Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother's Imprint

When almost everyone is celebrating ‘Mothers Day’ with the customary praise for motherhood, I decided to look at what motherhood means to me. According to me ‘Mothers Day’ is for mothers to realize what it is to be an epitome of love and sacrifice. This post is for my twin angels who gave me the indisputable status of a mother perennially supplemented with joy and pride.
If you are someone who loves revisiting your childhood this film cannot be missed. ‘Moggina Jade’ is a Kannada film that will touch you irrespective of the language barrier. When I encountered the film a couple of years ago, I was shedding gallons of tears, an act that I quite enjoy doing while watching films.  It is not a sad, dark, depressing story at all…but an emotional tale that will trigger one’s tear glands. The winner of the piece is the little girl around whom the story is knit. She will just completely bowl you over with her innocent face and living of the role not to be mistaken for acting.
Seven year old Priya (played by baby Shreesha) lives with her parents and grandparents. To her company is her cousin who moved in with his grandparents after his mother’s demise. Priya’s parents belong to the breed of hardworking and aspiring couples who work on a relay race kind of shift system with the aim of an improved standard of living. Priya’s grandparents are the naïve, diffident soul’s dependant on son and daughter in law for their existence.  And finally the last immovable character is Priya’s house, a typical middle class humble home. Innocent that she looks all that Priya wants is simple things in life. 
Priya’s mother, played by the Nayi Neralu star Pavitra Lokesh, hails from an affluent family, and thanks to her love marriage gets engulfed in a middle class life much to her dissatisfaction. Leading an almost robotic life to make extra bucks to buy a dream home is her sole agenda. In this process gets eschewed the little desires of her daughter as she imposes her tastes and wishes on the little one. First bombshell being a short hairdo much to the tears and disapproval of Priya whose long pending unrealized desire is to dress up traditionally with a her hair decorated with a plait of jasmine buds as is the custom in some parts of Karnataka. The argument being the universal rhetoric ‘I know what is good for you.” (My mom had a good taste but that never let her decide things for me or my sister. I remember, when as kids we had gone to pick up clothes for Diwali, a little girl had come to pick up her birthday dress. The girl was fond of a particular dress but her mother strictly declined her choice along with a few strong words that made the poor girl turn silent. May be the price of the dress was beyond their budget but the girl will never be able to come to terms with her disappointment. Are mothers listening?)
Priya’s grandmother wants to fulfill her desire but when household expenses are calculated and budget allocated strictly spending on bit expensive jasmine buds was out of her reach. It is also not an important expense to ask her daughter in law who is already hell bent on chopping of her grand daughters tresses. Nevertheless she tells the flower vendor to get her jasmine buds when it is seasonal in order to fulfill her promise to her granddaughter who is upset when her grandson gets a bicycle from his father and step mother. 
Priya’s dad is the typical henpecked husband. Someone who is caught between the nagging needs of his wife and his parents who are dependant on him. A small argument between his wife and father was reason enough for him to be persuaded to move out of the house. Since their dream home is in the final stages they take refuge in his mother in laws friend’s unoccupied bungalow. There starts the loneliness saga of his daughter dear. To divert her melancholy they take her for a holiday. The grandparents who are equally distressed being away from their grand daughter come to visit at that time, guess what, with a plait of jasmine buds. They leave the plait and homemade sweets and savouries to the maid in the house who is about sixteen years old. The maid tells Priya’s dad about their visit. She understands a rift in the family and thus takes advantage by not disclosing what the visitors brought. She takes the plait to her home and for a fee dresses up all the young girls in her neighbourhood and takes pictures in a studio. And the sweet and the savouries were safely tucked away in a cupboard. When little Priya sees her once munching murukku she hesitantly gives her one. Later one night Priya asks her dad for murukku and to his predicament as to where he get it at that hour she tells it is in that cupboard. One look at it he recognizes his mothers labour and his maids cunningness. He also sees the much rented and worn out plait with dried up buds. He immediately takes and it discards it in a garbage bin at the end of his street.
The next day Priya sees the little gypsy girl camped closer to her house, wearing a dried up moggina jade. She immediately runs upto her and requests her to share the plait with her for a while. Unaware that the dried up moggina jade was weaved with love by her own grandmother Priya wears it with so much of happiness. A scene that will swell up your eyes and give onions a run for money!  
However the joy is only short lived when her mother finds her in that trance and admonishes her for her behavior. This is later followed by the little girl leaving the house, the parents in shock and in the mood to realize their mistake, the girl lost in the city, then picked up by a stranger in a bike, leading viewers to invoke all gods for help, and finally found safely perched in her earlier school watchman’s shoulder brought back to her grandparents home welcome with a sigh by her parents. And wait no prizes for guessing the end. The little princess does let her hair down to bridge the huge gap between tradition and modernity. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Karnan Revisited!

It was well and truly a case of ‘yesterday once more’! ‘Karnan’ brought out the kid in me. Barely past kindergarten I do vividly recall swaying to the song ‘singaara kanne’ from ‘Veerapandia Kattabbomman’ at the Kamadhenu theatre which sadly is today a marriage hall. Two and a half decades on, an encore at the plush Escape multiplex. But the Sivaji magic hasn’t waned. Not one bit. Not if the young, old and doddering cross section were to be observed hooting away to glory. Not if you didn’t miss many a grey – yet evergreen (!) couple reliving a heady cocktail of romance and nostalgia. A digitised ‘Karnan’ on the big screen despite the jumping frames was a trip down memory lane. While watching the restored version of ‘Karnan’, a lot of questions popped up in my mind. From doubts surfacing out of superficial knowledge of our epic and mythology and the beauty of the Tamil language to technical comparisons to Hollywood films and concerns of film preservation.

Mahabaratha and Ramayana have and will always be the source of themes and story lines for films. But despite the serialised version of the epics, I still feel I don’t know my/our epics quite well. How is Krishnan the ‘maithunan’ of Duryodanan? How is Kunthi the ‘atthai’ of Krishnan? These may probably be trivial doubts but I had to google it to figure out the family tree. Which god(s) did people in Mahabaratha worship? Because they belonged to a period where god in human form was living with them and they knew that he was god. In ‘Karnan’, I think I saw an idol of Radha Krishna behind Kunthi during her conversation with Krishna. In the ‘Iravum Nilavum’ song, (shot at the Konark Sun temple built during the 13th century AD!) there is a Ganapathy stone structure in the foreground. Karnan was seen (idol) worshipping Sooryan...Did he really worship Sooryan or was it the filmmakers interpretation of son worshipping sun? And if the former was true what were the worshippers of Sooryan called on the lines of Vaishnavites and Saivites? And how did the Hindu triumvirate trickle down to Siva and Vishnu and why no temple (to my knowledge) for Brahma? As I type my brain is churning out more questions but I wish to stop here.

I’ve always had a great love for my language. Still maintain a grudge against my mom (despite being a Tamil writer!) for not choosing Tamil as my second language at school. However, my endearing love for my mother tongue made me learn to read and write the classical language. One wouldn’t need that skill to watch a Tamil film though. Understanding and interpreting pun and play of words in film dialogues and lyrics are quite a thrilling task for me. (It’s sad this tradition today is referred to as double meaning dialogues with a bad connotation owing to the dirty jokes prevailing.) I am not going to get into the discussion of how Dravidian ideology was replete in film dialogues and their interpretation, but just the simple play of words. I was reminded of my skill at deciphering different meanings (only) on watching ‘Karnan today’. The scene when Karnan realises he is an orphan through his foster parents in conversation...he enters and says “ennai valarthathaai koorumpothu vanthen” the word valarthathaai has two meanings. When split as two words valartha + thaai, it means foster mother. “I came when my foster mother was talking”. Another meaning surfaces when you look at valarthathaai with respect to tense. “I came when you were talking about raising me”. Let me give you an easier illustration from a song in the film ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi’. The famous culinary song ‘samaithu kaatuvom’ has a lot of play of words. While many obvious ones are there this is a clever one. The song has these swaras – a prodigious composition by the maestro – They are actually words split as swaras meaning ‘saatham aaga thaamathama?’ ‘ there a delay in cooking rice?’ This is just a sample and a teaser. There are loads of such gems in our films (I am not including literature here).

‘Karnan’ may not be a landmark film from a technical standpoint. Not passing judgement as a consumer of advanced digital effects today, but making a plain comparison to a Hollywood film made about 5 years prior to ‘Karnan’. ‘Ben Hur’ with its 11 Academy awards and its famous 9 minute chariot scene was released in 1959 and ‘Karnan’ in 1964. One would agree there is no scope for comparison. (However I did get impressed with a few good techniques...the seamless spilt screen after the ‘iravum nilavum’ song.) Though there are reports that the battle scenes were actually shot in Kurukshetra with real Indian army men acting as warriors, the film lacks technical finesse that existed during that period. Not just technical deprivation but pro-filmic mistakes which Hollywood films would not do. It is ridiculous to see Karnan romancing (unless his dream was futuristic) at a temple built in 13th century AD. I remember reading Akira Kurosawa mention about the choice of a specific shot in his period film ‘Ran’ if framed any other way would have revealed the skyscrapers. Are money and budget the fulcrum of our pitfalls? I doubt. Just one wish with a sigh....‘Marudhanayagam’ on celluloid.

I went to watch ‘Karnan’ with a lot of expectation. The digitised version did not live up to its hype. I am definitely not criticising the effort here. I am rather shocked at the way the film was preserved in the first place. If it’s restored digital version is of this standard, just imagine what would have been the state before the digitisation. Like how we have poets and writers whose works are nationalised, I think our government should take film preservation under its wings more seriously and make that film archive the nation’s property. If this is not taken seriously, like our Kohinoor we would lose our precious films and knock at the doors of foreign film museums for a copy of our masterpieces. Recently Austrian film Museum took a directors copy of ‘Raavan’ into its rich collection, while we are still in the process of adjudging the film.

What the ‘Karnan’ effect did was to whet my appetite for more old classics. And topping that wishlist are Maya Bazaar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Thiruvilaiyadal. As an ecstatic senior citizen in the row behind me exclaimed at the end of ‘Karnan’ “ennamo endhiran chandirannu solreenga...engalukku karnanthan.” A sure shot barometer of box office success?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

'Mast' Watch

Have you ever wondered why we watch a film more than once? I have known those who have watched ‘Roja’ 22 times, ‘Kakkha Kakkha’ 12 times, ‘Titanic’ 25 times, ‘The Godfather’ 14 times! (Don’t ask me how many times I’ve watched my favourite films!) Whatever the reason be – acting, actor, story, special effects, music – the basic question is after the first viewing, we know the story and the suspense is broken, but still we watch it the remaining ‘n’ number of times. In ‘Roja’ we know that Rishi will marry Roja and not her sister, that Rishi will be kidnapped by the terrorists, that Roja will fight to get her husband back to live happily ever after. But we will watch the film as though the story is just unfolding in front of our eyes. This is a very unique quality of cinema…because how many of us will watch the repeat telecast of a cricket match when we know who won and who lost?

The films that I watch can be classified into ‘must’ and ‘mast’. The former for sheer love of cinema and its craft and the latter for pure time pass. The mast category has an ‘all time mast’ section, which includes, ‘Indran Chandran’ and ‘Chidambara Ragasiyam’. My mom will disown me if she reads this... she just cannot understand how I have a liking for these flicks. I would have watched these two films in particular, almost the same number times I would have seen a classic film. Among the mast films there are a lot of black and white films as well like Kanavane kan kanda theivam’ and ‘Manalane mangaiyin bakiyam’. I was reminded of these two Tamil films when I saw ‘Clash of the Titans’. If these films had the present day technology then, they would have created history worldover. Though ‘Clash of the Titans’ is technically astounding, the story is yet another myth fantasy combo. Kanavane kan kanda theivam’ and ‘Manalane mangaiyin bakiyam’ have a far superior gripping story line.

For those of you who haven’t seen these 1950s blockbusters here is the storyline. Kanavane kan kanda theivam (Husband is God in person) stars Anjali Devi and Gemini Ganesan. Anjali Devi is a princess and her father, the king, is blind. A special thing from the underworld will be the only power to give him vision. Gemini Ganesan who is in love with Anjali Devi goes on a mission to get it. He tricks the princess of the underworld and escapes with the vision giver. (how can one forget the famous ‘Unnai kan theduthey’ song?) The angry damsel curses him to become a deformed man with a hunchback. Also the curse includes his death the minute he reveals who he is to anyone. Gemini Ganesan helps the king get his vision and in return asks for the princess’s hand in marriage. Much to the dismay of the king Anjali Devi agrees to marry him and proceeds with him to lead a life of a simple wife and they also give birth to a son. When the son is 7-8 years old Anjali Devi comes to know that there is a remedy to help her husband get relief from his sufferings. (by the way… she still doesn’t know it is Gemini Ganesan but is happily living with him). Her son is the only one who can get the Rajamanickam or something from a cave inhabited by dangerous snakes and help her husband. The small boy takes the arduous task and after lot of adventures brings Gemini Ganesan back to shape.

Manalane Mangaiyin Bakiyam (Husband is blessing for a woman), has the same lead pair. (Both these films were produced by Anjali Devi through her Anjali pictures.) In this film Anjali Devi is a dancer in the court of Lord Indra. She likes mortal Gemini Ganesan and gives him a flute which when played will bring her before him the next second. One day when Anjali Devi is dancing before Lord Indra, Gemini Ganesan plays the flute and Anjali Devi is helpless and obliges resulting in Lord Indra’s curse that turns her into a mortal. The film has interesting items like a flying carpet and blanket that could make one go invisible (this movie was conceptualized years before Harry Potter was created). After a lot of ordeals Gemini Ganesan is once again cursed to turn into a stone. Anjali Devi sends her son to get the only remedy to save her husband. While the son is on his way in the flying carpet Gemini Ganesan turns stone upto neck level. The son lands just in time and places the curse remover on top of his dad’s head and saves him (just like Perseus shows Medusa’s head just in time to save the princess)

I often wonder why such films are never made now and even if made will it have a decent success. I have grown up watching films like Maya Bazaar, Mannadhi Mannan, Vanchikotai Vaaliban and even now have a fetish for these classics. When films like Gladiator, Brave Heart, and Greek Mythology based Clash of the Titans et al draw huge crowds to the theatre we have lost the art of making historical films. One can only wish to see literature classics like ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ on silver screen. And wait for a magic wand to make that dream come true.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hyderabad Blues

(This was written by me and my best friend Ramya way back in 2002 for an assignment for the subject Communication Theories)

Watching a movie for pleasure is an undemanding hobby, but critically analyzing it calls for the exclusive observation of the most miniscule details, as well as a thorough knowledge of the subject implicated. Ingeniously criticizing that sector of the Indian society where money is the barrier between people, where caste discriminations still prevail, and where women are still objects of ridicule, the director of the movie, Nagesh Kukunoor, has brought to the trained eye’s notice, depictures of Marxism, Feminism, Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Semiotics.

We as students Mass Communication, have critically analyzed the film ‘Hyderabad Blues’ , after fragmenting it into the above-mentioned definable categories. In the pages to follow, the two-hour movie has been discussed in detail with respect to these areas of communal studies ...
• Synopsis
• Definitions of the theories of Marxism, Feminism,
• Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Semiotics
• Application of these theories in the movie
• Conclusion

Movies today are scarcely based on reality, excepting the handfuls of them made by directors who have created history. In the midst of this labyrinth strutted with moviemakers struggling to lure their audiences, Nagesh Kukunoor has made his own road to success. “Hyderabad Blues,” his directorial debut venture, is a realistic and subtle comedy about a young man who returns to his homeland from the ever-appreciated United States after twelve painstaking years. The movie is a ludicrous revelation of the Indian lifestyle, the social stigmas, the blind faiths, and the general hypocritical attitude of people towards Non Resident Indians.

The movie, in a subliminal level, is relevant to the director’s life. Kukunoor, a chemical engineer based in the United States plunged into the film-scenario with a relatively meager two million rupees, and produced and directed the articulate movie in a stupefying span of seventeen days. This is what many would define as a low-budget film. Nonetheless, the only factors which give that away are the amateurishly shot scenes with erratic camera movements, the poor lighting in certain indoor shots, or the sporadic display of dialogues by some of the obviously proletarian cast members. These apart, the movie is a fascinating and laudable attempt to bring forth the harsh realities of the life of an Americanized Indian, trying to fit into what was once ‘home’.

Varun, the protagonist of the movie, played by Nagesh Kukunoor, returns to his hometown Hyderabad, after twelve years in the United States. Having left the country as much an Indian as anyone else, Varun returns to find himself a confused twenty eight year old, struggling to understand his true values. His culture is alien to him, and the very faith he used to believe in is now deplorable. He is at a culturally shocking point where he cannot relate to his country of birth as much as he can to his country of adoption.

Varun’s parents, rather than being happy about his long-due return, are overjoyed at yet another ‘object’ to boast about - their ‘eligible’ son and his two lavish cars. Relatives pour over to visit him keeping in mind all the young marriageable girls they know, and Varun is welcomed with a newfound respect by all of them, including his maidservant owing to his job and salary. He is immediately showered with luncheon invitations, and every member of the family tries to gather his attention. Throughout the get-together, women are seen gossiping about Varun and his ‘unacceptable’ lifestyle in the States.

Varun’s changed attitude to the Indian lifestyle, his health conscious diet regime, and his perspective of privacy reflect the American in him. Moreover, his friend Sanjeev, played by Vikram Inamdar, a chauvinistic red-blooded typical Indian male, complies to an arranged marriage which takes Varun by surprise. Sanjeev’s betrothal to Seema provokes Varun’s parents with a greater momentum to find him a bride, as he is by all means more eligible than Sanjeev, and is capable of demanding the ‘highest price’. “I’ll have twenty girls lined up for you. You have the highest price because you are US-returned,” says Varun’s mother in a deliberate attempt to cajole him into getting married.

During Sanjeev’s betrothal, Varun meets Ashwini, played by Rajshri Nair, and what follows from there is a constant attempt by him to woo the lady doctor, who considers Varun to be a pseudo, a ‘wannabe-American’. Ashwini, who hates anything or anyone remotely American, finds herself arguing with Varun at the drop of a hat.

With much difficulty, Varun manages to barely convince Ashwini that he ‘likes’ her, and would like to get to know her better before committing himself into a relationship. Much against her principles, Ashwini agrees to go out with Varun. After a debatable first date, where Ashwini is hesitant to be seen in public with Varun, she becomes more open to dating him. Varun is flabbergasted at how intricately he is being watched by every neighbour and relative, and is bemused at the fact that one’s privacy is at the control of others. He is furthermore amused at his parents’ attitude towards Ashwini for belonging to a different caste.

Despite their misgivings and arguments, he stands by her at a most difficult time, her father’s demise. Varun, surprised by the heart-stabbing cultures that still prevail, merely questions, not criticizes them. Initially eager to leave back to the States, Varun finds himself extending his vacation to get to know Ashwini better. Sanjeev advises Varun to not treat Ashwini as one of his conquests, and prompts him to propose marriage to her, much against his beliefs. “You publicly held her hand. When are you marrying her?” says Sanjeev to Varun. Seema, on the other hand, hypocritically advises Ashwini to get to know Varun better before committing herself, much against her beliefs.

Together they paint the town red for a brief period, following which all hell breaks loose. Varun, after seeking Ashwini’s consent, attempts to kiss her, and she reacts negatively. Having had enough of her anti-American tantrums, Varun leaves Ashwini. Succumbing to her mother’s wishes, Ashwini complies to marry some man she has never met before, right at the time when Varun decides to beg and plead her to take him back. Hearing about her engagement to another, Varun promptly allows his male ego to dominate his better side by proposing marriage to Sandhya, a relative of his who has been trying to win his attention ever since his arrival. Towards the end, the duo realize that they wish to marry each other, and following a lot of undue commotion, much against the movie’s initial tempo, Varun and Ashwini marry each other.

Kukunoor, bearing in mind a fragile concept, has directed the movie more on a personal note, than as a ‘money-minting’ commodity. “This film is not a deep deliberation as to which place is better, but simply a personal search for home,” says the young and promising director-producer. Nonetheless, the movie projects several flaws, such as for instance, the fact that logically Varun should have been a sixteen year old when he left to the States, or further down, when he allows himself to succumb to the temptations of blind faiths by wishing a wish at the temple, after ruthlessly claiming that ‘religion is built on fear’. Nevertheless, the movie projects a delicate image of India today, although it was set back in 1996.

Nothing is wrong when every single person on earth looks at the sun and tells that it is a star. There could be a few voices in the wilderness trying to shout over the others to be heard that it is the sun, but they would be described or branded as fanatics. When no one contradicts, the sun in the due course will be called a star and many other things will transform slowly. Many who know very well that it is the sun and not the star, would not express out of fear of a branding or exclusion from the society that is flourishing in its ideologies. This is in short the theme of the film.

According to Marx, Class refers to groups of people who have similar relations to the means of production. That is, they get their living in the same way. Thus the working class works the modes of production; the capitalist class owns the means of production. In between these two distinct classes are others: the middle and lower middle classes, who can be for example, small business owners or management or trained professionals. Marx also recognised that there can be fractures within each class (for example between skilled and unskilled workers or between trained professionals (i.e. diploma holders) and those who have made it to the same status through work on the ground and so on). Class is based on objective differences among sets of people and defined quite negatively, as in opposition to other sets of people: a set of people who will forge a class identity to protect its interests against another class. Therefore class is about not just economic relations but also power relations.

According to Marx, Ideology is the practice of reproducing social relations of inequality. The ruling classes not only rule, they rule as thinkers and producers of ideas and so control the way the nation perceives itself and, just as importantly, they regulate the way other classes are perceived or represented. From this ‘misrepresentation’, that is, the ruling class’ assumption of their natural right to govern and to determine the status of their classes, comes Marx’s idea of ideology as false consciousness. ‘But the subordinate classes also act with false consciousness,’ says Marx, if they accept that their position is natural, that is, if they accept the prevailing ideology as it makes sense of their subordination.

Voyeurism is the act of viewing the activities of other people unbeknown to them. This often means that the act of looking is illicit or has illicit connotations. We pay to go to movies, but once we are seated before the screen we are positioned as voyeurs, as a spectating subject watching the goings-on of the people on-screen who are ‘unaware’ that we are watching them. It is from this positioning that we derive pleasure. Known as Scopophilia, pleasure in viewing, Voyeurism is not limited to the spectator however. The camera that originally filmed the action is also a voyeur. Often there is a voyeuristic positioning of a character within a film.

Fetishism refers to the notion of over-investment in parts of the body, most commonly the female body. Thus in films, women’s breasts or legs are often ‘picked out’ by the camera and are thereby over invested with meaning. In psychoanalytic terms, voyeurism and fetishism are two strategies adopted by the male to counter his fear of sexual difference.

Semiotics analyses the structural relations, within a system, that function to produce meaning. Signs can be understood only in relation to other signs within the system, and this occurs, in the first instance, in two ways. A sign derives meaning simultaneously by what it is not and by what it is in combination with.

Feminism, suggested by the book ‘Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory’, in any medium must perform one or more of the following functions:
• Serve as a forum for women
• Help to achieve cultural androgyny
• Provide role models
• Promote sisterhood
• Augment consciousness-raising

Applying these theories to the film, the following observations can be seen ...
The film starts with the frame of the rising sun and a female driving a scooter to get to work. The director probably tried to communicate the theme of the film through this shot. This movie maintains an equal balance between supporting the staunch feminists and anti feminists. The first scene is said to provide a role model, which has a close connection with a dominant ideology. This ideology is a part of feminism where women believe that performing a particular task is development or freedom, and places them on par with men. From the feminist point of view a woman is equal to man, and tries to attain that stand by trying to be like a man. Driving a scooter are actions, which are normally pertaining to masculine features, and a female performing that operation is said to attain equality.

On his arrival, Varun seeks the blessings of his parents, portraying semiotics. Much against his perception of the country that he visualizes a moment too soon, such a symbolism is contradicting to his character. Varun’s mother plays the typical Indian mother concerned only about her family and it’s welfare, revolving in a sphere of set rules, not confused the least upon what she is doing. In her opinion her son is an eligible bachelor and marriage proposals swarm him. Her son who owns two cars and a house in US fulfils her attitude towards advancement in life. She depicts a good mother and a good wife and thus epitomizes the Indian mother. She is a staunch believer of traditions and places a lot of expectations on her son. Her hypocrisy is revealed when she succumbs to the bait thrown by Shashi aunty, which is not being called ‘dowry’.

Hierarchically, almost in every binary opposition, the female corresponds to the weaker, powerless, and negative sex. For instance: Activity/ Passivity, Sun/Moon, Culture/ Nature, Day/ Night, Father/Mother, Head/ Emotions, Intelligible/Sensitive, Logos/ Pathos. Indian movies portray women in two dominant ways, the docile quintessential, or the hated vamp. On the positive side, “Polite, traditional, homely, passionate, lovable, altruistic, chaste.” On the negative side, “Jealous, revengeful, stupid, arrogant, egoistic.”

Shashi aunty portrays a character which is depicted negative, though not in its fullest sense, and Sandhya belongs to that section of the society which is in all dreams about migrating to a foreign country perceiving it be an escape from reality, and is groomed with the feeling that aiming for that dream and attaining that through marriage is not wrong. Therefore, being a parasite is considered a good thing.

Though this attitude is prevalent, not all women fall under this category, like Ashwini who plays a doctor and tries really hard to prove that she does not belong to the blood¬sucking group. Her pretensions and prejudices against US returned Varun is slowly removed when she understands that he is not just another guy who is in search of a maid and therefore needs an Indian girl to get married to. Though she is outgoing and tries to convey that she is not a conservative girl she does not allow Varun to come and pick her up from her house as she is not ready to fight the battle against the society which does not encourage friendships between men and women. She creates the impression that she is a western girl when she drinks but the Indian in her is revealed in the very act of slapping Varun when he tried to kiss her. She is a mixture of ideologies and finds it difficult to maintain a balance. She does not oppose the ritual after her dad’s death, as she can do nothing when she knows that her mother is ready to accept it.

When asked by Varun as to which movie to go to, she suggests “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” , a family movie. Given the choice, a man would opt to watch a suspense, thriller, or action film. Women are perceived to have a liking for docile, family oriented films, or it is simply because of the character portrayed by Ashwini, a woman unwilling to succumb to anything foreign, and therefore no English films.

Sanjeev proves a chauvinist when he opens up about his idea of the women who he aspires to get married to (soft spoken, sweet, not a working girl). He becomes very cynical when he remarks that Varun does not know the intricacies of Indian women. His perception of Indian women is found common in most Indian men whose expectations about their better half is the same. Trying to put up with this mentality is very efficiently described as being practical in life. Sanjeev can be considered fortunate to have wedded Seema, who proves a typical match for him, who finds him suiting her expectations of being an Indian husband who could take care of her for the rest of her life financially, that is by not sending her to work. While simultaneously, Seema projects images of modernity by claiming equal partnership in a marriage, and thereby enforces on Sanjeev responsibilities that he didn’t know were his too, such as cooking three days a week.

“She’s beautiful, gorgeous, ... ” and many such remarks made by Sanjeev while selecting a girl for marriage is a typical example of scopophilia. “Stop staring at her ... she is your sister in law ... ”, addresses Sanjeev to Varun about a girl who is not yet his wife. Sanjeev is male chauvinism personified. As much as he feels protective and possessive about the woman he wishes to marry, he ogles at other girls present during his betrothal ceremony, much to Varun’s surprise, to which Sanjeev remarks, “I’m just doing my duty as a man, yaar”. Although the movie does not project a woman enticingly, Sanjeev’s dialogues are examples of abstract fetishism.

Nonetheless, Sanjeev and Seema depict the typical Indian couple whose expectations are similar and they therefore have a compatible marriage life. Seema, who has graduated from Osmania University, a renowned institute, portrays a typical Indian girl ready to accept traditions, and tries to merge with the culture by turning into a doll wearing a silk sari with head bowed down, waiting to be examined by the bridegroom. ‘Since she was ten she has helped me in the cooking’ is the introduction made by her mother who believes it to be the essential thing to sell her daughter and they are not wrong as the deal is made to a group who is of the same ideology.

The protagonist Varun hails from a middle class family in Hyderabad. It is a culture shock for him when he returns to India after almost twelve years and says, “I followed traditions blindly when I lived here, but now I question them too.” The rational American in him finds fault with almost everything that happens, which for an Indian would be nothing of importance. He ridicules the marching buffaloes, the atrociously loud devotional music, or the pollution surrounding his neighbourhood, to which his mother remarks, “There is nothing that can be done, so why do you men complain”. He does question traditions and customs and blames that religion is built on complete fear, but he submits to the impalpable belief, which is said to flower blessings on him as found in the case when he bribes the god and remembers very well the odd-number offering logic referred earlier by his mother.

He has proved that he has no ego nor strings attached through a few scenes: when he patiently waits for Ashwini at her clinic and when he sits in the pillion behind Ashwini.

Another chauvinistic character who does not have physical appearance in the movie is Ashwini’s father who made his wife give up her dreams of becoming a Doctor. Nonetheless he suppressed only his wife, as he was a good father who never stopped his daughter from becoming a Doctor.

Varun is also blamed for being chauvinistic by Ashwini, to have come to conclusions about their relationship without her formal consent. Her emotional upheaval is the outcome to communicate that she is not one of those women like Sandhya who would long for such a proposal to immediately pounce upon.

“As women had 50% reservation it wasn’t tough getting a seat in medical college.”
“I took casual leave ... this is what you enjoy when you are working for the government”
“March is good for weddings; no haircut on a Saturday.”
“I am afraid about the wagging tongues.”

These are but few of the lines spoken by Ashwini, Sanjeev, Varun’s mother, and Ashwini’s mother respectively, that put India and the Indian system on a deplorable pedestal. The cunning tackling of a police constable and his immediate response, the atrocity done to a widow, the rude treatment given to a patient by Ashwini and her explanation given, and many a more situations bring to the forefront the observations made by the US returned American on the Indian society. He also strikes a balance when he says that there are pitfalls in the American society as well but the country has been good to him and he is trying to take the best from both.

The audacity of the Indian mentality to shun people because of castes, the ridiculous distinction of people based on their monetary status, the willingness of society to try and win the respect of a monetarily superior member. .. these display traces of Marxism.

Falling at the feet of one’s elders for blessings, Deeparathi, a (colourful) Telugu film, the path blocking buffaloes, silk sari during poojas and festivals, the holy sun in between different situations, the difference in the background music (a different note when auspicious and another one during the funeral, and yet another during a party) are subtle imageries of the presiding traditions.

In conclusion, Kukunoor’s attempt is a majestic one, succeeding in its mission to uplift the women of a country long foreseen as impoverished, and lagging. Through the eyes of an Americanised Indian, he has depicted the atrocities of a society in a gently mocking fashion. People belonging to similar categories are known to strongly oppose the film, while the coming generations are sure to consider it a tool for appraisal.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hey! Ram – A Critic’s Delight! (Part 1)

A film that is close to my heart...a film that leaves me in awe every time I talk about it...a film that is stored in all the lobes of my cerebrum for eternity giving a tight fight to the high quality blue ray discs....Hey! Ram is that film that I did not watch in a cinema hall when it was released. Something I regret till date. If I say Hey Ram taught me everything about cinema it IS an understatement. It taught me to look beyond the obvious in each and every frame of a film. According to me, filmmaking is all about planning and detailing. And Hey! Ram is an epitome of just that. The admiration of the meticulous planning dominates every viewing with the question ‘is this possible in the world of commercial cinema?’ The film excels in screenplay, costume, camera work, editing.... or rather it can be said the film has exploited the language of cinema to its fullest by transcending all films before its time; a model for the ones to come in the future.

Following is a list of my observations, appreciation and understanding of the many layers in the film. From the dedication to Ananthu to credits roll in the end, each second of hey ram is packed with details, more than just 24 frames. Hey Ram uses various channels of communication such as image, speech, sound, music, writing that interact to produce both implicit and explicit meaning.

The very first dialogues on darkness and light and the comparison with Gandhi, offer a hint of the development of the story around the two key figures Gandhi and Saket Ram. Another incitement into the story is the perfect timing of the uttering of the word Pakistan by Saket Ram Junior and the switching of the aspirator (sound effect) causing discomfort to Saket Ram Senior. (In other words the word Pakistan is also discomfort to Saket Ram Senior).

The second scene is quite an important scene as it clearly establishes the mindset of Saket Ram (S) and his broad outlook towards religion, that is, he has not formed an opinion in terms of religion. This is made clear in his words. When Mortimer Wheeler talks about the riots he says ‘Hindu Muslim riots’ but when Saket Ram explains this to Amjad he says ‘communal riots’. This Saket Ram in the later half tells Amjad Khan to go to ‘his’ Pakistan.

The following scene at the recreation club of Archaeological survey of India introduces many characters and their lifestyle during freedom struggle and partition issue. This scene helps in establishing the attitude of these Indians (Ram, Amjad and Lalwani) who are sharing cocktails with the Britishers. They are not really bothered by the current state of affairs in the country. For them it is another discussion over a drink. But later these three people face different turmoil, much to the contradiction of what they directly and indirectly mean in this scene.

Wheeler: To India (raising a drink)
Amjad: To India
Ram: Which India? Full or half?

Amjad: My wife is a Tamil Muslim from Amboor.
Britisher: Amber?
Lalwani: no sir its is not Amber it is Amboor … boor as in B O O R boor…
Britisher: poor and you?
Lalwani: no I am not poor I am a Sindhi sir.

As a complete contradiction to his statement Lalwani’s life takes a complete change. In the 35th scene before a railway gate Lalwani is selling paapads.
Maharajah: I wonder if he could count the money
Lalwani: Don’t worry your highness. That is what I was doing in Karachi.

While Ram goes for hunting with the maharajah he reveals he is a vegetarian. The maharajah laughs and exclaims that he is a hunter only with passion and no hunger. This truly symbolises the present state of Ram.

The conversation that Ram has with Abhyankar in Calcutta post partition was a bold dig at Gandhi. ‘Yenna theriyum intha aatu mandhaingalukku...thatha bakrid kondada porarnuu...” made me wonder how it escaped the censor’s scissors. Though Ram had a change of heart turning into a Gandhian the film continued its barbs even till its closing scene. Light enters the room of Saket Ram after opening the windows which had the painting of Gandhi’s face. There are no two ways of interpreting this.

Different characters use different language. Thus the film could be called an Indian film instead of a Tamil film. On the other hand, most of the time, the silence of the characters is eloquent. When Ram tries to seduce Mythili during the Lavni song the camera promptly pans to show the unhappy expression of Abhyankar. The scene where Ram and Mythili prostrate before the elders, Ram who is pre occupied gets up in 2 counts and Mythili hints to him mouthing ‘Moonu’ (three). How much more detailing can one expect?

(To be continued)

Monday, March 22, 2010


Who doesn’t like a Hitchcock film? He is one director who will make anyone fall in love with his films. While enough has been written about the king of suspense and his films, this post will consider for review “Rear Window” and throw light on some narrative flaws in Indian cinema.

I just loved Rear Window… for its dialogues and good blend of humour. “Wives don’t nag anymore…they discuss”. It is also not the usual Hitchcockian suspense thriller. One can learn the art of exposition through Rear Window. An exposition in a three act structure refers to the first 15 – 20 minutes of a film where the main characters and the setting are exposed or introduced. I was completely at awe when I saw the opening scene. The introduction shots trigger active viewer participation resulting in closure…a process where the viewers fill in (missing) information, connect and interpret meaning of the visual information in shots.

Typical of a Hitchcock film the camera shows the neighbourhood, houses and apartments of a small town, housing middle income group families, and then enters into the story and life of its characters through the window. Inside the apartment the protagonist is seen sleeping in a wheel chair, sweat covering his face followed by a shot of a thermometer indicating the temperature. It is left for us to interpret the economic strata to which the person belongs. Then the camera slowly pans to his legs, one of which is cast with these words written on it “here lie the broken bones of L B Jefferies”. Interesting way of introducing the character I must say. (I was reminded of Kamal’s “Hey! Ram” where junior Saket Ram and Aparna’s professions are very casually hinted through dialogues.)

The camera then pans to show a disfigured still camera and moves towards a photograph of an out of control racing car toppling dangerously close to the camera that was shooting it. Closure…the shattered camera was the one which took that awesome shot of the debacle and Jefferies is the photographer and his broken leg is the result of a priceless shot. We then see a couple of other photographs followed by a negative of a woman’s face and then a magazine with its cover bearing the positive image of the negative we just see. And this woman, obviously photographed by Jefferies, is more than just a subject for the camera, which will be revealed as the story unfolds.

Rear Window is appreciated for its rare and brilliant execution of point of view resulting in the viewers being privy to something that the characters aren’t. Jefferies, stuck up at home owing to his broken leg is pushed to boredom. His fulltime pastime becomes watching his neighbours and their activities. His telephoto lens also comes in handy when he wants to observe things closer. One night Jefferies is suddenly woken up. ..and stays awake to see some unusual activity in the opposite building where an old man and his nagging wife are living. Jefferies observes the old man leaving his house with a suitcase. An hour later the man returns and goes out again with his suitcase. Both the exit and the entries are seen by Jefferies and we are aware of his observation. However there is a third time the old man leaves with a woman and the camera moves back to reveal a sleeping Jefferies.

The next morning Jefferies wakes up to more action in the old mans house that leaves him in suspicion. Jefferies is almost sure that the old man has killed his wife and disposed her off in a suitcase. He shares his doubt with his nurse and girlfriend who slowly start believing him. Through this whole process we as audience will be dying to tell Jefferies “hey while you were sleeping we saw a woman leave the house”. I will stop here without revealing the rest of the story.

How many Indian films adhere to rules of narrative structure or at least make intelligent modifications. I will take an old Tamil film “Manithanin Marupakkam” starring Sivakumar, Radha and Jayashree (the one who lent her voice for Jyothika in Pachaikili Muthucharam) to highlight a common flaw. This movie is a remake of Malayalam film “Nirakkootu” staring Mamooty, Sumalatha and Oorvashi.

Sivakumar who plays the role of a photographer (another reason why I took this film for comparison but the similarity ends there) marries Radha a middle class girl with some vested interest. Sivakumar wants her to be a model and an exclusive one at that doing it only for him. Sivakumar's friend, the villain of the piece, who has an eye on Radha photographs her unaware when she is changing in the dressing room and ends up blackmailing her and the plot thickens.

The film has a non linear narrative. It begins with Sivakumar serving a sentence for killing his wife Radha. Jayashree a journalist is Radha’s sister, who publishes her findings on the story behind the murder. Sivakumar’s urge to disprove her story makes him escape form prison and takes refuge at Jayashree’s house not knowing who she is et al…the film thus has interesting twists and turns. But here comes the deep nose dive. Sivakumar narrates his side of the story to prove that he is innocent. Flashback begins and we witness what actually conspired and who killed Radha. Sivakumar is not witness to the heated conversation between Radha and his friend resulting in her death. But this portion is part of the flashback narrated by Sivakumar. (Wish this was possible in real life as we would by now have known who killed Aarushi.)

This is a very common treatment in almost all Indian films. Flashbacks are a farce. Point of view is an ignored point. Narrative inconsistency is consistent. There are exceptions though. “Ankur” is one film among others that has a clean narrative with a very apt exposition…a rarity in Indian films.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Double Jeopardy

Picture and popcorn…. one of our favourite pastimes. Weekends and holidays have never been complete without a dose of handpicked movies. We have seen both good and some terrible ones. This post is about four films that Sanjay and I saw almost back to back. ‘Unfaithful’ followed by ‘Murder’, ‘Body Heat’ followed by ‘Jism’. If there’s anyone out there who has seen these films you will empathise with us. Well without much ado for those who have not seen this awesome foursome…Murder and Jism are Hindi remakes of Unfaithful and Body Heat respectively. (Aside: Unfaithful itself is a remake of French film La Femme Infidèle which I am yet to see)

Unfaithful was undoubtedly a very nice film. A simple storyline but powerful execution and there was Richard Gere to add glamour. Murder had only glamour in the form of Mallika Sherawat. Body Heat had a nail biting plot. Jism had scintillating songs. I am not someone who is against remakes…I would infact call it emulation. In any remake there is definitely room for improvisation but in this case it is an impoverish mock-up. What is stopping an aesthetic photocopy? So here I am going to deliberate on the cultural adaptation challenges of remakes.

In Unfaithful, a lonely wife succumbs to temptation and goes astray having a roaring affair with a guy…a stranger much younger to her. In Murder too the plot is the same….but the guy is not a stranger but her ex-boyfriend. And to add more pity, the heroine is married to her brother in law after her sister’s death. And the immoral act is not set in Indian soil but abroad. Lame reasons or plot points to attract sympathy for the heroine even when she is promiscuous. Why were these changes made to the setting? Is it because Indian women and promiscuity are antonyms or Indian women should have some strong reason to go astray? (anything other than strong sexual attraction as in the case of Unfaithful). Is it because Indian women and one night stand and affair with strangers are impossible or difficult to digest? Is it culture shock or comprehension skills of viewers or rather underestimation of reception skills of discerning viewers?

Well one can say that these questions can be raised for any Indian film and not just remakes. (For instance Tamil film Poove Poochudava’s protagonist Nadiya and her grand mother are Hindus whereas in its Malayalam version they are Christians, though the story had nothing to do with religion.) And Hollywood remakes of European originals have also not escaped criticism. Agreed. But aren’t remakes answerable to the ethos of the originals? Maybe that’s why terms like ‘loosely based’ and ‘inspired by’ surface to shield against criticism.