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[…..]
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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[…..]
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Chauranga (2014), Bikas Ranjan Mishra-North American Premiere-IFFLA, April 9. 2015

Over the past two decades or so, world cinema has seen emergence of a film that anchors itself in a local idiom, bears its cultural signature and then positions its appeal to the larger, broader audience outside of its specific contexts of origin. This kind of film is one of the hallmarks of the new world cinema, a bye-product of the festival circuits and patronage that maintains its appeal to the diverse markets. The simultaneously liberating and constraining circuits of distributions make circulation of such films quite erratic. But when they break through, one notes a triumph over both market-oriented cinema of the spectacle (“Bollywood”) and art-house cinema, which, despite its formidable gravitas, remains attractive to smaller, specialized audiences. Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga/Four Colours, is a triumph of that kind of cinema. It is a delicately woven yet sharp narrative set in rural Jharkhand where prejudice against the lower caste plays out in methodical brutality. The rural setting of the film speaks of a culture that is still ridden with moral corruption as much as it is with oppressive social relations. Power games circumscribe the roles of women as pawns of sex and desire. The innocence of younger generations gets crushed by the orthodoxy of traditions. It is India etched in space far removed from its urban sprawl or its polluted air. That it still breathes the wretched traditions is the claim of Mishra’s narrative, at once steadily mastered and deftly projected. Dhaniya (Tannishtah Chatterjee – Brick Lane, 2007), an unmarried maidservant, lives with her two sons, Santu and Bajrangi in a village shack where they have a pig to support some of their livelihood. Their mother’s supporter is Dhaval (Sanjay Suri, also a co-producer of the film with Onir), the arrogant, self-obsessed, patriarchal overlord of the village. Bajarangi falls[…..]
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Titli (2014), Kanu Behl– IFFLA, April 9, 2015

There was always some taint to the notion of poverty in India. Shameful for the rabid nationalists, it was a sign of the struggle in postcolonial times; a difficult problem for representation since poverty for the “foreign eyes” was always different than what it meant to the people living in the slums and villages. The problem of representing that poverty was unique as it was difficult.  Indian cinema post-Independence carved out its own style to achieve that. But the new poverty in the age of neo-liberal economy and globalization has a stink to it. It is brutal, ugly, harsh and allied with similar suffering in other parts of the world. India’s prosperity grows in the shadow of its poverty. Kanu Behl’s Titli (2014), is a living testimony to that condition, fiercely laid out, with a sharp cutting edge to its politics. It is not just about Delhi or the new townships that have grown on its outskirts, but it is a scream for attention to the poverty of globalization. Titli is the youngest of the three brothers, desperately trying to “run away from this fu*@ing hell hole.” He is trying to save money by any means possible, to buy a parking garage space in a shopping mall. His brothers, who live with their infirmed but intrusive father in a broken apartment in poor neighborhoods, are criminals. They hijack cars and sell them, beating, hurting and abandoning the drivers in the process. They are violent brutes, repulsive and disgusting. When a hijacking and kidnapping attempt goes awry, someone at the police station steals Titli’s money, making him broke again. His divorced elder brother asks him to get married so they could “have a helping hand in the business and a front” to their shop selling sundries. Titli is forced to marry[…..]
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Charles Chaplin+ John Berger+ Sight and Sound

January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound magazine carries a piece by John Berger, called “The Lost Art of Falling.” Recalling Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s prophetic words that his friend Charles Chaplin was “undoubtedly the only one of our time who will be talked about a century from now,” Berger proceeds to diagnose the tramp’s trajectories of bodily movements and gestures, humor and laughter, to read in them a prophecy of the struggles of the underdogs, particularly children, who try to survive on the margins of affluence in modernity. The article is a glowing tribute to the lasting legacy of a legend who leaps out of the screen as if he is some kind of unnamed charged force waking you up from your stupor. For Berger, Chaplin’s tramp is an enduring force of carnate powers and ethical embodiments. Chaplin offers an axiomatic reading of social conditions that define the plight of the indigents from South London to Lampedusa to Bolivia. Each gesture of Chaplin’s is a script screaming for attention for those who toil behind the sunlight of the social. He is a cartographer of urban spaces on which he inscribes little freedoms and minor wisdoms. And, he is also a choreographer who cuts the air around him, writing on celluloid the most indelible impressions of innocence and insights. Chaplin’s tramp had to make through further dehumanization caused by the unchecked tides of speculative capital. The sheer grit of these gestures and scripts tells the story of his enduring appeal for the millions. The world in which he finds relevance is illuminated by the resilience of the tramp to begin anew and in the laughter he produced and projected. This piece is worth reading again, and again; peeling the layers of sharper insights written in lucidly beautiful and respectfully poised language.[…..]
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Gravity and World Cinema– Video Essay

Here is a video that supplements the argument that I made with Meta Mazaj in our contribution to the Cinema Journal Dossier on  New Approaches to Teaching World Cinema– “Centers, Forms and Perspectives in World Cinema.”   Gravity (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuarón and Aningaaq (2013), a short film released by his son and co-scriptwriter, Jonás Cuarón. The two films, one a mainstream juggernaut and the other, a short film that reveals the submerged part of conversation speak much about the relationship between the dominance of Hollywood cinema and its powers to ignore other cinemas.   “The two films, one a giant behemoth with global ambitions and the other a brief statement from a marginal culture trying to assert itself, serve as a potent allegory for the image of world cinema. While Hollywood attempts to encompass the world below, it muzzles other voices, multitudes of which wait to be heard. Reminiscent of a children’s tale by Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears A Who!, the relation between Gravity and “Aningaaq” makes apparent the erasure of voices embodied in the dominant perspective, urging us to be mindful of the plurality that exists in places kept out of sight. There are thus many Aningaaqs, many cinematic voices from different corners of the globe claiming their space in the topography of world cinema.”  read more….. 

More than a Game- – The Only Real Game (2013), Mirra Banks

Mirra Banks begins her documentary with pristine and picturesque images of life in Manipur, that remote state near Burma that India only forgetfully remembers. In fact, it remembers the place mostly when stories of rebellion/ the separatists appear in the Press. Banks assumes nothing, introducing the place, the images and the people. With Melissa Leo’s voice-over, Manipur’s history unfolds with clips of newsreels and television footage. With these elements in place, the film firmly establishes itself in the classical canon. Manipur is only a tapestry behind the narrative, the real story about something entirely different. It is about baseball, about the genesis of a game that takes root in a land so far from its main stage in the U.S. Aided by an organization in New York, First Pitch, two baseball coaches from MLB arrive in Manipur to train the locals in baseball. Supplies arrive from various manufacturers. The idea is to tap into the enthusiasm of youngsters who want to play baseball. Banks introduces each character, with their tales anchored in the hardships and small victories of everyday life. Their stories unfold while the training for baseball goes on the grounds of Manipur that are hardly prepped for the game. It is evident that their threshold for happiness is set low as it is for all the poor anywhere. Dreams of individuals become the dreams of the community as they seek better conditions for life as much as for the game. For over 70 minutes, the documentary brings to us tale of an alien sports game implanting itself in a foreign land, without little of its cultural framework. The two coaches wearing MLB clothing reinforce how odd this arrival of baseball is in that part of the world. They are able to achieve a great deal in their filmed[…..]
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New Approaches to Teaching World Cinema

Meta Mazaj and I published a piece in Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier edited by Diane Carson and William Costanzo. The topic: “New Approaches to Teaching World Cinema Since teaching world cinema is our concern as much

Arcadia to host Arusha Africa Film Festival

Arcadia hosts first ever Arusha Africa Film Festival (AAFF) at the Cultural Heritage Cinema Center on December 1st. Organized in collaboration with HAKIKA Entertainment, it is the first ever event on African cinema. The festival will showcase Nigerian and Tanazian cinema and will be attended by Nollywood actress Clarion Chukwurah  and Bongo film star Vincent Kigosi. The College of Global Studies offers courses in Nigerian Cinema at its Arusha Center. More information on the festival may be found here.

Traveling Cinemas/ Bioscopes in India

Dev Benegal’s (2009) Road, Movie is only the latest addition to a number of films that have been produced over the last decade and a half around the world. For some reasons, there is a renewed focus on a practice that has been in existence since the beginning of cinema, now being revived in all corners of the world. As one takes a panoramic look at these films, it is clear that there are quite a few from India. This does not seem to be only a numerical advantage but also an indication of how traveling cinema figures in the larger imagination of the people as well as a gesture of enriching this reflective moment on the condition of cinema. First, let us take the count of the films that seem to be around, some directly accessible and some mentioned elsewhere in discussion on this topic. Each film is in part a eulogy to cinema that is no longer with us or one that is passing in front of our eyes. There are some valiant souls in different corners of the world keeping it alive in their own ways. Megha Lakhani’s Prakash Traveling Cinema (2006) is available in two parts on You Tube. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Lakhani captures the story of two friends, who work almost like a “couple,” synchronizing their moods and skills in running a Pathé projector mounted on a four wheeled street cart that runs on the streets of Ahmadabad. In a true spirit of adaptable artisanship to distinct to the country, they have added sound to the projector and created a small theater around the cart with “windows” cut through the cloth. They show short clips, put together in bricolage that makes them artists in their own right. For those of[…..]
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