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India x 5 - Of Kites, Pigs, Thieves, Dysfunctional Families and Chess Players

~ by Arsaib Gilbert 

(Arsaib Gilbert is a film critic contributing to Yam-Magazine and filmlefou.com. He lives in New York.)


Patang (Prashant Bhargava, 2011)

An impressionistic collage of visions and emotions, Patang (The Kite), similar to the city symphony films of the silent era, employs a lyrical, quasi-documentary approach in its portrait of daily life within a metropolis while capturing the pulse of the setting through its fractured visual and montage techniques.

Loosely structured around a Delhi-based businessman's long-delayed visit back home to his family in old Ahmadabad, the film is appropriately set during the city's annual kite festival, herein symbolizing the precarious, indeterminate nature of life and relationships.

Debutant feature director Prashant Bhargava, a Chicago-born multimedia artist of Indian descent who passed away in 2015 at the young age of 42, seldom veers toward the indulgent as he strikingly forges his fragmented aesthetics from the bustling chaos of the surroundings.

To his credit, he doesn't overlook the fleeting gestures and expressions of his talented cast—including the great Nawazuddin Siddiqui, appearing in his first prominent film role.

Fandry (Nagraj Manjule, 2013)

For much of the first three-quarters of its duration, Fandry ("Pig"), a Marathi-language Indian film about caste-based discrimination, behaves in a surprisingly polite, restrained, even tasteful, manner. Framed as a chaste, unrequited love story between a dark-skinned lower-caste Dalit teen and a lighter-skinned upper-caste girl from the same rural school, it exhibits many of the trademarks of middlebrow arthouse cinema through its tone, pacing, visual-style, use of symbolism.

And then what turns out to be the final sequence begins, taking up nearly 25-minutes out of the film’s 100-minute running-time, in which, as per orders, the boy and his family relentlessly chase a wild pig through the village, with the boy initially doing everything he can to avoid being seen by his beloved. It is a remarkable episode, a film in and of itself, that boldly embodies the social, political and emotional implications of discrimination, and it does not let the audience off the hook of its own responsibilities.

Written and directed by Nagraj Manjule (b. 1977), a Dalit himself, this Indian National Award winner for Best Debut feature, much like its protagonist, ultimately proves to be a simmering volcano of grief and rage.

Kapoor & Sons (Shakun Batra, 2016)

If Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions is emblematic of Bollywood filmmaking, then, despite the worst efforts of house directors Karan and Punit Malhotra, it is finally coming of age. Although the company's two offbeat collaborations with Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom were neither artistically nor commercially successful, credit goes to Johar for putting his weight behind a film such as The Lunchbox (2013), and now producing one that, at least in the Bollywood context, feels as fresh as the morning dew.

Shakun Batra’s second feature, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) — lamentably, I haven’t seen his 2012 debut, which also involved Dharma — may partly owe its dysfunctional family template, not to mention its fluid camerawork and editing, to American independents of the recent past, but it’s sharper, more affecting, has a better sense of tone and rhythm than most such films I’ve seen lately.

Beautifully performed by its ensemble cast, this engrossing and bittersweet effort joins a small group of new mainstream movies — Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), Haider (2014), NH10 (2015), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), Tamasha (2015), to name a few — attempting to push Bollywood in new directions.

Visaranai (Vetrimaran, 2016)

The first Tamil-language film to ever compete at the Venice International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere in 2015 in the Orizzonti sidebar, Interrogation (Visaranai) is the most visceral and multilayered portrait of police corruption and brutality I’ve seen since Pablo Trapero’s El bonaerense (2002).

Directed with blunt conviction by Vetrimaaran, a relative newcomer who made his feature debut in 2007, this true-life story deals primarily with the nightmarish predicament of four young migrant workers from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Although at times excessively violent, the otherwise admirably single-minded first half meticulously depicts the savagery the quartet suffer at the hands of an indifferent and racist group of cops hell-bent on extracting a false confession about a high-profile robbery in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, the evidently more prosperous neighboring state where they’ve come to work.

Any moments of kindness experienced by the victims make the cruelty that much more acute, and vice versa. The setting shifts to another police station in the second half, this time in their home state, where the helpless unwittingly end up becoming pawns in a larger, and more vicious, game of power and authority.

Similar to the Trapero film, this raw, gripping, unnerving piece of work ultimately reveals many of its characters as byproducts of a cancerous system that doesn't think twice about eating its own.

The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray, 1977)

The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khilari) is perhaps the most prominent example of Satyajit Ray’s more measured and objective approach to political subject matter. This is in stark contrast to the related work of many of Ray’s regional Indian counterparts who, especially during the late sixties and seventies, were often radical and confrontational in their methods. Ray, in this particular case, even has trouble mustering up much anger toward either Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), the tenth and last Nawab of Awadh who evidently spent more time pursuing sensual pleasures than attending to state matters, or James Outram (an excellent Richard Attenborough), the manipulative, culturally insensitive British General attempting to annex Awadh without any bloodshed on what turned out to be the eve of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. If anything, Ray is sympathetic to Shah due to his patronization of the arts (the character faintly echoes the protagonist of Ray’s 1958 The Music Room).

It’s worth noting that Ray expanded both of these characters considerably from the source, Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name, which focused almost entirely on the titular chess players (Saeed Jaffrey and popular star Sanjeev Kumar). Thanks to Ray’s deft use of the game as a metaphor for larger political machinations, this thread involving a pair of apathetic, chess-obsessed noblemen more concerned about locating the right place to indulge in their passion than any personal or political upheavals is seamlessly integrated with the other. Their largely irrelevant and frivolous banter helps carry the gently satiric tone of the film set by the prologue in which Ray inventively employs a number of visual forms to offer a brief history of the place.

The Chess Players was the most expensive film Ray ever made (despite the detailed and lavish sets the film doesn’t turn into a “costume drama”), not to mention his only feature not in his native language of Bengali. It features a wonderful cameo by then-newcomer Shabana Azmi as the neglected wife of one of the nobles.


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