The Best Indian Film at MAMI 2014: Nirbashito (Banished)

 

Every MAMI I diligently make it a point to watch all the Indian films being screened during the festival. Most of the good international films are available for download by the time MAMI is held (having travelled major international film festivals already) and it makes more sense to watch regional Indian films, mostly debuts of young hard working film makers, whose films, unfortunately, do not see the light of day due to the lack of distributors and financiers. So, yes, while people get into long queues to catch Boyhood, you will find my watching a Malayali film with just 5-6 people in the theatre for company.

Every year, one film shines the brightest for me. Last year, it was Devashish Makhija’s Oonga, an absolutely delightful cinematic experience. Anyone who has known me for more than a day, will have heard me gushing about that film. Unfortunately, Oonga will never be released. These independent films do not find interest, money or publicity even if they have well-known indie actors in their cast. Oonga holds a special place in my heart and the film maker – an engaging and extremely talented storyteller – is a dear friend today.

This year, the standout film for me is Nirbashito (Banished) by Churni Ganguly. I sat for the film’s premiere this evening, not expecting to be blown away two hours later. Sitting right next to film maker-artist mother-daughter duo, Lalita and Kalpana Lajmi and listening to them chatter about renowned film veterans, I watched a demure Churni Ganguly walk down the aisle and take a seat in the row right in front of me. I have watched all of Churni’s performances as an actor – mostly in Kaushik Ganguly’s films – and I must add that I am not a fan of hers. I have always felt that she lacks variety as an actor and often falls into the rut of set mannerisms. Therefore, while I did not know what to expect from her film, I was definitely curious to see what she had made.

Nirbashito tells the story of a poetess unceremoniously deported from her country for angering religious extremists with her writings. She pines for her country, friends and family in a far off land, living amongst people who speak an alien language and grapple to understand her angst. Most importantly, her only companion, a Persian cat, is all alone at home. The idiosyncrasies surrounding the cat and how everyone – from the Police Commissioner to the Embassies – try to pack the cat, aptly named Baaghini or Tigress, off to her owner forms the metaphor for a feisty woman’s indomitable spirit in a society that finds it easier to cower than stand by its beliefs. The poetess’s name is never mentioned in the film. The film is dedicated to MF Husain. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is used in a shot to make a pivotal point. So, who is this poetess on whom the film is based? Her books have been banned, she has been abused and maligned for years, every time you utter her name, an uncomfortable silence descends…It has been 20 years since she was forced to leave her own country. Who is this poetess?

The film is based on true events from the lives of Taslima Nasreen and her cat, Minu.

The storyline is quite simple and Ganguly masterfully maneuvers the film away from the common pitfalls of drummed up sympathy and over-exaggerated melodrama. She does not force you to feel sorry for the poetess, but ensures that you are emotionally affected by the narrative. The hero of the film is the script – beautifully written, crisply edited, the dialogues are smart and steer clear of unnecessary sob fests, intelligent comic timing and witty repartee make the film’s screenplay an absolute treat. Exquisitely shot, the cinematography drives home a sense of loss, helplessness and fatigue. The commotion of Calcutta contrasts the Spartan monochromatic settings of Stockholm. Well-tailored and snipped of unnecessary flab, a tip of my hat to the editing department too. The background score supports the visual narrative, being a balancing act and not an overbearing presence.

As a director, this is a fantastic debut by Ganguly. And like I most childishly demanded of her after the film, you want film makers like her to make films more often. She has an independent voice, a strong vision and a confident hold of her text. More importantly, she is fearless about what she has to say. Not many directors would be comfortable discussing women’s orgasms on screen. Also, her innate humanity shines through in the film, making her the ideal film maker to deal with a subject like this. In a poignant scene, when her Swedish hosts try to gift a kitten to take her mind off her own pet, she beautifully explains every individual’s – human and animal – birthright to a mother and a home and how no political or religious authority has the right to decide otherwise. Such sensitive artists and such sensitive messages are the need of the day in our country today.

Ganguly brings together a host of talented actors who play their parts well. While the Bengali cast led by Saswata Chatterjee is a wonderful bunch of dim-witted buffoons, the Swedish actors are stoic and controlled, as demanded of their roles. Unfortunately, Raima Sen is increasingly getting reduced to the classically good-looking posh Bengali housewife in every film. I wish she chose films that offered her some variety. The cat is a lead character and if she could understand I’d tell her that she is a gorgeously talented piece of feline. Like Ganguly mentioned, the cat ‘acted’ every shot in the film as no computer graphics was used.

And finally, Ganguly as the poetess was a revelation. For someone who never enjoyed her performances, I was wowed by her controlled angst and burning fury that glowed like embers in the wind, not rising into flames but not beaten out completely either. Strong, expressive and measured – this is Churni Ganguly’s best performance till date. Not to mention her haunting voice reading Nasreen’s poems…When she says, she will be back, you shudder a little, you notice you have goosebumps…As if from a far away land a hot blast of wind suddenly made a prophesy.

My best wishes to Nirbashito and its wonderful cast and crew. May the film travel around the globe and be applauded, lauded and appreciated.

 

Image courtesy: Google Images

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EXCLUSIVE: William Shakespeare discusses Haider and Vishal Bhardwaj

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Kaku (noun) – a term of endearment used for your father’s younger brothers AND any close acquaintance who is too young to be a Jethu (another avuncular term used for male members older to your father) but too old to be a Dada (older brother).

“So, did you watch Haider?”

He raised an eyebrow. I knew I was disturbing him. Willy kaku was bent over reams of paper, scribbling away on this new play he is working on these days. He refuses to tell me what it is about, lest I use the plot for my next play. He does not trust me at all. I don’t blame him. These days, people don’t believe he wrote all those plays and sonnets. They don’t believe he is a genius. How does a man feel when his hard work and outstanding creativity is butchered for the sake of just another conspiracy theory? Thus, his secrecy is understandable.

I remember watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool with Willy kaku. The man did not say a word, but I remember a smile, an approving smile that lingered on his mouth for hours after the film was over. He wasn’t quite impressed with Omkara, so, when he heard me gush uncontrollably about Bhardwaj’s latest adaptation of Willy kaku’s famous tragedy, Hamlet, he frowned. I urged him to go for the film. He looked pensive.

“To watch or not to watch is the question…” He finally sighed.

“Okay, cut out the drama. Go. Watch.”

“What if I don’t like it?” His cockiness is seething.

“Well, no one cares.” I walked out of the room, leaving him in his high back armchair, sheets of paper strewn everywhere, a never-leaving rusty smell of black ink and a smoky haze of the best cannabis.

So, when I saw him trod out for the film, I was elated. And also a tad scared. What if he did not like Haider?

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“So, did you watch Haider?”

He realized I wasn’t going anywhere without an answer.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“And thoughts?” Why was he acting so pricey?

Willy kaku smiled. He peered over his pince-nez and looked straight into my eyes.

“What did you think?” He asked. I breathed in. So he is opening a conversation. That is always a good thing.

“I think it was a fine adaptation. I am glad VB took the story out of an aristocratic setup and narrated a story of common people in the times of pain and despair.”

Willy kaku nodded. “Yes. The socio-political situation of Kashmir was a fantastic foil for the story.”

“And I feel, a contemporary re-telling of Hamlet would require a complex society, a complex background.”

“Why so?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Because, very frankly, the murder of a king, albeit by his brother, is no big deal today.” Okay, I don’t think I put it politely.

“No. Big. Deal.” He looked at me pointedly.

“You know what I am talking about,” I said. I did not want him to think that I was taking his plot lightly. “A regicide AND a fratricide was unthinkable back then, but that is not enough to shock the audience today. So, he killed his brother and married his sis-in-law after wooing her for a long time. Big deal.”

“Big. Deal.”

“I thought you agreed that the Kashmiri problem was a good backdrop?”

“Yes, but did it become more powerful than the plot? Was it too overbearing?” He was smiling again.

I nodded. Now that is a valid point. In Haider, VB simplifies all the sub-plots so that the political situation of Kashmir in 1995 and Haider’s bloodlust takes precedence. His relationship with Arshi (Ophelia) and its unfortunate deterioration is not dealt with. The role Ophelia’s father and brother (Polonius and Laertes) play in the downfall of Hamlet is non-existent. Ophelia’s death and its disastrous effect on Hamlet is not given enough screen time. Like VB mentions in an interview, Kashmir was his Hamlet. The dilemma that the people of the valley faced back then and even today is akin to the dilemma of Hamlet – whom do I trust? Should I take up arms and fight my own battle? Claudius or his father, whom should Hamlet believe? Years of confusion and broken promises make Kashmir an apt metaphor for Hamlet. But, is that a sufficient excuse to boil the narrative down to a one-plot one-mean one-end storyline?

I look up at Willy kaku. He is busy smoking. He finally notices me staring at him, helplessly.

“There, there. Do not be so disappointed. I know you love this Vishal fellow.”

I smiled.

“What else?” I asked.

“The girl who played Ophelia was hopeless.”

“So was Kay Kay. The actor who played Claudius, the brother.” I added.

Willy kaku nodded. “Yes, it seemed as if he was trying too hard…to act. And who is that charming fellow who played Roohdar?”

“Irrfan!” I gushed. “He was Macbeth in Maqbool, remember?”

“Ah yes! And I must commend Vishal. Roohdar! I am sure you young people would not find a ghost believable.”

The strength of VB’s adaptation lies in his ability to interpret the play’s dramatic and creative elements in a modern setting. No one would believe Haider’s resolution to kill his uncle if his father’s ghost appeared, telling him to avenge his death (like it happens in the original play). Therefore, Roohdar, a mysterious figure, who is supposed to have been in the same detention centre as Haider’s father becomes the bearer of his father’s will. Do we believe Roohdar? Is Roohdar trying to fulfill some ulterior motive of his own? Does Haider eventually become a pawn in a larger ploy? Instead of being supernatural, Roohdar remains a mystery who is introduced and shot delectably like a rockstar, but is never completely revealed to the audience. Like Willy kaku’s earlier commentators, even today’s audience asks that crucial question – Should Haider have trusted Roohdar?

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Similarly, the way VB treats the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is pure genius. They are die-hard Salman Khan fans who, even before killing a man, find pleasure in doing a pelvic thrust and mouthing bhai’s dialogue. They bring in the right amount of comic relief and tomfoolery that all Shakespearean tragedies have.

While I would have loved Arshi to have jumped into the river to kill herself (remember how Rishi Kapoor’s body was found in Fanaa, floating in the river, under a transparent sheet of ice? I wish that is how Arshi’s body was found by her brother Liyaqat. Maybe this has to do with my obsession with Millais’s painting “Ophelia”) rather than shooting her head, her psychological breakdown after her father’s murder was beautifully portrayed by the unraveling of the red muffler she had gifted him.

The scene where Haider chances upon Khurram confessing to his brother’s arrest during dua and then decides to not kill him because those killed during prayer go straight to heaven, is an adaptation masterclass. It is a crucial scene which emphasizes on Hamlet’s innate goodness and principles. He could have stabbed Claudius right then but chooses not to. Haider holds the gun squarely on the back of Khurram’s head and is prepared to pull the trigger but chooses not to. The power and palpable energy of the scene make it so memorable.

“The film looked like a painting, didn’t it?” I shake myself back to reality. Willy kaku takes a long drag of his joint and looks at me.

“The cinematography, yes. It was magnificent.” I said. “It was stark and yet, engaging. But again, you can never go wrong with blood on snow. It is a time-tested combination.”

Willy kaku laughed out loud. “You are right. There is a kind of romance in the way a bleeding dead body looks when it lays on show. You feel sorrow, but you also appreciate the beauty of the contrasting colours.”

“Like washing your blood stained hands in a pool of water and watching it turn red?” I mischievously grinned. He knew I was referring to that famous monologue from Macbeth. He knows how besotted I am with that play.

Also, after a long time, a film actually has a commendable literary quality. The dialogues are beautifully written in Hindi and Urdu with strong Pashtu influences. Even segments that have been adapted – Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ monologue – acquire an individual quality. This adds another layer to the adaptation, creating individuality and strong cinematic identity in spite of being based on an existing text. And this is achieved even while adapting the characters. While Haider might be a simplistic Hamlet, Ghazala is a wonderful Gertrude. Ghazala is primal, emotional and instinctive. She is a mother who seems to be ruled by a sweet sixteen’s hormones. She is dangerous. It is this characteristic of hers that enriches the sexual tension between her and Haider. VB establishes it early in the film when a young Haider dabs his mother’s neck with ittar and then kisses it. Later, before the film’s climax, a sexually charged moment is created when Ghazala kisses Haider for the last time. When she holds his gaze, the audience holds their breath – Will she kiss him on the mouth? The relationship is emotionally charged with moments of intense love (swinging between maternal and sexual) and fiery hate. A sure shot – and unfortunate – recipe for disaster. None of the other relationships in the film are paid as much attention as Haider-Ghazala’s.

“And what a Gertrude she was! She was a better Gertrude than a Lady Macbeth.” Willy kaku exclaimed. I smiled. Haider might be one of Tabu’s top five performances. The woman allows herself to be engulfed by such animalistic passion and fervour that she scares you. When she holds the revolver to her temple, blackmailing her son to admit to her decision, her eyes express emotions that require a certain depth of human understanding and acting prowess that only the greats can deliver. Tabu is bewitching in Haider and her witch-like evil beauty is haunting. Is she good or bad? Is she the predator or the prey? The criminal or the victim? Tabu’s Ghazala swings between these extremities.

“What do you think about the music?” Willy kaku asked.

“Please, with all due respect and stuff, that’s not your area.” I joked.

“I enjoy music too. I thought Vishal did a fantastic job.”

“The songs had such beautiful Kashmiri and Middle-Eastern influences. Especially Ao Na and Bismil.” I agreed.

“Yes, that gravediggers scene was beautifully executed. I love the way they were introduced. Who knew someone could be so good at dark humour.” He chuckled.

“Are you complimenting VB or yourself, Willy kaku?”

Other than my infatuation with the film’s adept adaptation, I have – yet again – fallen in love with Shahid Kapoor. I have always believed that he is a talented actor who needs a director accomplished and intelligent enough to harness his acting prowess. VB did that successfully with Kaminey. But with Haider, Shahid delivers a performance that should make him proud. It is important for an actor to deliver at least one performance that satisfies him. Haider will do that for Shahid. Shahid creates both method and mania with his madness. He oscillates between suppressed passion bursting at its seams and angry outbursts that lack coherence and pragmatism. He is both thoughtful and careless. Calculative and spontaneous. The prayer scene in which he stands behind Khurram with a revolver in his hand, to shoot or not to shoot, is an example of Shahid’s growth as an actor and his painstaking involvement with the character.

“So, do you like VB?” I asked him.

“He is a brave man, son,” Willy kaku sighs. “He has faith in his content, he does not fall for the usual traps of commerce, he points fingers…He is unafraid to accuse.”

“He changed the ending completely though.”

Willy kaku smiled.

“And that shows how well he understands the need of these times. Like the good ol’ man said, an eye for an eye…”