(caught the water though not the fish) The Winter's Tale 5.2.82

Film Review

In the Mood for Dhobi Ghat (A Review)

Kiran Rao’s film aptly called “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Dairies)” reveals itself in a series of personal documentations of a city that strides revolting opulence and abject poverty. Shai, an investment banker from NYC on a research sabbatical, is on a mission to discover Mumbai with the help of her very fancy photography equipment. She befriends Munna the dhobi for her family’s plush Mumbai home. Munna, an immigrant from Bihar, while trepidatiously falling in love with Shai, navigates her through the intestines of Mumbai: Nagpada, Mohammad Ali Road and of course the dhobi ghat. Shai’s black and white photographs are one set of diary entries about the city.

Shai also meets Arun, a tormented, reclusive painter who is also searching Mumbai for what makes sense as he puts the city and its people on canvas. He moves into an old ramshackle apartment on Mohammad Ali Road and finds a small box left behind by the previous tenant of the apartment.  Among other things, the box contains a series of video letters by Yasmin Noor: an immigrant bride from Malihabad in Uttar Pradesh. Yasmin’s amateur videos about  what she sees around her in this strange big city offer a counterpoint to Shai’s photographs and become another set of diary entries. The third set of documentation is by Arun who struggles to understand the space around him and reacts by retreating into himself. He finds a way out of himself and into the heart of his apartment and his city through Yasmin’s video letters. Like Munna shows Shai around, Yasmin becomes Arun’s guide. Arun begins to inhabit and paint Yasmin’s city and this is perhaps the most quietly reflecting, beautiful and moving part of the film.

It is hard to imagine the possibility of a meaningful encounter between a young burka clad bride from a small town in UP and an elite, reclusive artist in Mumbai but as Arun watches Yasmin’s videos and listens to her, he (and the audience) begin to connect to her deeply and intimately. The very spaces and people that were available to Arun all along: his apartment, the family that lives in the house across the street, the silent neighbor across the hall, the passionate Mumbai rains, all begin to resonate with significance once Yasmin mediates the experience for him. Arun synthesizes her experiences with his own and starts painting this new found sense of palpable absent presence. Art sublimates a social relationship that would otherwise seem quite impossible.

While the other characters are searching, explaining, mediating and documenting Mumbai, Munna lives in the city less self-consciously. As a result he is the most conscious of the city’s precariousness and is finally the most vulnerable to it. In his leaky shack by the train tracks, he builds his body, covers up for his friend who is mixed up with the gangs and he dreams of becoming an actor. He is the un-acknowledged connection between the Mumbai’s rich people. He is that which Shai is trying to understand and for whom Arun is painting tributes. While he is disarmingly present and obvious, he is also inscrutable. While the others are documenting the city; he embodies the city.

“Dhobi Ghat” is a beautifully told story that turns no cheap tricks. It is pretty much a slowly gathering mood film, like Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (2000). The cinematography is stunning. The film is a visual treat. There is not a single song in the film but there is a haunting soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla with some parts that definitely sound like Ram Sampat’s contribution (he was in the acknowledgements). Kriti Malhotra’s debut as Yasmin Noor is certainly the heart and soul of the film. Kiran Rao’s direction even managed to keep Amir Khan restrained in his role. There is a subtle sense of humor just beneath the surface of the film and Prateik Babbar’s T-shirts are a big part of it. It took me a bit to warm up to Monica Dogra as Shai but she pulled it together before long. How Kittu Gidwani can continue to look so hot is a mystery, but I’ll live with it.


Prospera’s Plight: A Review of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

The trailer of Julie Taymor’s  The Tempest (2010) was as thrilling as the film was disappointing. Helen Mirren clad in a fantastic magic robe, sustaining a spectacular tempest on the point of her magic staff seemed to hold out the possibility of a brave new Tempest. If Shakespeare’s Prospero is to be recast as a woman, Prospera, surely it is because the change in gender would allow a re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most politically charged plays. The cinematic representation of Prospera’s magical effects crackled electric in that brief clip; after all, the magic in the play is a manifestation of power that informs the politics of race and gender. It seemed from the trailer that the exciting scholarship that academia has churned out in the last few years would come to bear on a slick production that boasts of a stellar cast and crew.

The film did not deliver the promise in its theatrical trailer. The point at which Taymor’s radical adaptation may have maximized in implication would have been in the film’s understanding of Sycorax: the blue eyed witch from Algiers, Caliban’s mother, the island’s original inhabitant and Ariel’s former employer. Sycorax was long seen as Prospero’s counterpoint, something the film leaves unquestioned. Sycorax is female, African; her magic is evil; she is a witch; in her death and absence, her defeat is played out by Caliban’s grudging servitude to Prospero. Prospero is a European white male; he is a scholar and practitioner of magic done right; he nurtures Miranda, and he is able to transcend and transform vengeance to forgiveness making him all sweetness and light — the justification of colonialism. Prospero’s magisterial grandness has long been deconstructed. Caliban and Sycorax have taken center stage in scholarship as the insightfulness of Caliban’s repressed rebellion has acquired a far greater degree of keenness in the face of the European misunderstanding of itself and others. The general understanding is that Prospero is not exempt from the madness and delusions that his ship wrecked enemies suffer on the island. Since Prospero’s grandness and great turn to forgiveness no longer turn the engine of the play’s appreciation, to re-imagine Prospero as a woman seems like exactly the thing to do.  A Prospera could blur the sharpness of the distinction with Sycorax and make ambiguous the nature of the power asserted on that island. Instead of assuming the colonizing politics it could reveal the politics of colonization. Julie Taymor’s film flirts with these possibilities: Prospera is referred to as a “witch” at least once in the film; the forgiveness scenes are not convincing of a change in heart in anyone; when Caliban walks away holding Prospera’s gaze at the end of the film, it is clear that he is neither a thing of darkness nor hers. Djimon Hounsou plays a compelling Caliban but it is unclear to what end.

Like Caliban’s part, there are other moments of great performance and action in the film that hang like alluring wardrobe on a line. Ariel’s performance of the harpy scene is just about the best thing in the film. It wracks up a terrifying harpy out of a watery wispy Ariel who is complete with tar dripping teeth and frightening eyes. The other Ariel related special effects ranged from campy to plain tacky especially when the naked Ariel performs body contortions just to hide his genitals. Russell Brand made an entertaining Trinculo, Alfred Molina’s Stephano is not going to be his most memorable part. Miranda and Ferdinand were poorly cast and the little out of script love song instead of Juno’s masque did not do much towards celebrating the contract of true love. Mirren’s Prospera suffered from unclear direction. Over all the film had promise and potential but it lacked a clear interpretative vision. This is an instance when bridging the divide between popular culture and academic scholarship may have been very fruitful. All Taymor needed to have done is to have hired a research assistant to read up some of the current scholarship and used the summary report to come up with an ideologically engaging and powerful statement that is already being made with the new readings of The Tempest.

Peepli [Live]: The Counterpoint to India Shining

When you watch a film at night and wake up thinking about it in the morning, it is a sign to start writing about it. Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao’s “Peepli [Live]”, directed byAnusha Rizvi, might be the only mainstream film that begins to talk about the farmer suicides in India, although the film is not really about that. So, no,the public will not find out exactly what happened to the BT cotton farmers, for example, or what the connection is between genetically modified seeds supplied by Monsanto, industrialization of farming, debt and loss of land, though the film will bring it all up in passing. But, as I said, the film is not really about that. The film is really about the cluelessness, cruelty, self-serving importance, short-sightedness and smugness of the twenty percent of the “India Shining” in the cities that does not know the cost of its privilege and the potential price it will have to pay. And the best part – they aren’t even there in the film. Peepli [Live] is a timely, critical film that might inspire folks going about their business to pause and think, for instance, about the people who have arrived in Delhi to labor at the ongoing construction projects to build a shiny new Delhi by next year.

The film is a satire located in a village called Peepli, in what could easily have been Madhya Pradesh. Two brothers Budhia and Nathha are about to have their family farm auctioned and neither the bank nor the local money lender / politician / goon is willing to help. Somebody jokes that the only way for a farmer to get any money out of the government is by committing suicide. Budhia and Nattha wonderif that might actually work. A local reporter catches the conversation and Nattha becomes the unwilling center of attention as a “live suicider”. Predictably, between the media and the politicians, the question of whether Nattha will commit suicide or not is no longer about what Nattha wants to do or about the actual issue at stake. Between being a news item and a political pawn, our man Nattha decides he’s had quite enough and runs away. More media mayhem follows even as the original local reporter suddenly sees through the craziness of it all and points it out to the chique star TV reporter from Delhi, who could have been Barkha Dutt. To the film’s credit, it presumes neither reasonableness nor justice; it allows this and other moments of reason to emerge and lets them go without a single didactic dialogue. This turns out, ofcourse, to be far more effective than the didactic monologues that are ever the bane of mainstream desi films. There are various levels of tragedy at the end of the film; but, again presented in that unsuspecting, unpresuming way so that you take it home with you and mull over it and wonder, as the reporter did, “why is this important”?

The acting is fantastic. Shalini Vatsa made a fabulous pissed off wife; Farrukh Jaffar’s string of choice abuses is going to make us go back and watch the film again so we can learn them up; Omkar Das was the very picture of haplessness; and, Raghubir Yadav never disappoints. The screenplay is snappy, the dialect is unapologetic, and the songs are gorgeous. In all this, the real edge of the film is not so much in its satire of the media or the politicians (it has been done a few times now!) but in the way that it builds the characters with very minimalist but deft strokes. Amma lying on the charpai complaining all day, or Dhaniya who is completely frustrated or the man who quietly digs a pit, or the guy who collects all the bad news of the village are a part of an ensemble of details that add up to rich place portrait. The film is only half as long as the usual Hindi films but it seemed we spent twice as much time with the Peepli people.

There is after all a counterpoint to India shining; and, the film gently reminds us that it is not China.

Kabir Khan’s “New York” (2009)

Kabir Khan’s film “New York” is Bollywood’s attempt to come to grips with the post 9/11 perceptions and constructions of terror and terrorists. The target audience for “New York” is the NRI population in the US and the privileged population of the metros in India. And the film taps into what it imagines they want. What they want, apparently, is to be white in a white America.

It all starts with a very white looking Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a Muslim boy from Delhi, who comes to New York as student and becomes friends with two second generation Indian American students – a Muslim boy who goes by the name of Sam (John Abraham) and mostly only hangs out with non-south Asians and Maya (Katrina Kaif) who lovingly bitches about Sam in the first half of the film and marries him in the second, thus breaking our Omar’s heart. But before life gets really complicated by the revelation that Maya is in love with Sam and the events of 9/11/2001, the trio is a merry band that hangs out in Central Park to a background of songs about youth, love and friendship.

Then the twin towers go down and terror suspects are detained and tortured by the FBI under the Patriot Act, one of the suspects is Sam- Sameer Sheikh. And here is where the film states its brief: torture is bad and inhuman especially when it is inflicted on suspects who are actually innocent; the American policy of torture and suspicion makes terrorists out of people who were not terrorists to begin with. Sam is going to be our case study for this thesis. Having had his spirit broken and dignity taken away, Sam gets in touch with “them”. “They” are already terrorists and we are not told anything about “them” except that “they” give Sam a way to take revenge and get his dignity back. So begins the double life of Sam, who lives the “American dream” life by day with a very white looking family that only eats pasta, drinks white wine and plays baseball for fun and by night he runs a “sleeper cell” that is plotting a big terror revenge.

FBI, which sports a new South Asian face – Roshan (Irfaan Khan) – gets wind of it, of course. And instead of rounding up Sam Sheikh and doing what they usually do, the South Asian Muslim FBI agent has an elaborate covert plan. He recruits Omar to sabotage Sam’s plan by falsely accusing and detaining Omar as a terror suspect. Omar can buy his freedom by spying on his old college friend which will help the FBI to foil a terror attack.

Omar is not a terrorist and he is righteous. He questions his use by the FBI in this manner and is reluctant to betray an old friend. It is in the response to his fledgling critique of the manifest, all pervasive power of the state and its machinery that film really exposes its location in the status quo preserving morality, and in the desire for assimilation into the whiteness of America. The good Muslim enforcer of the law explains to the reluctant good Muslim – nothing justifies terror (unless it is perpetrated by the State of course), and no one really is to blame for the Muslims who have gone astray; they made bad decisions in a bad situation. But the bad Muslims are giving Islam a bad name and it is up to the good Muslims to fix it. So Omar does the good Muslim thing and stops Sam from doing the thing that he planned meticulously for five years to get his dignity back — blowing up the FBI building. In the process of course both Sam and Maya are killed by the orders of the white FBI agent even as Sam was actually surrendering.

Six months later, Omar is at a baseball game where Sam and Maya’s son Danyal, played by a white kid, is hitting the ball like a pro when Roshan (now decorated and commended) returns to make peace with Omar- the pawn he used to checkmate the terrorist. Omar is upset that his friends were killed and wants to know what good came of it, after all Sam only planned an attack; he didn’t do anything and Maya was totally innocent. To which Irfan Khan points to Danyal being cheered by his team mates and says: now it is possible for a Muslim boy to be hoisted on the shoulders of America and be cheered as American – all white, goes without saying. It is time, he continues, that we forget about 9/11 and all the other injustices and move on. A new trio moves on, kicking golden fall leaves in the park, towards a pasta lunch.

In other words, “New York” is a staggering disaster because it takes on some serious and important issues and treats them with an understanding so shallow that it does disservice to the causes that it claims to uphold. Its critique of torture is subsumed and justified in the FBI agent’s overwhelming rationalization for the structure of the state. Its analysis of terrorism – as something that the state creates – does not go beyond the reading of one man’s personal vendetta against the FBI. Its vision of integration and assimilation is the scriptwriter’s unreal nationalist fantasy of a completely white America. Its message about how to deal with the memory of 9/11 and its consequence is to forget about it and move on. Besides, the acting is terrible and most of the film is shot in Philly pretending to be New York. The Hindi film industry has a long and healthy tradition of not shying away from critiquing dominant structures of inequity and dragging the state to the cleaners. Films like “Maachis”, “Roja” and “Dil Se” did a much better job of analyzing how the state / nation is responsible for what becomes terrorism. So “New York” has really no excuse for such a shoddy job. Its problem is it wants to uphold the state that it critiques because it wants so badly to be a part of the dominant majority.