Film Review

Cast and Credits

India | 2012 | 106 Minutes | Hindi, English | U.S. Premiere
Directed By : Avinash Kumar Singh
Casting : Farouque Shaikh, Deepti Naval, Swara Bhaskar, Amala Akkineni, Siddhant Karnick, Vidya Bhushan, Viren Basoya

LISTEN AMAYA, a lyrical chamber-piece of a movie by the first-time director Avinash K Singh, is a pure joy to watch.                                                                                                                                                 

Here conversations are casual, wit and humor abundant, people across generations are affable trying their best to connect with each other.   

None of the scenes are over-written – by keeping only want is essential, the screenplay by Avinash and Geeta Singh demonstrates a mature sense of economy and precision. There is hardly any quiet moment in the film, yet, all the characters articulate their thoughts without stilted utterances or being frivolous, the film never loses a beat in keeping its plot moving towards the denouement at a rhythmic pace.

Although LISTEN AMAYA may easily be over-analyzed as a film about sociological this and that, the heart and soul of the film lie in the realms of human memory. Three inseparable individuals who are separated from or connected to each other only by the weight and pull of their personal memories make up the dramatis personae.

Set mostly inside a boutique coffee-shop, “Book a coffee, an offbeat library cum coffee shop” run by a widow, Leela (Deepti Naval), with a trade-mark infectious smile, who wants to travel the world. She charms and befriends her much younger customers and us (the audience) even before anyone of us realize.

Leela’s 22-year old daughter, fun-loving sweet-and-sour impulsive Amaya (newcomer Swara Bhaskar), has a talent for writing. She teams up with the widower Jayant aka Jaz (Farooq Shaikh) — a photographer client at Leela’s Café-turned-an-extended-member-of-the-family who has lost his wife and young daughter in a car accident  —  in authoring a non-fiction picture book for which she is the writer and Jayant is the still photographer. Sixty-year old Jayant believes that one gets to know a person better by the memories that person carries around and inspires Amaya to write a childhood memoir.

The threesome have built sort of mutually exclusive relationships amongst themselves. But, Jayant “listens” intently to the fading sound of the footsteps of his ever-receding memories, strong-willed Leela “listens” to her heart, and Amaya lives in an imagined world in selfish refusal to “listen” to the feelings and sentiments of others surrounding her. Apparently easy-going casual relationships collide head-on and are put to test in the course of the story, the casual becomes serious, easy-going becomes conflicted.

The storyline is thin (the reason why I’m not going to give away any more of it), but, that, in no way, is a weakness of the film. The thin shell of the story cracks open to the core easily and we enter the private lives of Leela, Jayant and Amaya surrounded by their young admirers, join all in meditations on life and love and, especially, Memory.

Memory is the leitmotif of this deeply-felt drama resonating with beauty and honesty. Is “Every man’s memory is his private literature”, as Aldous Huxley wrote? Are we nothing without our memory? Is memory our feeling, conscience, soul, reason for action or inaction or apathy? In his private introspective moments, Jayant, a character superbly rendered by Farooq Shaikh (arguably at his best), agonizes like an embattled man trying to write his memoir but has no memories of his past.

Café-owner Leela is an absolute pleasure to meet and watch – kudos to Deepti Nanval’s virtuosi extrovert performance who is otherwise known for her realizations of quiet subdued soulful characters on screen. In Leela’s café, generation gaps have been erased and generations develop and nurture bonds of affection. One will find plenty of human contact, warmth and entertainment there – credit goes to the fine performances by the ensemble of actors.

LISTEN AMAYA, edited by Geeta Singh with assistance from a talented crew, and winner of the Best Film and Best Director Jury awards at the New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Fest (NJISACF) 2012, unravels like a long lyrical poem. It’s one more anomaly in an industry besieged by old wine-in-new bottle “products”.

Godard-Speak

from the soundtrack of Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman) a film by Jean-Luc Godard made in 1964

 

The iconoclastic, legendary and a phenomenon of modern cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, had started as a film critic writing primarily in Cahiers du cinéma before he became a filmmaker. 

                                                                                                                                         

In an interview in 1960s, he said, “As a critic, I thought of myself as a film-maker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form, or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them. Were the cinema to disappear, I would simply accept the inevitable and turn to television; were television to disappear, I would revert to pencil and paper. For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It’s all one. The important thing is to approach it from the side which suits you best“.                                        

Widely-read in literature, philosophy and painting, Godard experimented with language and the metaphysics of the spoken words  in his films. He would characteristically make references to literature, works of painters and philosophers to comment on reality – a kind of intervention between the reality captured by camera and its realization on the screen to lend transparency to an otherwise opaque image projected on the screen.                                                                         

Movies are a world of fragments,” he said – these fragments, both aural and visual, would be synthesized into an essay in his films.                                                    

He also believed that an artist’s work and his life are inseparable. The artist must find inspiration for his work from his life. That’s why his films are of very personal nature. In his 1982 film Passion, a Polish filmmaker is commissioned by some French producers to make a film in France. But, the director struggles to come up with a script for his film. He fusses with selecting proper lighting on the set or picking the actors after coming up with some vague new idea every day – but, the script is never realized. He gives up and goes back to his country, back to life. Passion is unlike Truffaut’s film Day for Night where a film is finally made through a chaotic process.

What I transcribed below are some fragments of dialog from the film Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman), a film he shot in 1964. You may consider this as a tribute to a filmmaker who I regard to be a genius. From time to time, such tributes to master filmmakers will appear in this blog.                                                                     

In the film, fragments appear with title cards which I repeat here. But, I have included here only selected fragments – my favorite ones.

Title card: Excerpts from a movie shot in 1964 in Black and White

 Charlotte, a married woman, is having an affair with Robert, an actor.

 Scene : Charlotte and Robert in a bed in Robert’s new apartment in Paris

CHARLOTTE: I don’t know.                                                                                  

ROBERT: You don’t know if you love me?                                                                 

CHARLOTTE: Why do you talk all the time? (Pause) It’s so nice here!

Robert caresses the bare back of Charlotte

ROBERT: What’s that scar?                                                                                      

CHARLOTTE: O, when I was little …I fell….. on the beach

Pause

ROBERT: When you come right down to it, even in love, you can’t go very far.  

CHARLOTTE: What do you mean?                                                                                 

ROBERT: You kiss, you caress, but, you’re still on the outside. It’s like a house you can’t enter. 

CHARLOTTE: You can lose yourself in love.                                                                    

ROBERT: But at other times you get inside people without thinking. When it doesn’t matter.

CHARLOTTE: I love you.             

Pause

ROBERT: You should do like the women in Italian movies. Have you seen them? They don’t shave under their arms.  

CHARLOTTE: I prefer Hollywood movies. They’re prettier.                                     

ROBERT: Yes, but they’re less exciting.

 Pause

CHARLOTTE: You have nice eyebrows.                                                                             

ROBERT: You think so?                                                                                             

CHARLOTTE: It’s the most important thing in Japan                                              

ROBERT: Why don’t you like me to look at you? (After a Pause) I’d like to give you a child . 

CHARLOTTE: I already have one.                                                                                  

ROBERT: But you told me it was from your husband’s first marriage.           

CHARLOTTE: Yes, I did.                                                                                                  

ROBERT: Was he married a long time?                                                                  

CHARLOTTE: No, his first wife left him after two months. She went away with the manager of a casino in Djibout. (Sings the Pete Seeger song) “Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing …. Long time…ago”.                                                 

ROBERT: When are we going to live together?                                                   

CHARLOTTE: I told you not before my divorce. These things take time.           

ROBERT: You’re sure you’ve told him?                                                                  

CHARLOTTE: Yes.                                                                                                            

ROBERT: I like your teeth.

Robert wants Charlotte to take off all of her clothes.

ROBERT: Take it off.                                                                                                    

CHARLOTTE: No.                                                                                                         

ROBERT: Yes.                                                                                                                             

Charlotte takes off her clothes.

CHARLOTTE: I’m cold.                                                                                                  

ROBERT: Let me look at you. (After a Pause) I love you.                            

CHARLOTTE: Me too.                                                                                                      

ROBERT: I love you.                                                                                                 

CHARLOTTE: Me too.

 Pause

CHARLOTTE: Do you love me?                                                                           

ROBERT: Yes.                                                                                                            

CHARLOTTE: Yes…Yes…. Yes….

Charlotte sits on the edge of the bed and observes a framed picture on the wall.

CHARLOTTE: Who is that one? Moliere?                                                                      

ROBERT: Yes. In 1694 Bousset published his “Reflections on Comedy.” I think it is clearly demonstrated that the enactment of agreeable passions leads naturally to sin. When this performance is only to encourage premeditated desires guided by lust. Moliere answers that the theater prevents sin by purifying love. …….                           

CHARLOTTE: I better get dressed.                                                                                 

ROBERT: There’s lot of time.                                                                                    

CHARLOTTE: No. I don’t want to any more.                                                    

ROBERT: You going home?                                                                         

CHARLOTTE: No, I have to pickup the kid from school.                                               

ROBERT: How do you like the apartment?                                                        

CHARLOTTE: I hadn’t really looked. Was it expensive?                                             

ROBERT: 3,500 furnished.                                                                           

CHARLOTTE: That’s pretty expensive.                                                                          

ROBERT: You can go out on the roof from here.                                                  

CHARLOTTE: How do you get there?                                                                            

ROBERT: The stairs at the end of the hall.

Charlotte runs to the roof, stark naked.

ROBERT: Charlotte, what are you doing? Are you crazy running around like that? Come back in here. 

CHARLOTTE: I thought you liked me nude.                                                                   

ROBERT: Don’t put words in my mouth.                                                               

CHARLOTTE: Listen, I have a husband at home. I don’t come here to be ordered around.

ROBERT: Get dressed and stop talking about him all the time.                    

CHARLOTTE: But, it wasn’t me… it was you…                                                          

ROBERT: All right… Sorry…

Charlotte is putting on her clothes.

ROBERT: You never clean my razor when you use it.                                                   

CHARLOTTE: Stop saying, I’m sloppy.                                                                      

ROBERT: I didn’t say that.                                                                             

CHARLOTTE: Help me. I can’t get it. It’s not my fault I have to go. Tuesday, it was you.

ROBERT: But I had a rehearsal.                                                                                

CHARLOTTE: But you don’t believe me when I say I have to pick up the kid.

ROBERT: Sure, I do. 

Charlotte needs help from Robert with her brassiere.

CHARLOTTE: Ouch… not so rough…                                                                 

ROBERT: Be still. Here you go.

They leave the apartment, but not together. Robert goes out first to get his car

 Scene : Charlotte Leaves Robert’s apartment

Charlotte, who thinks that her ever-suspicious husband, PIERRE, has hired a detective to follow her, sneaks out stealthily after making sure that no one is following or watching her. During this sequence, we hear Charlotte’s voice-over on the soundtrack.

 CHARLOTTE: (VO) Kisses… Caresses… No one speaks… In the summer…May be he has forgotten … Jealousy…when does he get back…What a pretty dress…I’ll tell you…That’s dangerous… You’re not listening…Freedom… Pleasure…Look away… Why that Question…I’m afraid of being late… Life in general…

Robert pulls his convertible over to the curb. Charlotte jumps in and bends down to hide herself.

ROBERT: You put on too much powder.                                                                     

CHARLOTTE: I do as I like.                                                                                            

ROBERT: Women live for men, but, won’t do anything for them.                        

CHARLOTTE: Come on, let’s go.

Scene : Charlotte alone

 CHARLOTTE: (VO) In the middle of the hallway…Hope…A girl’s face…Who am I? I’ve never really known for sure….The verb “To follow”….Other reasons…. I used to be….Not here, a year ago….Just once, right?…..It’s his fault….It’s dream and reality….Always dream and reality…. Bittesrsweet….I’ll come back tomorrow… Friday or Saturday…He was frightened of me…I know he loves me…It’s  difficult….I’m on vacation…As the days pass…Yesterday, today, tomorrow…We bump into each other by accident…Happiness – I don’t know…

 Scene : Pierre and Charlotte in their apartment in the afternoon

Pierre, Charlotte’s husband and a pilot, has returned home from an assignment. They live in the apartment with Pierre’s little boy from a previous marriage.

PIERRE: Where do you begin? Where does my image of you begin? How do I tell the difference between reality and my desires?

CHARLOTTE: You just need to know what’s behind my eyes.                                  

PIERRE: What is behind them?                                                                     

CHARLOTTE: Each time you come home you ask such complicated questions. 

PIERRE: I love you. Maybe that’s why it’s complicated.                                       

CHARLOTTE: I love you too, Pierre. Maybe it’s not the way you want, but, it’s sincere. 

Scene : Pierre and Charlotte’s apartment in the evening

Pierre has invited his filmmaker friend (much older than him) to dinner at their apartment. The three are relaxing after dinner.                       

Godard edited and assembled their conversation into a series of monologues using captions before each one.

Title card: Memory

PIERRE: It’s amazing to think that the first thing they put in a machine is memory. Teaching it to remember the past.

CHARLOTTE: Yes, but the past isn’t amusing. The present is more important.

PIERRE: No, for me, I admit memory is very important. It’s even a bit unbelievable. When I was in Germany and I went to some of the trials at Auschwitz… the accused, who had killed who knows how many thousands….they all swore they couldn’t remember anything… I don’t know, maybe they were faking it, maybe it was their only defense. But some looked like they have gone completely blank. Speaking of memory, when I was in Greece with Roberto Rossellini that time, he told me a strange story. Rossellini thought it was the funniest thing ever. One day, on the Champs Elysees, he saw  a parade deportees. You know… the men wore their old camp uniforms…striped pajamas, caps. But, this was ten years after the war. Obviously, they have been much thinner in the days at Dachau or Mauthausen. In the meantime, they had been eating…living a normal life and they had put on weight. They had gotten fatter and the uniforms didn’t fit. And this is why Rossellini thought it was so funny. Because those men had a memory that was false memory. They didn’t remember what they had been like. (Pause) My memory… with me… it’s impossible to forget. I remember everything. Everything, whether my first flight or my first vacation in Brittany. Just like the first day we met. I remember it all, even the dress you wore. Of course, there are some things I’d rather forget.

Title card:  The Present    

CHARLOTTE: Memory is not for me. I prefer the present. The present is more exciting. I like music. Things that die… flowers…Love… Love, you know you got to live it… of course you live in the present….because if it’s impossible to love in the present… it couldn’t live, it would be dead. What’s important for me is to know what’s happening. I mean, to be aware of what’s happening. I try to find exactly what it all means. How all the others react. It’s difficult in the present. That’s why I just love the present. Because the present gives me no time to think….. I can’t understand it. It’s way beyond me. But, certainly, what I’m interested in is this thing that escapes me, that I’m not able to control in the present. That’s why I like the present. I want to control it because I am a human being, not an animal… Often, I regret that, because I love animals, they’re so natural, so beautiful. But we have to understand. You ask if I’m happy. No, I’m not happy at all. Well, I’m not happy because I’m not alive in the present. I’m up to date…nothing surprises me that happens…Yes, yes, there are many things that I’ve done that are wrong. I am ashamed. I’m able to… I am able to… I was ashamed… after. I was ashamed because I wasn’t smart enough to realize that they were bad. But, during the present – no, that’s why I love the present. Because, during the present, I’m able to do it…. It escapes me. I’m not sure what will happen. The present keeps me from madness.

Title card: Intelligence 

FILMMAKER FRIEND: It’s curious that certain words to which we attach no importance when we first heard them, after a while, become significant. I’m thinking of a phrase someone said to me twenty five years ago, in 1940. During that mess we made at Vichy. He was a man of great courage and wit…one of the first to join the resistance. He wanted to visit Vichy before committing himself against it. He said, “I’m not a man of action before I’m a man of comprehension.” This friend of mine – he had a beautiful name – Emmanuel …. He was not at all like me. But, this statement of his, has become for me, a personal motto which is, in my opinion, the definition of intelligence. Intelligence is to comprehend before acting. It’s the idea of seeking. Seeking the limits, seeking one’s opposite. To reach an understanding of others, a bridge between oneself and others. We then find, bit by bit, a part of the path. I’m aware that not everyone cares for his intellectual approach. Most men want brilliant colors or things that are black or white without nuances or shades. But, to me, the fanatics, the dogmatics are the boring ones. To begin with, you know what they are going to say in advance. But those who embrace paradox are more amusing and engaging. Paradox offers an alternative to the self-evident. Beside, today, there’s the word “Compromise”. Compromise is splendid – may be the most courageous of intellectual acts. But today its lack of conviction. As far as I am concerned, I shall  go on, thinking that we must continue to look for the proper synthesis….. and I will go on saying that the world cannot be so simple. And, the world can’t be completely absurd. Intelligence is precisely the attempt to  inject reason into this absurdity. You (addressing Charlotte) remind me, even though you have brown hair, of a lovely redhead in a poem by Appolinaire…”Now is the time for sunshine, the day of passionate reason – the passionate reason that the poet awaits – when it appears has the charming aspect of an adorable Redhead.” And that is what you see in a woman’s face who has intellectual consciousness… it gives her a kind of other beauty… a kind of regal beauty of a woman turning into something supreme. That is why, I believe, all great ideas are feminine. That’s why we name statues “La Virtue,”, “La Republique,”, “La France”. I know it’s improper to lecture on philosophy at such a charming dinner. But I ask you to simply believe that it’s sincere. I make this declaration of intellectual prudence not because I’m aging. On the contrary, when I was 20, I was more open to other ideas. It’s when one is 60 that you’d like to give your brain a vacation. And that humanism is a bore and that one wants to be foolish. But, in any case, we must love the young wise man and the old fool.

Scene: Pierre & Charlotte in bed after the departure of the guest

CHARLOTTE: If I asked you what your faults are… what’d you say?                   

PIERRE: Why not my good points?                                                                       

CHARLOTTE: No, it’s your faults that interest me.                                                    

PIERRE: Pride, impatience. My love for you.                                                       

CHARLOTTE: Mine are laziness, lying…no, not laziness, actually. I just have no will power.

Pause

PIERRE: Take off your nightgown.                                                                        

CHARLOTTE: No, I’ll be cold.                                                                                       

PIERRE: You promised to be nice….. Why don’t you like me to look at you any more?

CHARLOTTE: Because it embarrasses me.                                                                  

PIERRE: Why? There is no reason it should.                                                                   

CHARLOTTE: It just does. That’s all.                                                                            

PIERRE: All right.

Pause

PIERRE: You are sad all of a sudden.                                                                            

CHARLOTTE: Yes.                                                                                                             

PIERRE: Because of me?                                                                                           

CHARLOTTE: No. All the others.                                                                                     

PIERRE: What do you mean?                                                                                

CHARLOTTE: All those people I don’t know. All the people in the street. I’d like to know them all. I wish I knew how to. That one. That one. That one. That one who could die tomorrow. He’s waiting for a phone call before killing himself. But nobody calls him. So he does it. We’re all guilty people.

 Title card: Theatre and Love

 Scene : Charlotte and Robert in a bed in an airport hotel room in Paris in various moments of intimacy

Robert is at the airport waiting for his flight. He is on his way to a theatre performance outside of Paris. Robert and Charlotte have another rendezvous planned before he leaves. Charlotte, guided by Robert, sneaks into Robert’s hotel room in her usual surreptitious way making sure no one can suspect that they are meeting each other.                                          

Charlotte has found out that she is pregnant. She doesn’t know whose child she is carrying – Robert’s or Pierre’s? She has at last realized that she has to choose between the two men.

CHARLOTTE: First of all, you Robert, I’ve often asked myself who you really are. 

ROBERT: That’s a strange question. I’m not sure who I really am. I’m a guy pretty much like the others. I’ve got faults, I suppose, like the others.                             

CHARLOTTE: You say, you’re an actor…                                                                    

ROBERT: Yes, why?                                                                                                   

CHARLOTTE: What is an Actor?                                                                                 

ROBERT: An Actor goes up on stage and acts in plays….an Actor… interprets… defines a character…goes outside oneself and illustrates feelings, thoughts…That’s what it is… That’s all… More or less…                                                                      

CHARLOTTE: And right now, are you upholding your position?                                

ROBERT: At this moment, yes, I’m trying to uphold my position. I mean, my own position as an Actor. Besides that, my own position as a Man….It’s not simple, not a bit simple.                                                                                                                     

CHARLOTTE: How can you tell the difference between life and the theatre?

ROBERT: In life, I’m not acting. At least, I don’t feel as though I’m acting. You know that certain types of actors are always acting. Trying to feed their emotions. I may be wrong, but I’m not like them at all.                                                                  

CHARLOTTE: And, in the theatre, do you think you exist? Or, are you just a mechanism?                                                                                                                         

ROBERT: I think…. It’s difficult to answer that. A bit of both, I think. Of course, I’m a mechanism. That’s undeniable. But, at the same time…                                          

CHARLOTTE: Look, if it’s both then there’s no difference between life and the theatre.

ROBERT: No, there is a difference. You ask a question, I answer what comes into my mind.

CHARLOTTE: But, are you acting right now?                                                                    

ROBERT: But, it’s not the same thing as acting…the theatre is another thing. There is a text which helps you. It’s not me at all. What I am doing…you ask me question and I am answering in the simplest…but this is my script, my text. It’s not the same as the Theatre, that’s the difference. You might say I’m acting right now because—

CHARLOTTE: Are you acting when you make love to me?                                    

ROBERT: Oh no, not at all. No, absolutely not – no – Absolutely not—not at all. It’s quite different.                                                                                                            

CHARLOTTE: So, you don’t enjoy it. It’s not fun for you.                                           

ROBERT: Why not?                                                                                                  

CHARLOTTE: Since you love the theatre.                                                                  

ROBERT: One can be fond of theatre and fond of making love. They’re not mutually exclusive. But they are separate things.                                                                   

CHARLOTTE: If you had to choose, which would you pick?                                        

ROBERT: Making love.                                                                                               

CHARLOTTE: I’m always afraid that you are acting.                                                  

ROBERT: No, you needn’t be. When I say I love you, I’m being honest and sincere. I’m sure I love you.                                                                                          

CHARLOTTE: But how can I really tell that you are sincere? How do I know you’re not acting?

ROBERT: I thought you had enough proof already of my love for you. I thought there were things you just knew….tangible things about me…between us.                 

CHARLOTTE: What does Love mean to you?                                                            

ROBERT: It means just what I feel for you.                                                           

CHARLOTTE: No, think about it carefully before you answer.                      

ROBERT: Love is… I assure you that… uh…                                              

CHARLOTTE: What does Love really mean to you?                                       

ROBERT: It really is what I feel, when I am with you… my feeling for you… how I care for you… everything I feel inside for you. It’s what I call Love.             

CHARLOTTE: No, no, never mind me. Speak about yourself.                           

ROBERT: But, how can I? To me, Love is the link between two people. Oneself in relation to another… I don’t know. Perhaps it’s… I don’t know… it’s…

Pause

CHARLOTTE: If I asked you what were your good points, what would you say?

ROBERT: My good points? Why not my faults?                                                     

CHARLOTTE: No, it’s your good points that interest me.                               

ROBERT: Intelligence. Mistrust.                                                                             

CHARLOTTE: Mistrust is a good thing?\                                                                       

ROBERT: It is.                                                                                                            

CHARLOTTE: What else?                                                                                           

ROBERT: Sincerity.                                                                                                  

CHARLOTTE: Not your love for me?                                                                           

ROBERT: That too. And, what are yours?                                                           

CHARLOTTE: Me… that I’ve no afterthoughts perhaps.  

We hear flight boarding call announced. Robert says it’s time for his flight – he has to go.                                                

And, Charlotte ends the affair by saying, it’s all over.

FIN

FLYING FISH / A Sanjeewa Pushpakumara film from Sri Lanka

                                                   

Sanjeewa’s film intertwines three stories dealing with the spoils of the Sri Lankan civil war. A young girl is harassed at school by Tamil Tigers who demand monetary “donations” that her family cannot afford to pay. An unmarried lovelorn woman is impregnated by a soldier. When the soldier abandons her, the girl and her father struggle to endure the shame. A widow, mother of eight children longing for male companionship, mistakes a well-to-do villager’s questionable benevolence towards her family as love. Tragedy strikes when her teenage son discovers the affair.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                A                                                       

Sanjeewa’s approach to story-telling is clinical. He avoids the trappings of attention-seeking and sometimes imposing extreme close-up/ close ups and frenzied cuts to create tension and drama. He uses what is essential with the belief that less-is-more to render the three stories. He uses extreme long shots, stationary camera and long and often voyeuristic takes to lead us into the unfamiliar world of Sri Lanka’s countryside – a countryside which looks like a land under occupation, where people live like refugees. A populace with neither any ideal nor hope! Waiting for the impending doom is their only choice. It doesn’t matter who is a Tamil or who is a Sinhalese – both are perpetrators of violence, both are victims. Men enlist in the army or otherwise get executed by the Tamil Tigers or the local pro-government militia or just hang out with a rifle in hand. When they don’t have anything else to do, the pro-government militia and the army seduce local women into having sex.     

Prolonged and repeated love-making among ruins, first captured in static long shots and then slowly closing in a little to a point from where we could clearly observe without spoiling the act and hear the gasps of the love-making couple, infuses an otherwise morbid mood of the film with a raw and liberating energy. The long takes turn us into voyeurs.

Scenes of bathing of the impregnated unmarried woman and her soldier lover in the river in twilight, the rendezvous of the widow’s son with his classmate-girlfriend among boulders to escape the senseless misery – are all observed from a distance. Even the criminal acts  — crimes of passion and killings which conclude each of the three stories — are shot in wide-angle with camera placed even further than for a normal medium shot so as not to merely exploit the obvious shock value of the moments.

Take a stroll in the locales with Sanjeewa’s camera and you meet people living in constant fear – even the fish vendors, with cutting knives in hand, look like executioners! The bloody remains of the chopped fish portend to impending death.

Flying Fish has done exceptionally well at international film festivals and has bagged the Critics Choice award at the 5th New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Fest (www.NJISACF.org).

BOOK REVIEW

John W. Hood. Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray.New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2008. xi + 476 pp. $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-81-250-3510-7.

Reviewed by Sakti Sengupta (Asian-American Film Theater)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Indian Neo-realist cinema

Satyajit Ray, one of the three Indian cultural icons besides the great sitar player Pandit Ravishankar and the Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, is the father of the neorealist movement in Indian cinema. Much has already been written about him and his films. In the West, he is perhaps better known than the literary genius Tagore. The University of Californiaat Santa Cruz and the American Film Institute have published (available on their Web sites) a list of books about him. Popular ones include Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) by Marie Seton and Satyajit Ray, the Inner Eye (1989) by Andrew Robinson. A majority of such writings (with the exception of the one by Chidananda Dasgupta who was not only a film critic but also an occasional filmmaker) are characterized by unequivocal adulation without much critical exploration of his oeuvre and have been written by journalists or scholars of literature or film. What is missing from this long list is a true appreciation of his works with great insights into cinematic questions like we find in Francois Truffaut’s homage to Alfred Hitchcock (both cinematic giants) or in Andre Bazin’s and Truffaut’s bio-critical homage to Orson Welles.

In Beyond the World of Apu, John W. Hood, a scholar of Indian art cinema and a translator of Bengali literature, has done an eloquent and ardent study of twenty-nine films by Ray. In the preface, Hood mocks the “Bengali Bhadrolok” (“Bhadrolok” means “gentleman” in the Bengali language and Ray himself was a Bengali) who “consider themselves pillars of culture and thinkers of India,” and who, in spite of being a Bengali, “would know far more Bombay commercial films than films of Satyajit Ray, and yet be quick to defend him as one of their cultural giants” (p. 2). He goes on to write, “there is a small minority of intelligent, sensitive and well-read aficionados of cinema (in India) whose knowledge of Ray” is “often profound and acutely perceptive,” and who “appreciate sound criticism and readily admit that not every film is a masterpiece” (p. 3). Such a high-handed approach makes one wonder which readership Hood is targeting for his book.

He groups Ray’s films not chronologically but into thematic chapters, each chapter covering more than one film. He explores each film in terms of its story, plotting, characterization, camera shots, aesthetics, and sociopolitical significance, arguing and illuminating its merits and demerits and also sometimes comparing the films with each other. Although the majority of the films discussed are not based on original story-ideas by Ray, Hood’s zealous annotated narration of them with frequent reference to visuals adheres to their rendition on celluloid by the master filmmaker without any allusion to their sources.

From the title of the book, the reader would anticipate discussions of Ray’s other films, but Hood begins his discussion with a chapter titled “Apu Trilogy,” and goes to great length in proving once again, like his many predecessors, that these three films (Pather Panchali [1955], Aparajita [1956], and Apur Samsar [1959]) “might well be regarded as the single greatest achievement of the Indian cinema” (p. 4). Unfortunately, in the end, he offers us few new cinematic insights into them. He is at his best in discussing Ray’s masterpiece Charulata (1964) in the chapter titled “Tribute to Tagore” (which includes two other films: Tin Kanya [1961] and Ghare Baire [1984]). He demonstrates a deep understanding of filmmaking here and makes the framing of the camera shots sublimely meaningful while introducing the story and its characters.

Hood has taken up the daunting task of writing a kind of a study guide for the great director’s films and judiciously avoids being indifferent to any of them. We see equal earnestness in his exploration of films in each chapter. In a span of over four hundred pages, he canonizes a prolific artist full of many virtues with big accomplishments and few failings, a filmmaker who is an epitome of the “cinema of rigor” and has ventured in different directions with arguably varying degrees of success (p. 2). In the beginning of the book, Hood hypothesizes by saying that Ray’s “masterpieces are few,” and thereafter, throughout the remainder of the book, he perseveres to prove it by identifying the masterpieces, and the mediocre and less-than-masterpiece films (p. 2). Hood writes lucidly without cinematic jargon, yet his writing is formalistic like a PhD dissertation.

He maintains an interesting precision in his arguments: for example, in discussing the film Sadgati (1981), he states that “Ray offers some ten shots to describe the removal of the corpse of Dukhi” (p. 316). He is copious in his praises, but subdued in his criticisms of lesser works like Parash Pathar (1958), Abhijan (1962), Kapurush O Mahapurush (1962), and Chidiakhana (1967) (all included with one other film Jalsaghar [1958] in a chapter titled “An Early Pastiche”). His grouping of films into chapters is well conceived and will be helpful for the uninitiated readers to plan out a viewing schedule of Ray’s oeuvre.

Hood’s diligent approach is sometimes marred by his overwriting in his discussions of a few particular films. The chapter “The Calcutta Triptych” covers Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975)–three films set in the turbulent, ailing, and moribund Calcutta of the seventies with its morally bankrupt wealthy upper class and teeming middle-class denizens. Pratidwandi, being the most elliptical of the three, is the most prominently featured film in this chapter. Hood, at the cost of slighting the merits of the other two films, devotes an inordinate amount of space in interpreting the film’s leading character’s dreams and thoughts.

“Devi” (1969), a critique of superstition and idolatry in Hindu religion, and “Sadgati (1981), dealing with untouchability (both films included in the chapter “The Cry against Tradition” and based on two powerful stories by two famous writers), are minor masterpieces. Ray’s real genius lies in transporting those stories into a visual media with masterly strokes. Hood goes even further to unearth signs of overflowing humanism in the composition of camera shots and tends to portray Ray as the one who endowed these stories with such quality, thereby diminishing their progenitors.

“An Eye on the Past” is a chapter dedicated to two films–Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Ashani Sanket (1973)–Ray’s not-so-successful foray into films based on historical events. At the time of their theatrical releases, the first one earned very limited critical acclaim while the second was panned by the critics for its incongruous treatment of a calamity like famine. Hood argues cogently in defense of both films (“two works that must be assessed as cinema, not history”) in an effort to rescue them (p. 9).

Constrained by failing health, Ray shot his last three films (Ganashatru [1989], Shakha Prashakha” [1990], and Agantuk [1991]) mostly indoors, and they were loquacious and inferior works. Hood does not hesitate to be critical of them, but ,his critique is more like the disappointment of a devotee and lacks the discursiveness with which he praises the master’s better works.

Overall, in spite of being a comprehensive study, the material in Beyond the World of Apu resembles the Cliffs Notes for high school and college students. It is hard to imagine that the uninitiated would be able to appreciate its usefulness or be motivated by it without first watching the films under discussion.

 If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.

Citation: Sakti Sengupta. Review of Hood, John W., Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. March, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=23985

  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

MEHERJAAN / a Rubaiyat Hossain film from Bangladesh

 

Rubaiyat Hossain’s debut feature film MEHERJAAN, a family saga set in the times of war, is quite an impressive achievement in cinema from Bangladesh. Its multi-layered story-telling and cinematic eloquence render a probing and heart-breaking tale about the spoils of war and loss of humanity.

The story of MEHERJAAN, which recently won awards for the Best Debut Feature film and Best Female Director at the fifth New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Fest (NJISACF), unravels in flashbacks and voice-overs by an older MEHER (Jaya Bhaduri) as she recounts it to her young niece, Sarah (Nasima Selim), who is the illegitimate child of her cousin sister Neela (Reetu Abdus Sattar) raped and impregnated by a Pakistani soldier during the raid on Dacca University at the break of the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971. Sarah, one of those children of war, was adopted by a German couple at the end of the war. After 38 years, SARAH has come to Meher, now an unmarried sculptor, to dig up her history and seek an identity.

What really makes Rubaiyat’s film an enriching experience for us is that she, may be for the very first time in any film from Bangladesh I have seen, gives us a three hundred and sixty-degree perspective on the 1971 war of independence by illuminating moral and humanitarian issues, and opposing contemporary political philosophies and political parties with programs bent on merely exterminating each other rather than stay unified in fighting a common enemy, by exploring the essence of “love for the other” and the loss of innocence as manifested in two of its leading characters Meher and Neela respectively.

The raped, violated Neela has only one goal in life – she wants to kill and mutilate Pakistani soldiers, whereas, the sheltered dreamer young Meher (Shayna Amin) falls in love with Wasim Khan (Omar Rahim) — a wounded deserter from the Pakistani army who saved young Meher from being sexual prey for a convoy of Pakistani soldiers. 

So that the reader of this review doesn’t misconstrue the film as being merely about Meher’s falling in love with an enemy soldier, let me stress here that, it is not only a story about Meher and Neela, it’s also about Khwaja sahib (Victor Banerjee), the widower patriarch of the family (and Meher and Neela’s grandfather), who decides to move his family out of Dacca at the beginning of the Pakistani invasion, and settle in the idyllic life of his ancestral home in a remote village probably out of the reach of the raging war. Khwaja Sahib sits on a chair in the lawn in the morning and afternoon – no visitor can venture into the inner quarters without being stopped by him. He protects and guards the family he built with great care. In one evocative scene, the patriarch goes to a local pond on the way back from Masjid to wash his hands and face, and as he climbs up the stairs leading away from the pond, he notices a spider’s web – he touches it with love and care so as not to destroy it – after all, he himself has nurtured and built his own family with equal love and care. Political agents of all colors come to him seeking his support for their cause, but, the incorrigible patriarch keeps supporting the fight for an independent Bangladesh. With the very firing of a bullet shattering the tranquility of  this idyllic atmosphere. Khwaja Sahib’s martyrdom is brilliantly and most appropriately rendered by Rubaiyat as the fall of an icon.

The bloody aggression of war shakes up every member of Khwaja Sahib’s family. Even his mentally handicapped daughter, Salma, fancies marrying a freedom fighter who would, at the end of the day’s violence, come to her seeking consolation and love.

Meher is mindful from the outset that history won’t judge her love for the wounded Pakistani soldier, for whom she has found a shelter in the hut of one villager, with any sympathy, but, still she carries on with it. Rubaiyat uses the lush greenery and vastness of the countryside for scenes in which Meher and Wasim Khan rendezvous from dawn to dusk thereby contrasting these with others like an impressionistic painter – the doomed lovers playing in the divine landscape built with supreme love by our Creator!

 MEHERJAAN reminded me of the famous Italian filmmaker Vittori De Sica’s 1970 masterpiece THE GARDEN OF FINZI-CONTINIS.

I will be waiting for Rubaiyat’s next film with greater expectations.

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