Monthly Archives: March 2012

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).

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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.