Category Archives: Independent Films

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”.

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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).

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.