Sexy Durga (2016), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan- IFFLA 2017

When a filmmaker takes liberties with his craft and takes a leap to experiment new modes of story-telling and image-making, we ought to pause and pay attention. Independent cinema retains its verve because there are filmmakers who stretch the limits of the conventions, often without regard to the established codes or with the desire to survive in safety. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga tests the mettle of the film viewer to see if we are willing to take the risks to watch how a director unwraps the mysteries of story-telling, while he also unravels his cinematic palette. This is a “road-movie,” a thriller, a terror-film, a caustic cultural critique and above all, a masterly work. The story of the film may be put in few words but its accomplishments in cinematic form are remarkably vast. Two lovers, Kabeer and Durga (their religious difference is hardly hinted) elope in the middle of the night. Durga waits for Kabeer alone under a street light on a dimly lit street corner and when he arrives, the two of them hitch a ride. They need to go to the nearest train station to get away from their parents and families. They are lucky; two men turn out to be kind enough take them along. It is a dark night; street lights are sparse and uneven. The men notice a woman in the back seat, sitting next to a fearful, passive man. Both of them are clutching on to their bags and their luck, facing an unknowable journey ahead.  Their journey to the train station makes for the main narrative of the film. Their singular luck has to do with finding a ride instead of standing alone on the road for a long time. The film is bookended with a ritual associated with the Goddess[…..]
Read More

Ananya Kasaravalli’s Harikatha Prasanga/Chronicles of Hari (2016)- IFFLA 2017

This is a simple and elegant film, made with the creative dexterity of a talented director. It is also a film about theater, history of performance, and about gender identity. There are many strengths of this film; the closer you get to it, the more there is to discover. If the director’s name sounds familiar; it is! Her father Girish Kasaravalli co-wrote the script with Gopalakrisna Pai, both immeasurable talents in Kannada film and literature. The film, based on a short story by Pai, is centered on Hari, a young actor who plays female roles in theater in Karnataka. The film peers behind the long-standing practice in theater by foregrounding the troubles of male performers playing women’s roles in theater. Their negotiations with the tensions between performed and lived roles remain part of cultural history, though hidden for some time. Hari has been playing a woman in the Yakshagana tradition. Hard working, sincere and reflective, he is admired for his roles. Graceful in his body, his own life reflects the roles he plays. He prefers to wear saris, and in female company, he finds a mutual ease. His own disposition in everyday life, his stated vocation in theater, and his gender ambiguity cause great distress to the family. His brother cannot get married as the family is tainted with a presence of a scandalous member who dresses like girls. Immensely and sensitive, Hari finds the environment too painful. Frustration drives him to rare fits of anger at his brother. Hari quits the theater troupe, cuts his long hair and attempts to return to normal life as a young man. But eligible women avoid him, making his existential crisis even deeper. Distraught and torn between his role as a woman-performer and the pressures of his culture, Hari finds himself adrift in[…..]
Read More

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum-Once Again (2016)– IFFLA 2017

  Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum/Once Again (2016) A new film from Adoor Gopalakrishnan after absence of nearly eight years is welcome news to anyone in Indian cinema. A lot has changed for the doyen of Malayalam cinema; digital technology has taken hold and neoliberalism has shaped the middle class even in rural areas. You want to see a renewed critique of social values embedded in the realism that serves to both portray life and bring it under his microscope. Pinneyum, based on a real event that occurred a while ago, moves in that direction. After watching the film, we sense a distance between the intentions of the director to put contemporary greed of the middle class at the center of the narrative and a film that stops short of the edge one expects to see. In the film, an apparently well-qualified man, Purushothaman Nair, finds a job in the Gulf after considerable rejection from the tough employment opportunities at home. Once there, he invests in life insurance so his beloved wife and daughter will live a comfortable life. Soon, he realizes that his wife can cash in the insurance policy if he can stage his death, disappear for a while and reunite with her for a happy life. His elaborate but rushed scheme that includes family members falls apart, only to bring grief, pain, and dark clouds over them. Greed costs and it costs dearly! The first phase of the film is a patient exercise in painting the portrait of a middle- class family life. In the days of financial hardship, every relative, distant or near, sees him as a failure. Nair and his wife are caught in the swirl of little dramas where the members of the join family take it upon themselves to cast dark light on his abilities.[…..]
Read More

Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)–IFFLA 2017

This year’s IFFLA programming boasts of a number of women filmmakers: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ananya Kasaravalli, and Alankrita Shrivastava, Bobby Sharma Barua, Shirley Abraham, and Sonejuhi Sinha. It is a rare, celebratory, and well-deserved programming accomplishment, a tribute to the unseen but vibrant part of Indian cinema. That this year’s program opens with a film in which four women, different backgrounds, ages, and desires, is also a momentous event. The very title of Alankrita Shrivastava’s film suggests something rebellious, laced with a slightly transgressive gesture. It is that and more too! Four women mark their arrival in a new era of rebellion against patriarchy and orthodoxy on many levels of Indian life. The narrative is a roller-coaster of four-pronged narratives that do much less to transgress as to show the un-expressed desires that prohibit women from taking command of their own lives. If you isolate the scenes and images that appear transgressive, or in the eyes of the Indian Censor Board prohibitive, then you are good at isolating women from their contexts. That is, you are merely reducing their lives to select gestures of your own choice, a standard hallmark of patriarchal power. If you notice a language yearning to come out from these scenes, from how women want to break the mold of codes imposed on them, then you are doing justice to the film. It may not be an easy exercise, but an essential one. The film is an omnibus of sorts, four narratives woven together in which women take steps to show the initial conceptions of freedom in a repressive culture. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Muslim mother of three tends to her family by working as a sales girl with a grit, innovative and bold in her moves to make certain she is successful. When her[…..]
Read More

Kothanodi/The River of Fables: an exercise in magic and the occult! IFFLA 2016

Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut feature received funding from Busan’s The Asian Cinema Fund and premiered at the BIFF in October 2015. The film is an important event for Assamese cinema, which remains less visible on the landscape of multiple language cinemas in India. For the film’s narrative, Hazarika went to the folk tales of Assam, particularly a collection compiled by Laxminath Bezbarua in 1911, called Buri Ai’r Xadhu (Grandma’s Tales). Weaving four tales together, he attempts a bold experiment in narrative construction. Presented on a tableau of imagery in Assamese culture, where the objects are culturally specific and timelessly continuous, Hazarika’s film gives much to ruminate about style and relevance of tales of magic, superstition, evil and the occult. All four stories are about women. Devinath (Adil Hussain), a merchant leaves his wife Senehi (Zerifa Wahid) at home with her stepdaughter Tejimola. Senehi hates the existence of Tejimola and plots to kill her on the advice of her demon lover. Her abuse occurs in the presence of visitors and neighbors but they offer no resistance, as if to recognize the power of the abuse or the authority of the mother. In his travels, Devinath meets a weaver woman Keteki ((Urmila Mahanta) who is beset with an intriguing phenomenon of an outenga (a sour fruit from Assam) animatedly following her wherever she goes. Devinath believes the outenga is Keteki’s child and offers to bring it to life. In a village nearby, a rich woman Dhoneshwari (Seema Biswas) is preparing for a wedding of her daughter to a python, believed to be a prince in disguise ready to bring riches to the family. The fourth woman, Malati (Asha Bordoloi) is attempting to save her newborn from her husband Poonai (Kopil Bora) who, under the spell of his uncle’s advice, killed three of their[…..]
Read More

Vetri Maaran’s Visaaranai (Interrogation): Popular Cinema of Intervention- IFFLA 2016

I have been watching police thrillers made by John Woo and Johnnie To for a while now. They have reinvigorated the police-crime dramas by instilling into them a cinematic style and finesse of mise-en-scène. They inspire filmmakers from around the world, Martin Scorsese among them. The trope of police corruption is quite common in cinema and in their films, it is elevated to an art form, graced by popular film stars and narratives of loyalty, betrayal, and violence. The trope descended from the screen into our lives quite some time ago and in the U. S., it has become a flashpoint for struggles of racism, militarization and institutional corruption. Violence on the screen remains remote, still the realm of fascination for millions while little changes in corruption and violence of everyday lives. Vetri Maaran’s film, Visaaranai (Interrogation) is different. It is miles away from the romantic stylization of the films in 1970s and 1980s. Ground began shifting after Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly and the spate of films influenced by the trends in realism in Indian cinema. In Visaranai, there is no stylization and glorification of violence as in the films of Woo, To, or Scorsese. It takes a step beyond Kashyap’s but remains in the realist lexicon to deliver the strongest punch we see on screen against police corruption and brutality. The narrative has a relentless pace, overpowering one scene of brutality over another and for us, moving from one tragedy to another. With such naked reality in our face, does anything change?   The film introduces us to the plight of migrants from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh, seeking low-paying jobs. Clash is inherent in their stories on many levels, languages, cultures and ethnic hatred from the Telugu toward the Tamil. Three of the four laborers are rounded up by[…..]
Read More

Jayaraj Rajasekharan Nair’s Ottaal (The Trap): Tragic, Wise, and Dignified! IFFLA 2016

  Anton Chekhov’s short story, Vanka, is a memorable portrait of an orphan who longs to return to his grandfather and the early days of childhood. Nine-year old Vanka finds cruelty in the labor for a local shoemaker. The trappings of Moscow appear to him too cold and inhuman. His village back home breathed life, where the skies smiled gently in the night and grandpa towered over all of it like a graceful guardsman. Chekhov paints an image of a gentle heart residing in orphan’s body helplessly facing a fate ruled by the ruthless men in the city. The short story is about the plight of orphans as it is about the precious memories that make souls yearn for gentleness and love from the elders. Now take that short story and place it in the pristine, moonlit waters of Kuttanad in Kerala (“Venice of the East”), where rhythms of time and space are synchronous with the lives of all creatures. After the burden of debt claims his farming parents by suicide, Young Kuttappayi joins his grandfather (no name, known here as Vallyappachayi) to tend to flocks of ducks in flooded waters, fishing, playing around and telling stories. Kuttappayi has a desire to learn and a gift to create. His organic intimacy with nature endows him with gifts to create objects and projects. His friend’s high station in life gives him access to school but without the aptitude to absorb what is offered to him. As time moves slowly but surely, grandpa feels the weight of his old age and sees his feeble body fully capable of giving up one day. Worried that Kuttappayi doesn’t have much future in the village and must pursue learning, he trusts his boss to take him to a fireworks factory in the city. Vanka and[…..]
Read More

Island City: A Prelude to a Future We’ve Already Lived Through!

Ruchika Oberoi’s debut feature is a three part anthology, a bold move that broadens the palette to portray the deep seated alienation and schizophrenia of life in Bombay. In varying style and narratives, she deepens the pain of the prosperous future we see and the suffering that never leaves us. The film speaks to the natives of a land ridden with contradiction of suffering and hope of future. It also speaks of the bold currents that have now taken hold in Indian independent cinema. Premiering tonight at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), Island City is a film that invites absorption and rewards with lessons in potency of anthology films which can deliver multiple critiques on issues at hand. Three short films are woven together in their narratives and in our interpretive approach to them. The three construct a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts. The first of the three stories is set in a rote corporate setting of “Systematic Statistics,” easily identifiable for office workers of any era, where control is invasive and work a matter of survival. The space reeks of lifeless objects, while the humans are recognized by their servile mobility. The corporation encourages employees with nonsensical rewards to boost their productivity, such as “employee of the month,” and coupons to purchase more consumer goods. It is a perfect stage to watch capital perform its marriage with control over humans. We follow Mr. Chaturvedi’s day of celebration as he is forced to enjoy the award by stepping out of one meaningless setting to the vacuous pleasures of a shopping mall and consumer goods. Filmed as a sad satire of the corporate world in which the new working class wallows day-after-day, Oberoi empties out the spaces of capital with listless colors while[…..]
Read More

Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013)

One of the earlier passages of Walter Benjamin’s elegiac meditation on the art of storytelling captures the essence of the cherished art form.   The fourth “stanza” of that piece begins with an observation: “An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers.”  The pragmatic dimension of narrative is not reduced to providing explanation, Benjamin remarks, but to move it from “living speech” to think of possible transformations, to explore “epic truth.”  Mainly known for its lament about the loss of story-telling in the age of fragmented information, Benjamin’s essay reminds the reader that a story awakens the truth through its imaginative trajectories, inviting the listeners to explore new thresholds, to see “a new beauty” in the forgotten past and to be open to new forms of truth.  The gift of crafting imagination without trapping it in given forms sets storytelling apart from the succeeding forms including the novel and the media. In the traditions of North Indian cultures, from the Pathans to Punjabis, the art of storytelling acquired a unique etymology in qissa.  For the Punjabi culture, qisse became the oars for navigating the complex waters of life. Many a family gatherings or a yaaro’s ki mehfils were enlivened with the qisse pumping through the veins.  Qisse contain the potency invested by Benjamin in storytelling.  They evolve, mold, and follow uncharted paths, from the everyday to the profound.  They adapt to the practical contingencies of life.  Qisse grow and transform with the pulse of their times and their imaginative powers.  Qisse can draw margins but they can also open up and expand thoughts.  In their essential spirit, they keep thinking alive. Anup Singh’s Qissa is draped simultaneously in a tale of a Punjabi man, the social realities of gender issues, and in the figure of a ghost that[…..]
Read More

True Love Story (2014), Gitanjali Rao- L. A. Premiere, IFFLA-Apr. 10. 2015

I watched Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow (2006), in India when it was just released in Cannes, winning Best Short Film Award in Critics Week. It was a stunning discovery of a film and an artist. The film is not merely a masterpiece in painted image, propelling an entirely new aesthetic and bright new parameters for animation. Besides its immensely meaningful skills in story-telling, the film was an exercise in cinematic themes; from the permeability of screens in our lives that would blend reality and representation to integral qualities of sound design in a narrative. Its invocation of the match-boxes for transposition of the past and the present, of life and death, was admirable. Printed Rainbow made me ever-so-eager to see her next work. Her short, Chai, part of the online anthology project, India-is, reinforced the impression that Rao was capable of framing complex issues in simple yet eloquently rich frames, while remaining sensitive to humane aspects of social life. It is a short story not merely about Chai, the potion that runs through the veins of India’s social life, but a piercing tale about displacement, homelessness and social justice. Then comes her 19 minute short film, True Love Story, now making its LA Premiere on April 10 at the International Film Festival of Los Angeles. It is a rewarding visual experience at the minimum, and a treatise on both cultural critique and social sensitivity of a filmmaker at its best. This is her signature painted animation, rendered meticulously expressive by the intricate skills of the artist to reach into the minor nooks of the image to portray emotions in depth. Rao juxtaposes the contrast between the fantasy life of Bollywood films and the realistic conditions of some of its biggest customers, those who live on the streets. Bollywood’s larger than life[…..]
Read More