, the excesses of the police and the armed forces, the humanity of people wanting to help militants and patriots alike is the cocktail that is Haider. 

Vishal Bharadwaj begins his narrative and discussion with considerable responsibility and prudence. While excesses on the Indian side are splashed on screen sporadically, there is no demonizing of the Indian state. The problem plaguing Jammu and Kashmir is eluded to in dialogues like ‘Whose side are you on …’ and ‘All of Kashmir is a prison’. For most people, little explanation is needed about the Kashmir that was in the 1990s. However, Bharadwaj very prudently uses archival footage and montage sequences to contextualize and not leave his audience lost in the unsaid history of Jammu and Kashmir.

While the choice of the backdrop, the political context and the problem per say as the film’s canvas are brilliant, very thoughtfully tackled, its his characters and their narrative that lets the film down.

Shahid Kapoor delivers a strong performance and for the most part transitions seamlessly from reticent literature student returning home to Kashmir, to the anarchical militant in the making, who would do anything to avenge his father’s death. 

Tabu plays Gertrude (Ghazala in the film) as easily as she has done most of her roles in the past. Acting comes naturally to this actor and while age is most visible on her face, her quiet, submissive acting is top notch. 

The place where the film tumbles in the middle and then tries to recover at the end, is the relationship between the characters. While Haider’s uncle Khurram (actor Kay Kay Menon playing Claudius) and mother (Ghazala) are the conspirators, there is a richness of guilt that oozes from Shakespeare’s Gertrude that is completely absent. Khurram is evil and conniving, yet for the most part unconvincing and subordinate even to the plot where he is centre stage. And the biggest sufferer is the Gertrude Hamlet relationship, which  for all purposes is the bed rock of the story. While the dramatics of the ghost appearing are kept to stay true to Hamlet’s story, its hard to sympathize with the insanity that finally consumes Haider. His love interest Arshee (played by Shraddha Kapoor) starts off with a bang and had some signs of feminist assertion, but that too is relegated to some silly incompetency with English and a secondary spy to her cop father. While the interaction of the characters suffers greatly from the script’s  standpoint, the film is bold in it’s tackling of an important issue, in its commentary against the excesses of the Indian state and of course the stunning landscape of the paradise that is Kashmir. 

Haider is no Maqbool or Omkara (Bharadwaj’s earlier forays with Shakespeare), yet I credit Bharadwaj for a beautifully paced, well shot film that tries to delve deep in the (in)humanity of a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. 

There is a message to this and its left to Haider to decide if he will choose vengeance over a life that is free from it.

PS: I would have edited out at least 25 minutes of the film, without changing its poetry. 

image source: indiecine.com

Social disparities, a woman’s chastity, rich-poor divide, friendship, childhood romance, social justice….Raj Kapoor doles out all of these ideas in this thoroughly entertaining fare with music that resonates long after the film is done. Its close to three hours of Kapoor charm and magic. 

It’s not surprising that Time magazine rated Raj Kapoor’s performance in this film as one of the top ten in the history of cinema. By no means can one believe that Raj Kapoor was less than 30 years old when he produced, directed and acted in Awaara.

Raj Kapoor always acknowledged him being greatly influenced by Charlie Chaplin and the character of the Tramp (Awaara); the social outcast, who owing to his personal and family circumstances has to resort to stealing, being on the wrong side of the law, with no social respect and no one to call his own. While Awaara delves slightly into many other social issues and discourses, it’s essentially Raj Kapoor’s film about his take on social disparities based on life circumstances. While being the son of a very well respected lawyer, Raju (protagonist played by Kapoor) ends up in the hands of a criminal, simply because his father turns his mother out of the home on suspicion of a loose moral character, while she is carrying the unborn Raj. That sets into motion a chain of events where Kapoor is trained and nurtured by the criminal Jagga, who was wrongfully sentenced to prison by Raju’s father (Judge Raghunath) and now wishes to seek revenge on the Judge by making a criminal out of his son; all unbeknownst to the Judge. 

Raj Kapoor enjoys his craft greatly, as he poetically crafts the love story between his character and the female lead played by Nargis (a mirror of their real life romance), and mixes this social commentary with romance, anguish, longing and unforgettable lyrics.

While Awara is a triumph of sorts on many fronts, what it will always be remembered for is Kapoor imitation of the innocent Tramp character and his famous song which celebrates being one, ‘Awaara hoon’….’I am a Tramp’…’Ya gardish mein hoon aasman ka tara noon’ ….’Or an eclipsed star in the sky.’ 

image source: rkfilms.com

While “Finding Fanny” was an interesting concept, I unfortunately am not inspired to write about or comment on the film. It had some good moments in it, however for the most part I think it suffered greatly from poor execution of a script that seemed to have some potential. That’s all I have to say about this film.

"Life is easy with eyes closed" was a great experience. It was a simple, human story, told with delightful actors, gorgeous cinematography and a uniquely spirited story.

The story follows Antonio who teaches English at a school in a small town in Southern Spain. He is a huge Beatles fan, enough that kids in class tease him by calling him the ‘Fifth Beatle.

Antonio finds out that John Lennon is shooting a film, not far from where he lives and thus he decides to take a road trip to go see his favourite star in action. John Lennon is someone who had the most profound impact on him and always left him wanting for more. He frequently hums the Beatles song ‘Help me’…being so inspired by it and he says ‘that a cry for help sometimes is all it takes for someone to reach out to others.’ He swears by that song.

Through his travels in his bright green car Antonio meets a girl (Belén) and offers to drive her to the nearest station, while also helping her escape the clutches of an older man. The third person that makes up the trio is the young man Juanjo, who is rebelling against his dad’s ways and has left home. The three come together to share this life changing experience of a road trip to go looking for John Lennon. 

As expected Antonio breaks the stereotype and does not make a pass at Belén, no matter her youth and beauty, Antonio’s gentlemanly demeanour and his huge heart breathes warmth in every frame of the film. While the breathtaking countryside and picturesque Spanish coastline is decadence for the eyes, Antonio’s little tricks and spirited manner, as he reminisces about his students and continuously looks forward to meeting John Lennon, the film prods along at a delightful pace.

It’s a bit of a coming of age story; it’s about humanity and sharing; it’s about not playing to the gallery; it’s about saying deeply profound things like ‘Life is like a dog, if it senses your fear it will bite,’ yet never in the slightest being pretentious. And while Antonio goes through hoops and deserts to find his hero, it’s a story of the ability to dream and live life with your heart and mind wide open, albeit eyes closed. 

A small and simple film that wants you to have faith, with a large and extremely generous heart.

 image source: www.kinopavasaris.lt

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From The Desk Of

IDA - the path we take

IDA…..the best work of cinema that I have seen this year. 

image source: shockya.com

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Ida is the story of a young woman who is soon going to take her vows to become a nun. We find her in her journey at a convent hidden somewhere in the Polish countryside, just a few weeks before the taking of these vows. At this time her matron nun tells her that she must go and meet her only living relative, her aunt. The matron does not tell her the real reason why she wants her to go, but there is a hidden meaning behind it. There is a family secret that Ida must confront before she commits her life to God. The matron merely tells her that it is important for Ida to do this and know if she is ready to leave everything worldly behind. 

Reluctantly Ida sets off on this brief worldly journey. She visits her somewhat depressed, alcoholic aunt Wanda, who is surprised to see her niece. They connect reminiscing over shared memories.

The meeting with the aunt turns the narrative to a historical introspection of post World War II Poland. The aunt is a judge, who lived through Nazi occupation only to be disappointed in the free world of post war socialist Poland. She begins to unravel for Ida, what is her history and that of her family. She tells Ida that she is Jewish and not Catholic and that her parents had been killed during the war. Ida obviously questions the veracity of this story, but later decides that she must find for the remains of her parents, reclaim the lost story of her family and find the truth about her own past. 

The story then follows the two women through the discovery of their past, which lies in the remains of the war, while also a confrontation of secrets and demons that perhaps neither of them have wanted to face. While Ida finds out what happened to her parents, Wanda is forced to confront the loss of her son to the Nazi purge.

While the film is the retracing of the history of ordinary lives in post world war Europe, there is also the constant religious and moral battle that Wanda and Ida are on. They both stand polar opposite to each other, questioning how the other’s way of life and morality (or lack thereof) are better. It’s a tale of self discover through a commonly shared past and a polar opposite present. 

The film shot in black and white passionately and poignantly follows them through their journey. The narrative is told with minimal dialogue and more through the exploration of Ida’s state of mind and revelation of Wanda’s tragedy which eventually consumes her. 

After Ida has put her parents’ remains to rest, she heads back to the convent so that she can continue with her life of devotion and spiritual practise. Ida however returns to the convent full of doubt and uncertainty of her commitment to God. Obviously, she must turn back and return to living in the real ‘world’. What happens next is surprising, affecting and leaves one thinking of the larger meaning of life. 

Pawel Pawlikowski has created a fascinating and extremely compelling tale of self realization, moral conflict, facing ones past and finally deciding on the path of life. 

A simple narrative, a few characters and a profound sensibility that explores the meaning of life and what decisions we make; this is Ida. 

Polish filmmaker Pawlikowski does brilliant work and Agata Trzebuchowska’s portrayal of Ida is top notch.

This is a must see for its very poignant expression of life and the life path we decide to follow. 

From The Desk Of

Besieged by Love!

           Its love stories as wild and unconventional as Besieged (1998) that one understands how love, the emotion, the feeling continues to evolve and remains so eternally alive. Shandurai (played brilliantly by Thandie Newton) escapes her home country when her husband is arrested by the military of the ruling dictator and takes refuge in Italy. She finds work at the home of an obsessive/eccentric English pianist. While doing all of the chores around his house, she is in school studying medicine and perfecting her Italian. 

           Bernado Bertolucci takes these two distinct characters and love happens. First Mr. Kinsky (the pianist) declares his love for Shandurai, offering to do anything for her, go anywhere for her and with her, only if she agreed to love him back. Then, Shandurai bares her life story to him, confronting him on what he even knows about where she came from, or who she was? She declares that if he really loves her, he must help her free her husband from the prison, where he waited to be sentenced or perhaps even hanged.

          Unbeknownst to her Mr. Kinsky begins to contact people to help find and free her husband. His sudden step back from her, respecting her limits and the fact she is married, makes him more endearing to her. She starts to feel connected to him and his art. 

          Finally the day before her husband is to show up at her door, liberated and ready to restart his life with her, she gives into her emotions and feelings for Kinsky. While the husband waits at the front door ringing the bell, Shandurai is staring at the ceiling, in bed with Kinsky, at cross-roads of what she should do.

          The film is one of the most subtle and quiet presentations of unattainable love, turning into unconventional love that I have seen in a long time. Newton is brilliant as a woman in exile, conscious of her beauty, yet totally oblivious of her impact on her surroundings. Kinsky is this eccentric artist who is completely consumed by his work, the cycle broken with Shandurai’s presence in his household. While Kinsky is drawn to Shandurai from the moment he sets his eyes on her, she takes the length of the film to finally be able to sit down and pen an ‘I love you’ message to him. 

           Another very interesting tool that Bertolucci uses in the film is the presence of this village man who sings snippets of these tales that is meant to comment on what is happening in the narrative. He sings following Shandurai in her hometown and then in her journey in Italy. This is common  use of oral traditions of story telling, across different cultures in Africa and Asia. It created a poetic commentary, distinct and poignant. 

image source: americancinema.com 

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Calvary is the perfect name for a film rising in overtones of religious decline, moral fragility, human weakness, and borderline depravity.

Brendon Gleason shoulders this poignant tale from the first to its last frame as Father James.  It is set in rural Ireland, where the landscape takes your breath away, no matter how often and repeatedly the filmmaker lets your eyes feast on nature in full glory. A small town good natured priest Father James, is hearing a confession one Sunday, when the confessor tells him that he was sexually abused by a priest. The priest in question is dead and there is little reparation that the man will ever get. To make a point about sexual abuse in the church and how there seems to be little real remorse for what happened to him, the man threatens to kill Father James in a weeks time. This is how the film begins and sets the ball rolling of Father James going from one member of the community to another, finding where the moral centre of his town lies. He finds that each and every member of his community is struggling, suffering through life and unsure of where to find comfort: a couple suffers from physical abuse in their relationship, the town police chief has a male concubine, who very blatantly flaunts servicing other men in the community, the doctor at the town hospital has his own dispassionate emotions towards his work and the patients in his care, the richest man around has no family or friends around him and knows not what to do with his wealth than piss on the expensive art work he buys, quite literally. 

While Father James finds his faith pushed and questioned and remains unwavering, its hard not to wonder how goodness does survive in the presence of a mammoth called human depravation. 

Father James’s daughter comes in from the city to spend sometime with him. Fionaa Lavelle is understated and emotionally static and plays the role of a daughter coming home to a father she lost to the hilt. They reconnect somewhat, while she opens her heart out to him. She tenderly confronts him on his abandoning her, after her mother’s death and how the loss of two parents, one living and one dead profoundly altered her life. They part having found each other again and give us some reason to want to continue to live on and not be overcome by despair. 

Writer director John Michael McDonagh isn’t just dabbling with the trauma of child abuse in the Catholic Church, he is talking about a child parent relationship, he is talking about fidelity, humanity, tolerance of the other no matter where we are and who we are, wealth and the trauma it brings.  

One of the most telling moments of the film is when James is walking towards the beach, enroute somewhere and he chances upon a young girl. He casually makes conversation and is speaking to her when suddenly, her father drives up to where they are, stops his car in a haste and begins to aggressively confront James with questions about his motives and what he was trying to do by talking to his daughter. 

James feels mortified at the suggestion that his intention was foul and this breaks him from within. How the actions of a few paints everyone with the same colour. 

Calvary is a difficult film. It lends a deep insight to us being human and us being extremely weak in every way. It is a harsh and detached critique of our everyday failings. The finality of the film merely underscores how goodness struggles every single moment to survive and stay afloat in the sea of human greed.

It doesn’t take more than a small Irish town with a few hundred people, going along their daily lives, to shine the light on the state of the entire human race. 

image source: cinematicfrontier.wordpress.com 

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