At Film Bazaar, Some Titles Stole the Show

admin   December 2, 2019

The Film Bazaar has become an apt platform for captivating cinema, and this year it was no different with at least three movies stealing the show through their engaging and creative content at the industry screenings By Gautaman Bhaskaran, Recently at the Film Bazaar 2019

One of the several attractions at the Film Bazaar, organised by the National Film Development Corporation of India, is the industry screenings, where movies that have just popped out of the cans are exhibited for possible festival selections and theatrical distribution. Running alongside the 50th edition of International Film Festival of India, the Bazaar has many such movies. One of them I quite enjoyed was Susant Misra’s ‘Josef – Born in Grace’.

Misra has had an illustrious career, and his films to name a few – Nischal Baadal, Indradhanura Chai and Biswaprakash – have been screened in some of the most prestigious festivals across the world including Cannes, Cairo, Rotterdam, Sochi, Moscow and Montreal.

‘Josef – Born in Grace’ has an impressive star cast. Victor Banerjee, who plays a Christian priest in Misra’s work, is one of the most talented actors that India has seen. Having worked with directors as distinguished as Satyajit Ray (Shatranj Ke Khilari, Pikoo, Ghare Bhaire), Shyam Benegal (Kalyug), Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon), David Lean (Passage to India) and James Ivory (Hullabaloo Over Georgie’s and Bonnie’s Pictures), Banerjee brings his enormous experience to Josef.. as Father O’Hara—a missionary doctor who serves the poor in a small hospital at the foothills of the Himalayas. The plot unfolds between 1960 and 1980.

In a tranquil setting that Misra has chosen to tell his story, his movie is paced in a way that reflects the times and the innocence of the period. There is a haunting beauty which Misra captures in detail and delight – as we watch Father O’Hara go about tending to his patients. At home, his caretaker, Maularam (Sudarshan Juyal), helps the priest look after Josef, a baby who was abandoned; a baby that O’Hara finds and brings home.

Susant Misra’s Josef – Born in Grace

O’Hara sends Josef to Dehra Dun for his education and vocational training (to be a cook). Many years later, Josef (Subrat Dutta) returns to O’Hara’s abode as a great cook, but also bearing a dark spot. He has turned into an alcoholic, much to O’Hara’s angst. The movie has a thin plot, but where it scores is the mood it captures by taking us along the different paths which O’Hara and Josef take. Both seek spiritual fulfilment through their respective duties. While Josef puts his heart and soul into being a good chef, O’Hara brings joy and relief to the sick and the sad men and women, who turn up at his hospital doorsteps hoping for miracles.

Yes, some may find the film a trifle repetitive, but life in the hills in those times was precisely that—a series of events which played again and again with singular regularity.

Banerjee scores as the kind priest, whose mission to soothe tortured souls encompasses a baby whose mother abandons him and who finds a warm shelter in O’Hara’s nest. In an important way, Banerjee with his controlled performance and charming subtlety produces the spark that lights up Misra’s narrative style and substance, which are daringly different from many present-day films that appear to be in a rush.

The second work at the Bazaar that caught my attention was ‘Baba’, which is about a deaf-mute couple. Indian cinema has earlier given us stories about the deaf and the mute, and a fine example of this was Gulzar’s 1972 ‘Koshish’ in which Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan) played a handicapped couple. In the film, the couple have a wonderful life going— at least as wonderful as it could have been—until a tragedy strikes them. They lose their child; a loss that can be directly attributed to the couple’s inability to hear.

Raj R Gupta’s ‘Baba’ in Marathi also talks about a deaf-mute couple, Madhav (Deepak Dobriyal) and Aanandi (Nandita Patkar). The poor couple’s daily struggle to eke out a living gets a silver lining when an acquaintance gives them a new born baby that has been abandoned by the rich family of an unwed mother. Years later after she gets married to the man of her parents’ choice, she begins her search for the child that was taken away from her.

When she finds him – after eight years – she wants to get him back from Madhav and Aanandi, the husband and wife who had nurtured him all along and who has become a joyous part of their otherwise mundane and hard life. The boy does not speak probably because his parents do not. Also, the boy has had a sheltered existence because of the insecurity his parents had about losing him.

In the legal battle which his biological mother initiates to get her child back, there are hilarious moments as there are sorrowful interludes. In the court, while Madhav and his wife cannot communicate with the public prosecutor, he is also unable to express himself clearly to the magistrate because of a dental problem! Moreover, the couple’s friend also suffers from an awful stammering problem, and all this gets the magistrate flustered. But then Gupta lightens these situations in a way that I found the enormity of the handicap and its repercussions melt away. Not many helmers could have done this.

But the highlight of ‘Baba’, produced by Sanjay Dutt (his first Marathi venture), is undoubtedly the eightyear- old boy, played with disarming brilliance by Aaryan Menghji – who literally carries the plot forward to its finale. The climax may not be very original, for it tends to look similar to the one in ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’.

The third title at the Bazaar that held some interest for me was ‘Midnight Delhi.’ Much as a city would seem bright and beautiful during the day with perhaps the sun adding allure, dusk with its creeping shadows might change the entire scenario, injecting a sense of forbidding fear. Young Rakesh Rawat tries to capture this mood in his first feature, ‘Midnight
Delhi.’

‘Midnight Delhi’ zooms in on a night in India’s capital city to present a picture of sheer horror, blood and gore. The film may be apt for the times we live in with Delhi gaining the notorious reputation of being hugely crime prone.

To a question why Rawat chose to depict brutality in a no-holds-kind of way, he tells me that cinema is after all a reflection of society, and this is what has been happening in Delhi and many other places. Rawat may have a point, and he is probably keeping pace with how modern cinema presents events – which is most graphically. Whether it be sex or violence, writers and directors tend to present scenes with graphic imagery.

But there is a huge debate going on today – provoked by the recent ‘Joker’ – that whether cinema must be more covert than overt. As an example, let us take a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ in which he tells us the story of a criminal dubbed Merry Widow Murderer. There is not a single scene where we see the man murdering a woman, and was the movie any less powerful than a Quentin Tarantino work? Or did Hitchcock (often described as the master of the macabre) fail to convey the enormity of the crime? No, certainly not. Maybe, it is an easier way of telling a story when you leave little to a viewer’s imagination.

Rawat’s fiction feature begins on a foggy night with a burglar (played by Anshuman Jha, whose screen name is not revealed until halfway through the 115-minute movie), who uses a blade to slit the jugular vein of his victims, jumping into an auto rickshaw (driven by Mukesh Bhatt, earlier seen in works such as ‘Jab We Met’ and ‘M.S. Dhoni’). The burglar engages in light banter with the driver, gaining his confidence until he attempts to commit the crime.

Later, in a series of seemingly unrelated events involving a jilted woman and a husband who returns home to find his wife with her lover, Rawat weaves a narrative that is packed into three acts. The unfolding drama has interesting characters, each with their own tragic tale.

In a style reminiscent of Tarantino’s films (whose canvas is invariably a bloody mess), ‘Midnight Delhi’ throws together puzzling situations that do not though quite add up the way Babel did some years ago.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who has been covering film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Tokyo and Cairo for three decades


A bold and Unflinching Look at a society in Strife

admin   February 2, 2019

With ability to tackle sensitive issues head on through a bold and provocative approach, Arab cinema has come of age, helping movies from the region enter some of the most important festivals the world over – By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Incredible as it may sound, Arab cinema has taken off to dizzying heights in the past five years or so. And one of the singularly most important reason for this is the cinema’s ability to stay focussed. In about 90 to 110 minutes, an Arab movie grips us with its story, which, I dare say, can be bold and provocative, raising sensitive issues and getting into them head on – which Indian films have not been allowed to do, either by the administration or political groups.

It is this approach of Arab cinema that has helped it to enter some of the most important festivals the world over. While India has not had a title in either Cannes or Venice Competition for many years, Arab works have scored here. Last year, two movies from the Middle East – Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum and first-timer Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine – ran for one of the most prestigious awards in the world of cinema, the Palm d’Or at the Canes Film Festival. And as Arab cinema programmer Intishal Al Timimi, who heads Egypt’s two-edition-old El Gouna Film Festival, points out,”2018 turned out to be a great year for the region’s cinema, and in recent years 70% of the winning works by Arab directors at international movie festivals are first or second features, which bodes well for the future of Arab cinema.”

Indeed so. Capernaum won the Jury Prize at Cannes 2018, and is now one of the five competing for the Foreign Language Oscar. Probably, it will walk away with the trophy. For, the other important contender, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, in this section is also listed under the Best Picture category in the general list, and it has an excellent chance of winning. This leaves Capernaum as a clincher, the other three including Poland’s Cold War, are not in the same league as Labaki’s creation.

The other 2018 Cannes Competition entry, Yomeddine, is a brutal, unflinching look at the life of a leper, an actual leper, who soon after the death of his wife gets on to his donkey cart and goes in search of his long estranged family in Egypt’s Luxor. The trip from Cairo, where he had been living, to Luxor is extremely eventful with some sad and some happy incidents. What is most significant, the helmer does not make his work a celebration of disfigurement, and underlines the cruelty of a society towards lepers. We saw this long, long ago in the 1960s Ben-Hur, where people afflicted with this disease were shut away in a cave!

Societal unfeeling attitude is also brought out most starkly in the Tunisian drama, Beauty and the Dogs, by Kaouther Ben Hania (who earlier gave us Imams Go To School and Zaineb Hates The Snow). Hania’s latest adventure is based on a real-life incident in 2012, and looks at a young woman, who is raped when she gets out of a party at night. Her nightmare continues when she walks into a police station to file a complaint, but she meets a wall. For, the perpetrators of the crime are the cops themselves, the guardians of the community. The film is fearless in the way it attacks and exposes not only the men in uniform, but also hospital staff and doctors – all of whom turn monstrously unsympathetic to the woman’s horrific plight.

(Compare this with India, where we refused to let Indo-Canadian moviemaker, Richie Mehta, to shoot Delhi Crime Story on the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi. I do not know how Mehta managed to put the movie together, but it is now premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.)

Community’s indifference – even rank neglect towards – those men and women who are down is also magnified in Tunisian writer-director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s latest outing, Fatwa, which won the Best Movie award at the Carthage Film Festival and also the Saad Eldin Wahba Prize for Best Arab Movie at the Cairo International Film Festival.

Fatwaexplores extremism in Tunisia, and how it hits the families of those involved. The work is a deeply disturbing look at the radicalization of Tunisian youth and sheds light on a system that offers little in the way of reformation — even for former extremists who have had a change of heart, but are thrown into jail with little hope for the future.

Conflict has been a favourite theme of Middle-Eastern writers and directors, and they have talked it most animatedly in their cinema, and how it destroys hope (like we see in Fatwa) and peace – as in Syrian moviemaker Soudade Kaadan’s feature debut, The Day I Lost My Shadow, screened at El Gouna last year. It narrates the horrors of the internecine strife in her country, filtered through a simple story of a mother’s desire to give her son a hot meal. Partly folklore and partly magic realism, based on the idea that those who lose their shadows lose their souls, the director weaves a distressing account of disruption and disappointment.

Guiding us through some of the most tension-ridden situations imaginable, as the mother walks through forests, dodges sniper fire and hides from trigger-happy rebels fighting government forces, Kadan conveys most profoundly how such bloody wars can rob people of their souls, if not their lives. Venice artistic chief Alberto Barbera called the movie “an impressive depiction of one of the most tragic realities of the past decades.”

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author of a biography on Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and a leading cinema writer who has covered Cannes, Venice, Tokyo, Cairo and other movie festivals for years – tracing their journeys through fascinating films. He may be e-mailed at gautamanb@hotmail.com, and he tweets at @gautamanb