Highs and lows, letdowns and surprises, from unforgettable to underachieving to underwhelming… That is the sum total of my 2013 film experience. I exclude Before Midnight and The Lunch Box – I have already written about them quite recently – which are in the top half of my list of the best in 2013.
Blue is the Warmest Colour brands itself in memory, not just because of its controversial, explicit 10-minute long lesbian sex scene but also for the portrayal of its teenaged heroine’s emotional journey. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche is consumed by the persona, mind, sexuality and (there is no escaping it) the delectable derriere of Adèle (the stunning Adèle Exarchopoulos). She is the high school girl seemingly unaware of her own beauty and its power to attract the attention of not only a smitten boy in her class but also the envious admiration of girl friends and its magnetic pull on Emma (Lea Seydoux), the older, self-assured art student who initiates the confused girl into discovering her true sexuality.
Adele goes through the conventional route of sleeping with the boy in her class. The result? A total lack of pleasure bordering on boredom. Casual encounters with the experienced, more culturally sophisticated Emma bristle with sexual tension and deepen into awareness, even as their relationship grows from mentor and novitiate to reach a fragile equality. It is fragile because the equality of passionate lovers doesn’t transcend the bed. Adele is awkward with Emma’s peers, conscious of her lack of matching sophistication. There is a yawning class difference of upbringing, tastes and ambition. Emma takes Adele home to her accepting parents but Adele can never confess to her working class parents.
Kechiche has been accused of catering to the dominant heterosexual male gaze (which co-opts straight women too into internalising its tropes) by the queer community, more so by queer women who charge him with commodifying women’s bodies, following the art history’s tradition of treating the female nude as an object – even though the ostensible purpose is to celebrate women’s sexuality.
The camera caresses not only the flesh tints and texture of the entwined bodies of the two young women but lingers on clutching slapping hands, open mouths and snaking tongues in an erotic dance of discovery and pleasure. Queer women say the entire act is structured like a titillating show, in no way different from simulated sex between women in a porn flick to turn on men. They feel the absence of a lesbian on the shoot. What lends heft to these charges is the reaction of Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel upon which the film was based. She is reported to have lamented, “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the sets: lesbians.”
The full house at Liberty during the 15th Mumbai Film Festival organised by MAMI watched the film with no nervous titters or unseemly hooting (the reported reaction at the London film festival screening). Are we a more responsive and responsible audience? Gratifying to think so because the film leaves you stunned and shattered – it is not all about just sex. Yes, sex is the core but the encapsulating story is equally passionate and movingly observant. It is not just the two young women whose personalities and feelings are probed. Adele’s teachers, girl friends (who turn hostile and dub her pussy eater) and her colleagues when she becomes a kindergarten teacher, are all recognizable people. The class rooms – be it Adele’s high school where they discuss literature and their own response to given texts or the little kids of diverse backgrounds in the elementary school – enlarge the contexts, social and intellectual, of Adele’s growth as a person who takes Emma’s rejection in her stride.
Is Kechiche’s film the lesbian answer to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain? Blue… is morelushly erotic, given the licence of art history’s preoccupation with the female nude, and more intellectually weighted (as befits French cinema’s penchant for stimulating discussions when a group gathers whether in a classroom, a party or a gallery) than Lee’s spare austerity.
At the screening in Liberty, Mumbai Film Festival director Srinivasan Narayanan brought on stage a brave Indian distributor who has bought the film for our market. How much of the nearly three hour film survives the Censor’s scissors is not a guessing game.
The Cannes jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, gave Blue is the Warmest Colour the Palme D’Or and included both the brave leading actresses in their commendation. Richly deserved, even if the gleeful press has gone into lurid details of their falling out with the path-breaking director.
The Spielberg connection continues with Lincoln. One agrees with Patrick French’s description of Lincoln as Spielberg’s bravest film. Spielberg and his Pulitzer prize winning scriptwriter Tony Kushner consciously focus on the months between Lincoln’s second inauguration and assassination, as the besieged President uses all his legendary political skills and moral authority to get the 13th amendment passed by a divided Congress. The crucial amendment is essential to make the abolition of slavery permanent, unchallenged by posterity.
It is political drama fused with the personal dilemma of a war-weary President and Spielberg refuses to take recourse to easy, palatable drama. Instead, he deliberately expends screen time on the intricate drama of manipulating members of Congress to vote for the amendment while keeping the negotiation with the Confederate generals a secret from a torn nation desperate to end the war.
Daniel Day Lewis brings Lincoln to riveting life – physically and emotionally – almost as if the magnificent marble statue walked out from the hallowed memorial in Washington, bearing the weight of history and associated expectations with grace, humility and courage. Quibbling historians have faulted details of the script but they have to bow before the moral authority the film carries. Spielberg is spare with battlefield scenes – unlike Saving Private Ryan – but the few he uses are remarkable for their impact. So too are the famed phrases from the Gettysburg address; they form part of the background sound. Lincoln is demanding but the payoff is so rich that neither the length of the film nor the detailing of the political process deter from our complete engagement. As for Lewis’ performance, what can we say except that it is a textbook case for actors. Some American viewers have said that they did not see an actor but experienced the presence of a greatly beloved President who shaped America forever. Non-Americans concur.
Back to MAMI and the good films it showcased both in competition and world cinema sections. The top winner in the international debut section was the Mexican film La Jaula De Ora (The Golden Cage) by Diego Quemada-Diez. It is a road film that takes three young friends from the Guatemala slums on a hazardous journey through the daunting landscape of Mexico (both the physical terrain and variety of predators, officials as well as drug mafia marauders) to the American border: the goal where they think a better life awaits them. Two are lost on the way and a native Indian who doesn’t speak Spanish and is barely tolerated at first, joins them. The drama of their interaction, survival against great odds and the final cost they pay for the mirage of a better future is told with gritty realism that is often in stark contrast to the picturesque landscape they pass through. Irony alternates with inevitable tragedies.
The star at MAMI was Asghar Farhadi with his latest film Le Passe (The Past). The scripting wizardry of About Elly (Berlin winner) and A Separation (Oscar for best foreign film) is evident but the Iranian element in this story of family conflict is watered down. A trend one has noticed in celebrated Iranian filmmakers who have become cultural and political exiles. The protagonist is Ahmad, an Iranian who returns to his French wife after four years to finalise their divorce. He gets sucked into resolving the growing distance between his ex-wife and her older daughter by another man. Farhadi is first rate when it comes to creating the world of children and expectedly competent in unfolding the accelerating tensions that can’t have an easy resolution. Yet, the essential Farhadi has gone missing in this Parisian setting.
Closer home, Ship of Theseus is the breakthrough film of the year, not only for its creative courage but a fairly good release for a niche film of ideas. A triptych connected by an overarching idea, of the sum of parts creating a new entity, is often crippled by unevenness. Anand Gandhi’s script wobbles in the first and last stories. Ambition exceeds grasp but then, unless the idea is ambitious, there is no radical film. As I wrote in an earlier issue, the second story of the Jain monk determined to fight the pharma lobby on ethical, personal and social grounds, is so brilliantly written, cast, enacted and directed that it stands as one of the best pieces of film of the brave new decade.
2013 celebrated hundred years of Indian cinema with a quartet of stories in Bombay Talkies. All four short stories were connected with Bollywood in a celebratory way. A young girl singing Lag Ja Gale at a suburban train station set the mood for the coming out of a closet gay and the repercussions of his friendship with his female boss and her husband.
Zoya Akhtar played clever gender bending games as she confronted middleclass India’s stereotyping of children into predetermined gender roles. The peg for the interconnected ideas is a boy’s fascination for Katrina Kaif and dancing to Sheila Ki Jawani. An earlier generation might have had Helen as the lodestar. The disappointment was Anurag Kashyap’s tribute to Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic status and the worshipful fans who come from the Hindi hinterland for his darshan. As expected from his brilliant track record, Dibakar Banerji transported a Satyajit Ray short story to Mumbai’s chawls with grainy authenticity and captured the brief moment of glory of a bystander at a film shoot. Banerji infused pathos and surreal irony into a tawdry tale of unrealised aspiration to create momentary film magic.
Our film legacy and its dedicated archivist got its due recognition in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s much travelled documentary The Celluloid Man. The film is a tribute to P K Nair, affectionately saluted as Nair Saab by two generations of filmmakers and actors, for bending the rules and throwing open the riches at Pune’s Film Archive for their benefit. What is so remarkable about Dungarpur’s film is the infinite care he has lavished on lighting and cinematography. A classic film clip emerges out of darkness magically while the foreground is occupied by Nair Saab or any one of his cohorts and then takes over the entire screen to recreate poetic magnificence.
If these were the highlights, the surprises were few. B.A. Pass is a raw, grim story of a small town young man’s rude awakening to the realities of dirty, furtive, urban sex when he comes to Delhi to live with relatives after his father’s death. A predatory housewife lures him into being her toy boy and then pimps him to her friends who are bored to sexual death. The fact that a young man can be a sex victim is an astonishing idea for Indian cinema. Ajay Bahl tackles this bold theme head on with integrity, though there is a lack of finesse in the sex scenes with the seductress Shilpa Shukla going at it with gusto wearing a pink bra. Bahl gets the seedy ethos of certain Delhi areas right in this noir story that has no exit for the victim.
There is a refreshing lack of coyness in Shudh Desi Romance, more so in Parineeti Chopra’s gutsy, cigarette smoking Gayatri who has no qualms about live-in boyfriends in a supposedly small town ethos of Jaipur. Maneesh Sharma and writer Jaideep Sahni puncture our preconceived ideas about non-metro cities and its young people. Commitment phobia is bandied about as something that afflicts big city guys and gals. But the threesome in SDR are constantly running away from each other and running into an ex at inopportune moments. The rom com with a difference has all three talking directly to the camera with utter candour. But the pacing and plotting of the film gets repetitive after the interval as if the writer and director have exhausted their possibilities.
The challenge of matching a brilliant first film is daunting. Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera is charming and daringly different from the soaring break for freedom that limned the poignancy of Udaan. Loosely adapted from O Henry’s short story The Last Leaf, Motwane diligently recreates nostalgia- laden 50s in the zamindari mansion of Bengal and an anti-hero conman. The stumbling block to getting fully involved in the story is the heroine Pakhi played by Sonakshi Sinha. She simpers and preens in the first half and adopts a mournful sulk in the second. It is hard to take her robust presence as a woman slowly dying of tuberculosis, however earnestly Motwane tries to create a melancholic romance.
The big biopic of the year Bhaag Milkha Bhaag spent too long on the legendary runner’s childhood and early romance. It started with the collective heartbreak of Rome Olympics and stayed too long in the flashback mode, to reach an artificial climax at the Indo-Pak games where General Yahya Khan gave him the enduring title of The Flying Sikh. The film draws inevitable comparison with Paan Singh Tomar and falls short even though Farhan Akhtar has given his all to a performance wrought out of sweat and blood. As for tears, we shed it for a lost opportunity to make the definitive film on an iconic athlete. A pity.
By Maithili Rao