Lazy Shorts: MAMI Selects

 

The 15th Mumbai Film Festival last month saw promising debuts by Indian film makers become the talk of the tinsel town.

Oonga

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Pottacheru, an adivasi hamlet in Orissa, is being torn apart by encroaching industries, bullying CRPF, and Naxalism. Little Oonga misses his school trip to the big city to watch a play on the Ramayan. While their Hindi teacher and village mentor, Hemla Didi, is arrested for suspected naxalite activity, Oonga runs off to watch the play on his own. The India Aluminium Inc. pulls the strings like the Big Brother, the army moves in, the naxalites prepare retaliation – Pottacheru becomes the new battlefield.

A crackling debut by Devashish Makhija, Oonga stars Nandita Das, Seema Biswas, Priyanka Bose, and Anand Tiwari along with child artiste Raju Singh. A taut script with crisp dialogues, this Oriya-Hindi feature enjoys excellent cinematography (the barren red lands of Orissa acquire beauty, hopelessness and tension shot in ways unseen till date) and music. While the veterans are a cinematic treat as usual, Raju Singh wins your heart as young Oonga, showcasing a commendable range of acting talent. Makhija avoids making a gritty docu-drama, opting for a ‘Life is Beautiful’ treatment to deal with the conflict. Deserving of numerous accolades, Oonga should have a fantastic run in the theatres.

 

Kanyaka Talkies

Kanyaka Talkies (Virgin Talkies)

The transformation of an old movie theatre into a church becomes a study of desire, pleasure and guilt. Kanyaka Talkies contemplates on human desire from the perspectives of politics, religion and cinema. The film also documents the journey of regional cinema and compares its history with the contemporary.

With a sterling cast of Murali Gopy, Alencier Ley, Maniyanpilla Raju, and Sudheer Karamana, Kanyaka Talkies enjoys extremely mature and nuanced performances. The debut feature of award winning documentary film maker K. R. Manoj, the film is a wonderful dialogue between the archetype and the deviant in society. It is the journalist in Manoj that deftly weaves a narrative with relevant socio-political elements, drawing striking comparisons between the colonial past and today. A visual firecracker, DoP Shehnad Jalal should definitely take a bow for wielding the camera with such dexterity, creating cinematic moments that will definitely stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

Fandry

Fandry

An untouchable Dalit adolescent, Jabya, has fallen in love with Shalu. However, Shalu is a girl from a higher caste. Jabya suffers from severe inferiority complex about his looks, his personality, his caste, his poverty, and above all, his hereditary source of livelihood – trapping pigs. These social hindrances prevent him from professing his love, and with a sudden turn of events, he is left with the only option to accept the harsh realities of life.

An innocent love story becomes a fiery commentary on the rigid caste system still prevalent in rural Maharashtra. Fandry studies an unsympathetic society where many struggle everyday for self respect and the basic essentials to survive while trying to make dreams come true.  For the untouchables, what is more difficult is overcoming the deep rooted inferiority complex (rising from their miserable livelihood) that is both genetic and enforced upon by the higher castes. Nagraj Manjule, who had earlier won the National Award for his short film Pistulya, draws from his personal experiences of belonging to a tribal caste and being the first in his family to receive education. Therefore, Manjule proves to be an effective mouthpiece for the tribal castes to discuss their issues of independence, social equality and human rights. Raw, gritty and hard-hitting, Manjule’s Fandry is an honest portrayal of a world that still survives as this nation’s underbelly. Poignant writing, commendable cinematography and a talented cast make this Marathi feature a festival and awards favourite for this year.

Pied Piper

Pied Piper

Socio-political satires are rarely seen in Indian cinema these days. So, when you see one (and one that has been done well), you definitely wish it enjoys maximum audience. Vivek Budakoti’s directorial debut, Pied Piper uses a Brechtian style of storytelling to narrate the folklore of a simple laundryman, Chunnilal, rumoured to have acquired his beloved donkey’s brains in a freak accident. What follow is the rise of Chunnilal into a popular hero and an establishment’s fear of his influential, non-conformist approach on society.

Budakoti narrates the story of a simple man’s tryst with his conscience using dry humour and intelligent comedy. The film acts as a comment on the current economic and political attitudes of the country and also explores the true meaning of a democracy. Along with Rajita Sharma and Farid Khan, Budakoti has scripted a winning screenplay peppered with smart, witty repartee. A strong cast of Vikram Kochchar and Abhishek Rawat led by Rajpal Yadav makes the Pied Piper a definitive crowd favourite.

 

Vakratunda Mahakaaya

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Punarvasu Naik’s debut feature Vakratunda Mahakaaya is an intelligent study of faith and worship in a city heavily given to the vice of communal muscle flexing. A Lord Ganesha soft toy has a bomb stuffed inside it, ready to explode. The plan goes haywire when a street urchin, Altaf, runs away with it. As the soft toy changes hands, the audience is taken for an adventurous journey as people from different walks of life come across the Ganesha-bomb.

The film studies belief systems and how spiritual charisma is directly connected to fulfillment of desires. Backed by Anurag Kashyap, Naik puts forth an engaging narrative, often edge-of-the-seat, which successfully blends the story with the message – without one overwhelming the other. A praiseworthy screenplay by Yogesh Vinayak Joshi, Naik brings together a wonderful cast of Usha Nadkarni, Vijay Maurya and Murari Kumar. Sensitive and mature storytelling, Naik is definitely one of the talented crop of young film makers to look out for.

 

Sulemani Keeda

Sulemani Keeda

What happens when two amateur writers struggle to create a script that is out-of-the-box enough for a Bollywood producer’s darling son’s dream launch? Sulemani Keeda boasts the collaboration of talented names from television and cinema. Director Amit Masurkar, writer of Murder 3 and popular standup comedy shows on TV, puts together an oddball cast of Naveen Kasturia, Mayank Tiwari and Aditi Vasudev in this dark slapstick comedy. While Tiwari steals the show with his frolicking comic timing and dialogue delivery, Masurkar should be applauded for a crisp screenplay and dialogues. Sulemani Keeda might score less on the story department, but the all-pervading irreverence and we-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude makes it an intimate story of Mumbai’s film-dreaming strugglers.

 

Image courtesy: MAMI

Fellini on Absinthe and LSD: Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013)

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Kamaleshwar Mukherjee who?

The name did not ring a bell at all. It did not sound like a name I had heard in the film circuit. Funnily even though I had seen his earlier works, I just could not remember who he was. Then someone reminded me that he was the guy who wrote the screenplay and dialogues for Notobor Not Out, a light comedy written in rhyme dealing with the topic of tradition versus modernity. I had enjoyed that film thoroughly. His directorial debut had been Uro Chitthi, an adult urban drama on the life and times of relationships trying to survive tough times in Calcutta. An interesting narrative it had been, extremely well shot and crisply edited. Uro Chitthi was ‘classy’ – an adjective one could never use for Bengali commercial cinema a decade back.

The Bengali entertainment industry has once again found its bearings. Both cinema and television are enjoying a spurt of brilliant writing, talented craftsmanship, and intelligent direction and investment. The industry never lacked talented actors, but for almost two decades, actors had been wasted in roles not worthy of them. Even when a Rituparno Ghosh had happened, what most people call the true turning point, the big fat divide between the mass and the class still remained prominent. The more important and evident change has been the urban renaissance – when industry big wig Prosenjit Chatterjee decided to bridge the gap between ‘art’ and ‘masala’ (more like ‘aantel’ and ‘ricksawalla’) with Srijit Mukherjee’s Autograph. Chatterjee had been the quintessential potboiler hero of the Chironjeet-Tapas Pal days, and he decided to change track suddenly with Ghosh’s Utsab. He starred in many of Ghosh’s films after that, but Ghosh still remained the intellectual golden boy back then (he too climbed down his ivory tower much later with Khela and The Last Lear), and ‘intellectual’ was still not ‘mass’ enough. Srijit Mukherjee and contemporaries like Kaushik Ganguly (he is the mentor of the urban renaissance in Bengali cinema, though having been restricted to fewer releases and television for a huge chunk of his career), Anirudhha Roy Chowdhury, Mainak Bhaumik, and Parambrata Chatterjee amongst others suddenly brought in the rich-classy-urban Calcutta that Bengali commercial films rarely portrayed. Even ‘mass’ala film makers suddenly started shooting song sequences in Europe and Australia rather than the erstwhile favourites – Digha and Mondarmani (The farthest would be Goa, if the producer really had pots of money). Masala films became less obnoxious; art house cinema softened the demand for heightened grey matter. Suddenly, everybody was mainstream. Producers who made the remakes of South Indian potboilers (Note: Singham and the soon-to-be-released Akshay Kumar starring Boss has been made in Bengali before the Hindi versions) also produced intelligent cinema – on the same footing. Educated and respectable Bengalis could again proudly go to movie theatres and say that they had seen a ‘Bengali film’ – again something that would never happen two decades back. Watching a Bengali film was at par with a Mallika Sherawat flick. Maybe worse.

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Therefore, Bengali cinema is enjoying a beautiful period where talent is being ushered in and given its due credit. That brings us to Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s Meghe Dhaka Tara or Cloud Capped Star, which narrates the genius and madness of one of India’s most unappreciated film makers, Ritwik Ghatak. The film borrows its title from Ghatak’s only commercial and critical hit starring Supriya Chaudhury, a masterpiece on the tough times post-partition and one woman’s heartbreaking fight for survival. Very aptly, Ghatak himself was a shining star who unfortunately got lost in an unkind and misunderstanding world during his lifetime. His work has been lauded and revered only posthumously. Mukherjee’s ode to one of Bengal’s most important film makers begins with the protagonist Nilkantha Bagchi being admitted in a mental asylum for alcohol detoxification by his estranged wife Durga. The film takes the audience on a back-and-forth non-linear journey from there onwards, weaving in the rise and fall of a man who continuously grappled with finding the right medium to voice his opinions. Since his childhood, Bagchi has been closely affected by the partition of Bengal and the traumatic plight of East Bengali refugees. His lifetime was spent during Calcutta’s most troubling times – Naxalism, Charu Majumdar, Emergency, President’s rule – and throughout his life, he tries to find the best (and most effective way) of carrying forth the pain and pathetic conditions of those suffering in the state to a wider audience. He fights with clashing ideologies, monetary pressure, an emotional see-saw between his family and social activism, never winning, but never giving up either. His theatre group, friends, benefactors, and producers slowly move away, not understanding his relentless involvement with pain-suffering-partition-trauma-refugee-famine-injustice-protest-revolution – the only subjects he wished to deal with through theatre, film, and documentaries. In troubled times, when the audience craved for escapism, his brutal and blatant portrayal of reality was left unappreciated and unwanted. Hence, a teetotal is driven to raging alcoholism due to frustration, failure, and the lack of opportunity to realize his creativity. He begins hallucinating often, his mind spewing visuals of distress and agony like lava. News of suffering around him sets off volcanoes of memories, setting his imagination and activism on a fire so uncontainable that both his personal and professional lives were left irreparably charred. The disciplined thespian transforms into a ball of molten fire, a firebrand intellectual vocalizing his protest through his art, destroying himself and his work whenever obstacles come forth. The angrier he grew, the more unforgiving and impatient his collaborators became, eventually parting ways. His anger and emotional vulnerability becomes a suicidal cocktail, running him from within.

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His professional downfall, alcoholism and economic bankruptcy forces Durga to file for divorce and leave with their children, a severe blow he never came to accept. Not being able to let go of Durga, she becomes his only source of support other than his psychiatrist throughout his treatment at the rehabilitation centre. When all treatment fails to treat him (and due to regular smuggling of local alcohol into the asylum) of alcohol dependency, ECT is prescribed. At the same time, to keep himself occupied, Nilkantha begins writing and eventually directs the asylum inmates in a play, helping many of them respond to human interaction and utilize their faculties in ways their treatment could not. The climax sees Phulmoni, a santhal lass who had not spoken a word since being gangraped by the army, dance a tandav as the Mother Goddess in the final scene of the play. An ailing Nilkantha sees the vision of the soul of Bangladesh – a homeless mother – and walks away with her, unshackled, unburdened, un-misunderstood.

Meghe Dhaka Tara is a visual firecracker, a cinematographic explosion and artistry that this country has not seen in a very long time. Shot completely in black and white, every scene is heightened by the engaging mise-en-scene of every frame. A continuous streaming of dream-meets-reality, the film reminds one of German Expressionistic classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its visual quality and Fellini’s 8 ½ for the treatment. Madness meets a certain artistic discipline in the film, so that even chaos looks beautiful and not disturbing. The raw animalistic energy of the protagonist infuses the cinematography with such unrelenting friction that the whole film acquires a dissonant quality – it seems as if the whole film is on fire, much like Nilkantha himself. The mise-en-scene, cinematography, and editing keeps the anguish within the film burning hungrily, not letting the tempo slide for even one moment. One only wonders the director’s creative spirit as he effectively achieved a string of crescendos – a difficult task for a biopic. Meghe Dhaka Tara is definitely a contemporary visual masterclass.

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The other winning department is the screenplay and dialogue. A taut script, the narrative is peppered with hallucinations and memories and chronologizes so deftly that confusion is kept at bay. It could have been a difficult task to follow the three narrative tracks – the chronology of events, Nilkantha’s hallucinations triggered by those events, and his childhood memories – but the screenplay acquires a smooth storytelling and engages the audience on its own terms. For a film that could easily have been founded on its visual quality, the writing has been at par. The crisply written dialogue, beautifully merging dialects, lacks flab, and is both poignant and hard hitting.

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Debojyoti Mishra scores a winner with the music, intelligently using western classical pieces, Rabindrasangeet, and Bengali folk (a forgotten fakiri song “Aamar Naamaj hoilo na ada” makes a wonderful comeback) for heightened effect. The original score has a scary, haunting quality, as does the film’s theme track – Moder kono bhasha nai, moder kono desh nai (We have no language/we have no country). The last time Mishra created such melodic magic would be for Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat. The choreography though, is weirdly contemporary, a form of dance that could not have been in Bagchi’s disposal back then. Even if the other dance sequence is accepted as a creative license, Phulmoni’s final performance does not create the effect the climax demanded. Why the tandav of Mahishasuramardini (the warrior form of Goddess Durga as she killed the buffalo-bodied demon, Mahishasura) is choreographed in contemporary ballet eludes me. The soundtrack also fails to create the climactic madness – Phulmoni’s eventual creative release after years of silence – with tribal percussion. A fury of ‘dhak’ or traditional Bengali drums would have achieved the desired effect better.

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I have always been a Saswata Chatterjee fan but the man has delivered a performance that is worthy of going down in the actors’ hall of fame. An actor’s most valued quality is the ability to ‘become’ the character and Saswata has in more than one occasion displayed his prowess in donning the character like second skin. What is exemplary about his performance in MDT is the fact that, even though he is portraying a renowned personality, he did not become a mere mimicry. While Ritwik Ghatak might not be a popular figure, he is very much a topic of discussion in film circles even today. People who worked with him are still alive. Saswata became Nilkantha Bagchi, embracing the character and not Ghatak, and thus was able to perform independently. His performance is heavily nuanced and every behavioural trait so detailed, that Bagchi felt like someone you would bump into on your way back home. Amidst all the high dramatic moments of his performance, Saswata painted a character so human and ordinary that his turmoil affects you personally. The oscillation between emotional and psychological fury and euphoria in Saswata’s performance encapsulates the whole film, creating nothing short of sheer cinematic ecstasy. I have nothing but the highest regard and respect for this man and my heart goes out to him and his flourishing career. What gives me immense pleasure is that his talent is finally receiving due respect from the roles being offered to him. He is deftly supported by Ananya Chatterjee and Abir Chatterjee who play his wife Durga and his psychiatrist respectively. Ananya brings in a fine balance of feminine grace and maternal strength that is rare on screen. Ananya’s Durga is calm and poised, a complete opposite to Saswata’s Nilkantha, and hence, is the only person who can find the strength and composure to embrace his passion. The mature romance their marriage holds within is warm and comforting and thus, one understands the agony of their separation. Ananya has actually delivered much more in this film than she did in her National Award winning debut. Abir is the epitome of handsome and intellect, a man who finds the understanding within himself to understand the complexity of Nilkantha. The trio enjoys a wonderful supporting cast of talented actors including Bidipta Chakraborty, Padmanabha Dasgupta, Mumtaz Sorcar, and Rahul Bannerjee.

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Kamaleshwar Mukherjee has created absolute magic on screen, making a film that should go down as a modern day classic. MDT has a timeless quality, deals with subjects still extremely relevant, and enjoys a treatment so individual yet universal that it will find connect and relativity anywhere in the world. The film should be extensively released and globally marketed. This is the kind of films India makes today. I have no idea how films like The Lunchbox are even being considered for the Oscars over MDT. From my little (and oft questioned) knowledge and experience, MDT would have at least garnered a nomination, something I am very doubtful The Good Road will be able to do. MDT symbolizes the fire within today’s Indian society, and how everyone is fighting to figure out which is the best way to protest and to be heard. The director, his cast, and his entire crew should take a bow for making one of the best Indian films in the last three decades.

I know who Kamaleshwar Mukherjee is now. I will have my eyes set on every single film he makes in the future.

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Image courtesy: Google images