Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Alex Zachariah reviews Pyasaa

Last night at the insistence of my father, I managed to wander into a screening of what was being billed an “Indian Auteur” series for the film “Pyaasa” by the much revered Guru Dutt.
Being an avid fan of film, and with extensive training in film and literary theory I was really quite skeptical of the word “Auteur.” After all, I had studied the works of Bergman, Kurisawa, Ford and extensively studied the works of Polanski and Kubrick and had never even heard of Guru Dutt , despite my Indian heritage.
I was quite pleasantly surprised that not only is Guru Dutt a true Auteur worthy of the same level of praise as the previously mentioned directors, but likely influenced Kubrick in the great film “Barry Lyndon” and almost certainly influenced Polanski in the masterpiece “Chinatown.” Whether you are bringing “civility” to the new world, water to Los Angeles or democracy to India there comes very complex social and moral questions that the leaders in society must answer for, and Dutt explores this in “Pyaasa” with all the elegance, candor and complexity with which a subject like this deserves.
A true deconstruction of the film would require multiple viewings picking apart all the elements that go into crafting a scene, but as there are only a handful of watchable copies left, I will attempt to deconstruct only some of the more complex social issues from a film theory perspective from memory and only after one viewing.
On the surface, “Pyaasa” is a movie about the promise that India gave to its people in 1947, and had not delivered on by the time the film was completed in 1957. However, the way in which this messaging was achieved by influencing form rather than content is nothing short of brilliant.
Every character in the film is carefully crafted. The writing for each character is flawless and the acting magnificent (despite the melodrama and many songs that may turn off certain western audiences) to represent a piece of contemporary Indian society.
The character of Vijay represents India’s “Everyman.” Dutt’s acting is neutral, and with every facial expression of simultaneous concern and acceptance he conveys the conscience of the masses in India. He is adrift in a democracy that values wealth over art, and the accumulation of objects to reflect social status over the natural beauty that surrounds them. The opening scene finds Vijay contemplating the beauty that surrounds him and the natural innocence of his surroundings represented in a bee that lands on the soft ground, only to be crushed by the western shoe of a passer-by. This sets the theme for the rest of the movie that India is losing its inner and outer beauty to the crushing commercialization of it society.
Early on in the movie, Vijay’s family is carefully constructed to represent a metaphor for the contrasting nature of India’s transition. While I don’t believe that Dutt was calling for a return to the old ways before independence, Vijay’s mother clearly represents the loving mother India that could once produce Vijay who represents art, culture and the pursuit of loftier emotions and expression that is clearly being extinguished in the new India. Vijay’s brothers on the other hand represent the new India. Greedy, corrupt, without morals. They continually refer to Vijay as a “good for nothing” with no place, or prospects in society. Truly he is meant to be unemployed. His brother sells his collection of works entitled “Shadows” for 10 annas to be used as waste paper. Vijay never fights back against his brothers. On the surface, one could see that perhaps Vijay is depressed and too weak to fight back; however, Dutt deliberately shows his own face in shimmering light throughout this scene and there is no ambiguity in reading his acting as anything but neutral. He feels that he cannot fight back, so his paralysis imposed upon him by his brothers is the same as the paralysis imposed upon the artistic and cultured individuals in Indian society that may not attach a monetary value to everything, particularly art.
The women in Vijay’s life present an interesting insight into Dutt’s motivation for the film. On the one hand he found love one time with Meena. She inspired him to write the most beautiful poetry that ended up becoming his great work “Shadows.” In fact, I believe that the reason that Dutt called the collection “Shadows” is because Meena represents the India that Vijay was in love with. The one that is being crushed under the boot of commercial success. The substance is gone and only the shadow remains. Meena herself, full of youth and beauty “sold out” and chased wealth and economic security instead of taking a chance on a beautiful soul such as Vijay. There is an underlying understanding between them that if she (the potential that India had from ’48-’52) had explored how to nurture and love the likes of Vijay there could have been true happiness between them, but instead she sold out to the new form that India was taking represented by the reprehensible Mr. Gosh. Mr. Gosh represents everything that his wrong with India today. He has crushed and manipulated the beautiful soul of Meena and now uses his power and economic influence to craft society the way he sees fit. In the new Indian democracy he is what is wrong, and Dutt brilliantly foreshadows the next six decades of corruption at the highest levels of government in one scene where Vijay’s childhood friend asks if Mr. Gosh will bribe everyone, and he answers that he will use all of his wealth to keep himself from ruin at the expense of Vijay.
The character of Sreeram?? Played by Johnny Walker it serves two purposes. In a film with such heavy themes, a little comic relief is necessary to serve as a spoonful of sugar to wash down the socio-political lessons that come with the film. However, the song that he sings is also representative of the innocent fools in India. The ones that can contently drink or massage themselves with oil to distract themselves from the economic oppression that they feel on a day to day basis. The very words of his song demonstrate this. “Take my oil massage and you will feel good.” I believe that Dutt is showing here that massages, alcohol and the lighter side of society act like the proverbial opiate for the masses of Indian society. While they may have been similar films with as much artistry as Piyassa in the coming years, Bollywood became much more known for their light hearted love stories that did not touch on such critical social themes.
Finally, in any film theory deconstruction you cannot avoid is speaking about structure. Order, disorder and order restored. The way that order is restored gives the most clear understanding of the social and political motivations of the director. This is also true in Pyaasa. Order – Vijay is adrift in poverty, unemployment and heart break. Despite his considerable skill as a poet there is no place for him in society. Vijay meets a prostitute who is very cunning, but buys his poems and recognizes the beauty in them immediately. Disorder – The educated are put to work as coolies. Despite Vijay’s brilliance as a poet he is forced into labour so that he can feed himself and works for the detestable Mr. Gosh. He is forced into an undignified position as there is no place for him in modern society. Gulab is left to pine for a man who she has fallen in love with, but because of her social station she is dismissed and not taken seriously. Her life is continuously in danger and she is pursued ominously by traditional sites of authority like the police. Only Vijay can save her or show her a kindness, but a separation still exists because of her social station in life. During this time Vijay’s mother (mother India) has drawn her last breath and the Vijay is sent into chaos. Feeling he has nowhere to turn he goes to kill himself, and performs one last act of kindness for a poverty-stricken beggar. The beggar having no face or station follows Vijay blindly but Vijay leads him to annihilation as there is no escaping the trappings or the coming wave (represented by a ceaseless train) of economic oppression for the poor. Order-restored – In presumed death, Vijay achieves the kind of success that he could never achieve when everyone thought he was alive. He is a prisoner in a mental asylum (the very makeup of Indian society) but the people close to him are getting wealthy on the back of his genius. He exposes himself to the public and should now have all that he lacked before in money and fame, but he rejects all of it. Seeing the trappings of the new commercial India where loyalty and friendship mean nothing and the commercialization of art is more important the art itself, Vijay rejects and admonishes his new fame. Meena (India’s potential) asks him reconsider, and he can only look upon her with pity as she was so quick to sell out that she will never understand why he cannot.
The final scene is reminiscent of what would become feminist film theory in the 1970’s. Similar to the theory that a woman can only be an angel or a whore, there is only one option from both Vijay and Gulab. There is no place in Indian society for a brilliant poet that can hold a mirror up to society and ask it to be morally accountable. There is no place in Indian society for a hooker, no matter how golden her heart is. The only alternative they have is annihilation. Vijay says he will go to a faraway place where he can go no further, and in a mystical sequence calls Gulab down to come with him so that they can both walk into the clouds and die. “This world is yours, you can have it” is Vijay’s final suicide note that comes with the hope that he will find a place in the next life beyond all of the greed and corruption that has infected India since the hope and potential directly following independence.

A truly great film, Dutt explores the complex social issues of his time and presents them with such poignancy that he truly deserves to be mentioned as an all-time great on this one film alone. It is extremely rare that a director can convey with such mastery such complex themes by form rather than content, and Dutt truly deserves the title of Auteur.

Alex Zachariah

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Anumati - Review by Renu Mahajan

The Sixth Annual Hidden Gems Film Festival kicked off with Anumati (Assent) by Director Gajendra Ahire. Veteran Actor Vikram Gokhale plays the lead role in the film as Ratnakar Pathare who is dealing with inner turmoil whether to sign the Do not Resuscitate form for his comatose wife played by Neena Kulkarni, or not. The hope to see her come out of the coma sends him on a wild goose chase to find money any which way he can. He is ready to sell his house for pittance. He goes to his daughter who manages to give him little she can, goes to his brother who cheats him out of his inheritance and also to his old college friend played by Rima Lagoo. Vikram Gokhale’s acting skills are commendable and moves you until you can feel the anger, the pain and his helplessness. He won National Film award for his riveting performance. The rain drenched backdrop and melancholy and haunting musical score adds to the elements of pathos in the story.

Dozakh - In Search of Heaven - Review by Renu Mahajan

On May 23rd Hidden Gems showcased Dozakh-in search of Heaven. Writer, Director and Producer Zaigham Imam has truly created one of the best films on religious tolerance. The actor and co-producer Pawan Tiwari has brought the character of the Muslim cleric alive and real on the screen. The innocent son of the cleric does not comprehend the intolerance of religion and is fascinated by the colorful stories weaved by the Hindu priest and his own school teacher, thus going against his father. It is a simple slow moving film that highlights the relationship between the two neighboring religious communities through the antics of the little boy of the Cleric. This film is bound to touch deeply and shake up the psyche of people intolerant toward other religions.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Is Meherjaan’s love any less intense than Romeo & Juliet ? by Niru

Hidden Gems’ last screening was Meherjaan, about a young desirous girl,  falling in love, against her will, with an enemy soldier. The film was a poetic, visual odyssey, somewhat akin to Jean Campion’s Bright Star.

Louis Hobson, our resident critic, compared it with Franco Zefferalli’s Romeo & Juliet and found Meheerjaan lacking in passion! His comment pricked the Eastern sensibilities and comments started pouring in from the audience.

Did it loose something in translation? Some put it down to Cultural differences. However, Love is the most universal of emotions and transcends across all creeds and colours. Nevertheless, it is expressed differently. Meherjaan’s and Juliet’s parting had the same intensity. But Eastern traditions advocate restraint-until recently, kiss was not even permitted on the screen. It reminded me of all the debate over Rhett Butler’s parting exclamation, “I don’t give damn!

Louis would have liked to see blood dripping as the lovers clenched hands drifted apart. I saw an invisible thread, first stretch as Meherjaan receded in the distance and then break as Wasim’s boat turned the corner and disappeared. Someone mentioned “sacrifice”, a concept quite foreign to western literature as far as personal love is concerned. Love is there, to be conquered, - for personal gratification. To sacrifice one’s love for someone else’s is unimaginable in this hemisphere.

The world has always pined after unrequited love: Laila-Majnu, Sohini-Mehval, Heer-Ranjha, Romeo-Juliet. Meherjaan was evidently still in love with Wasim as she never married. The only thing I found lacking was that neither of them ever attempted to find “the other” in the ensuing 40 years!

The only eternal monument to fulfilled love is the Taj Mahal.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Nothing but Roses!" by Niru Bhatia

Did you see the opening ceremonies of London olympics? Despite all the political manoeuvring of a major sports event, despite enormous, unproportionate security bills, despite all the controversies and all the doubting; however imperfect the circumstances, Olympics is the only light and hope in todays increasingly complex and menacing world.

Every country attempts not only to put their best face forward but tries to conceptualize what they dare to dream, without the fear of criticism. Hence, I think the opening ceremonies are the best, not only Briton but the world has to offer at any given moment. After Beijing's techno razzle-dazzle, every one was wondering what Great Britain would come up with- they already had two world-stage events recently! But those, although a tribute to Queen, are closely monitored by the palace.

Danny Boyle, nay the whole British Olympic organization deserves the credit for this extravaganza. They managed to keep thousands of teenagers with cell-phones to restrain themselves from tweeting the secret programme away! That itself deserves a Gold Medal!! Britain is known for pagentry. But nobody appreciates, preserves and depicts the history better than British. Danny Boyle took celebrations away from the monarchy and put it in the hands of people. Right from the start, from showcasing all the British isles: Ireland, Scotland,  Wales and England in that perfect depiction of English country-side and taking us by hand, through the Agricultural, Industrial and culminating in Cultural revolution. While most of the world is blaring warnings about the next revolution, namely the social media and pitfalls and anarchy of it, London's opening ceremony gave us a glimpse into how it could be harvested into a gentler, kinder world. The celebrations were firmly, of the people, by the people and for the people.

The Olympic rings were forged in the Industrial revolutions, The cauldron for the flame was assembled, petal by petal carried by British volunteers as they ushered each nation in. Brief history of Britain (less than a thousand year, compared to other nations in the world) made their achievements shine all the more brighter. Two artistic highlights for me were the doves, riders on bicycle made it so poetic; and the assembly of cauldron. As a photographer, at every stage I wanted shout, "Stop! that is perfect!" but it kept on building till it lost its artistic appeal and became a static piece of equipment.

Everything went without a hitch. The terrorists behaved. The only thing lacking was: the organizers did not give audience any chance to participate! There were no waves, to torches burning, no coloured flags flapping to make statements or whatever, till Paul McCartney asked people to join in, "Hey, Jude". I don't know, how the audio equipment were set but one couldn't even perceive any difference of pitch in the applause. Nonetheless, nothing but the Roses for the British people.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Phantom India Louis Malle

Phantom India- a documentary by Louis Malle (1969}

 Widely regarded as the crowning achievement of his career, Phantom India, in 7 parts, 378 minutes, provides an epic-length portrait of life in India circa 1968. The film is as relevant today as it was on its release.

34-year-old Malle, terrified of falling back into the same bourgeois mindset, with his marriage in pieces, he headed to India, with a two-man crew. He travelled without maps,  without any plan  and shot documentary footage instinctively,  over 30 hours of gorgeous and ground-breaking footage. He went there to escape and it turned into a voyage of discovery. He was fascinated with India: it’s contradictions, it’s ambiguities, its unwritten yet firmly entrenched social rules.

Phantom India was very much in the cinéma vérité (“real life”) tradition that first flourished in the 1960s. Without a script, without even lighting equipment, he just wanted to capture India’s people, culture and landscape. He wanted the images “to speak for themselves “. What makes it so special is his utmost sensitivity and respect for his subjects. It is not a mere travelogue-not a touristy India. What makes it exceptional is Becker’s skilful and fluid camerawork and Malle’s reflective and insightful commentary.
The result is a journey in pursuit of the mystery of India. Certainly India holds within its fabulous culture, many profound secrets about not only who we are, but the underpinnings of what we once were and the expanded possibilities of what we perhaps could be in the future. He mentioned:  "Letting ourselves go in their presence we feel as if we’ve rediscovered something we’d lost. I’ve accepted another perspective of the world. It’s not about explaining or dominating the world but being a part of it, fitting into it”.

He shot languorously and diligently till he understood it. What amazes me is how quickly and correctly, he nails it. For example, he films  Bharatnatyam students and concludes that the key is to loose all awareness of body! How can one? When this dance is all about gestures (mudras) and facial expressions! But he is totally correct as it is only when one forgets the limbs and becomes one with the music, the theme that the real grace emerges. He goes on to say that “it is not a dance, but a language, ney, a dialogue between the dancer and God!” That is some realization for a non-Indian!
Another scene is filming the enormous Rathyatra, (Journey of the chariot) that has no steering and no brakes and is pulled by multitude of devotees, with ropes thicker than elephant’s trunk. This 3-4 stories high chariot travels a ½ a mile circuit around the temple. When it turns a corner, my heart was in my moth! I feared that at any instant it was going to crash into the building. The journey takes 5 hours. He later spoke that you forget yourself and become one of the mass. That is the only way to experience India- let it sweep over you!
He travelled the length and breadth of India within those four months. As enamored as I am with India, I had not even heard of the two aboriginal tribes he filmed. Both tribes have secluded themselves from the rest of the country. He hiked miles and shot the almost primitive tribe Bondo in the North and in complete contrast, most civilized Todos in the South. He had footage of 30 hours and took a year to edit it.  It was shown in France as a serial and a couple of years later on BBC in U.K. It was never shown in India as the Government took exception to it. If only we can look at ourselves objectively!

The series is made by Criterian Collection and is available on Amazon. Calgary Public Library has a copy. I recommend that anyone interested in learning about the essence of India, watch it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Well-behaved Audience Overcomes "Technological Glitch"!

We had our first "Technical Breakdown"! At first, the two young lads from Cardel couldn't figure out what was wrong. At 7.05pm I poked my head in, the guys were shaking their heads vigorously. I had a sudden flash, "My God I 'll have to ask them to go home without seeing the film!' But I still did not have that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach! Failure is not an option. Quarter-of-a-million $ system and a single wire was damaged which failed to connect the computer to the sound system. Boys found small desktop speakers and we were off. The speakers fell off the dais a few times. But there was no complaints from the audience. 

I am so proud of my volunteers and equally proud of our audience. Nine years ago, when I was a volunteer at CIFF, we would be at the exit doors, garbage bags in hand and people would drop their empties in as there is no time between shows to get cleaners in. They don't do that any more and pop-corn containers have grown to bath tub size & drinks are bucketful. No one can possibly finish them! So they sprinkle it all over. A couple of years back, at our photo-club I saw photos of Russian tube stations. They were magnificent, palatial and immaculate! Not a graphity any where nor any litter. That reflects the character of people. I feel, North American people have been brain-washed by movie-mannerism. You get bad news,  you go throw everything in sight! I get bad news,  I get that sinking feeling and go numb. Throwing things is not even in my subconscious. It is for that reason that I am proud of Hidden Gems audience. When we didn't start on time and there were not enough chairs for them to sit they persevered. When the speakers fell down and the film went silent, they still waited patiently. Later, I had emails: "Niru, don't worry. Even NASA has technical breakdowns!" Now, that is a zen attitude.

Via Darjeeling was a new genre for Hidden Gems. Mystery may be a stretch for art-house festival. But despite poor sound quality, it accomplished what we set out to do-to generate discussions. I know of three groups that went out for dinner afterwards and carried on discussing what happened to the husband. I had a few calls suggesting alternatives that director didn't explore. If you like us exploring new genres let us know.

Cardel does not allow food except through their very expensive caterers. We were the first ones they allowed to bring our own food. We are very thankful to Cardel for that. I was extremely pleased to sign off the post-inspection sheet that everything was ship-shape. Thanks to all present for treating the venue like your own home and my volunteers for tidying up without a word from me. I don't know how we would have entertained them without food! To thank you all we promise you a different taste from India, next time. Mark your Calendars down for Saturday, May 5th for another National award winner!