This is the basic idea behind the blog.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ace In The Hole

Uncharacteristically devoid of Wilder's charming wit, at least for the most part (starts out with some smart one-line punches from Kirk Douglas' hardboiled cynic Chuck). Which only makes it difficult to digest - even his 1960 film, The Apartment, is about the corruption of soul; yet the fluid humour keeps it floating smoothly. Probably this explains the film's critical failure at the time.

Ambitious reporter Chuck Tatum is always in a soup. He's worked with some of the biggest houses in journalism, but personal misdemeanours keep coming in the way of his career. So he comes riding with a flat-tyre to small town Albuquerque, looking for the one scoop that'll take him back top. Luck favours him when he runs across an amateur archaeologist, Leo Minosa, stuck in a cave-in. The man can be saved in a day, but seeing that his life is not in imminent danger, Chuck decides to milk this golden opportunity - to sustain "human interest" in the story, he arranges for a lengthy rescue operation. Chuck will be the only one to do an exclusive coverage of the accident and rescue efforts.

Things don't look too bright. And not only because of the journo's exploitation of a man's suffering. Leo's simple-minded father has his faith pinned on Chuck, who is something of a brave hero to him, and Leo's wife can't wait to desert her husband. The local sheriff wants to gain political leverage from the incident, the engineer gives in to corruption because his job is in jeopardy, there's a gathering of hundreds outside who have arrived to "show their sympathy" for the man inside, small businesses bloom all around - the whole picture resembles a giant carnival more than anything. The picture may look exaggerated at first sight, but anyone who has heard the outpours of cliche-ridden sympathy during the Prince incident (pointed out by Jabberwock) or witnessed political reactions following 26/11 should see how acute Wilder's observations were. The Mr. Federber character is not in the least fabricated - people are callous about accidents in exactly the same way, insignificant though it may seem on the surface.

The unexpected revelation of buried guilt and conscience is Tatum changes the blame equation all of a sudden - is he the most guilty man? Isn't his ambition fuelled only by public thirst for yellow journalism? In true noir tradition, Tatum is killed - but what about the faceless revellers outside having the time of their lives? They have paid nothing; except maybe for twenty square meals of tacos, hot dogs and soda-pops. There are more unsettling questions than those answered on screen by the mechanics of Wilder's plot.

My pick for the best scene - a huge circus tent (Chuck himself scorns at the carnival as a "circus") is pulled down after the din has died down. Looks like a mock-flag-lowering ceremony to honour the late Leo Minosa. Of course, nothing of the sort is said. The visual clue is enough. Maybe that is the power of cinema!

Sunday, November 29, 2009


My first Kiarostami film. A treatment of the classic question - how is reality and cinema related? Is cinema a reflection of reality - at once unadorned and inverted - or is it an embellished reenactment of truth? And how far can the convergence of reality and cinema be taken?

Here is a man, Sabzian, who impersonates a famous film-maker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (an Iranian New-Wave contemporary of Kiarostami), and pretends to be interested in a film project involving the members of a family he meets by chance during a bus-ride. He visits the family, gains their confidence (save the father's, who maintains an amicable skepticism), starts rehearsing with the younger son - who has an interest in art and cinema - for a supposed film-role. All this is not staged - the incidents are real, the actors in the film are the characters. When the family begins to suspect Makhmalbaf's authenticity, they call in a journo friend who knows Makhmalbaf. Sabzian is arrested on charges of fraud, and his story is covered by the journo Farazmand. Kiarostami's involvement begins with him reading the article, and seeking consent from all parties involved to shoot the trial.

What is apparent about the film is that it can be clearly divided into two parts - the courtroom sequence, which does not seem re-enacted, and the background story which is quite clearly re-done (considering the point of arrival of Kiarostami). All this however transcends the questions of physical reality as represented on celluloid, even though it is not exactly clear on the point (why for example are some of the principals listed as themselves on the credits, while some of the peripheral roles, like the judge in the court, not done likewise?). The deeper and more engaging matter is Sabzian's assumed idenity of Makhmalbaf - a man whom he admires and aspires to be, whose cinema he identifies with and loves. His impersonation is thereby an extension of, and some would say the very peak of, method acting - "getting into somebody's skin", thinking and feeling like the character one portrays. While the moral gray-area is never beyond question, it is brought into light that the momentary impulse which prompted him to forge a new identity was a harmless one - he wanted a meal for the day with the family, and that was all!

The catharsis at the end is Makhmalbaf's meeting with his impersonator - artist and admirer embracing, kindred souls rejoicing in each other's company. The parting freeze-frame suddenly recalls another iconic freeze-frame from another New-Wave, Antoine Doinel's first view of the sea in 400 Blows. A film common in theme and tone, if not treatment, to Close-Up - both being infused with warmth for man, and tangential irreverence for social norms.

The lighthearted irony is that the 'crime' is what unites Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, and what gives shape to this excellent film!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tengoku To Jigoku

(Literally translated, Heaven and Hell. Released worldwide as High and Low.)

Kidnap. Using that as the basic premise, Kurosawa builds a film that explores the theme closest to his heart: humanity. A taut crime thriller cannot run for over two hours without losing steam unless it hints at something beyond its facade that exposes the larger picture, holds up the deeper motive. Kurosawa's criminals are not hardened epitomes of villainy; they are people with a human side: embedded in a history and rising from a background. They are part of the social structure, influencing and upsetting its gigantic machinery even as they are influenced by it.

As the beginning credits role, the camera takes long range shots of downtown Yokohama. The frames encompass factory chimneys and incinerators black with smoke, busy roads, harbour cranes, fast trains, towering scrapers, little specks of light emanating from closely crowded buildings in the distance - a gritty urban demon with its bustling activity. A milieu of people barely discernible yet there: persons having distinct trades and traits. From his spacious apartment on a hill, the faraway landscape looks peaceful to Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune). He is far removed from the industrious city's underbelly; a director of National Shoes and head of production. Three of his fellow directors approach him with a proposal to overthrow the Chairman of the firm, an "Old Man". The trio are hungry for profits, and ready to compromise on quality for that end. Gondo has been in the business for nearly three decades starting out as a teenaged apprentice. Like several other self-made men, he has both business ethic and shrewd cunning (he advises his son that "a man must kill or be killed"). He rejects the fishy proposal because he thinks it dishonest to cheat customers; his dream shoes are neither like the Old Man's outdated "army boots" nor the low-cost stylish use-and-throw variety of his colleagues: a delicate mix of old-world reliability and new-age fashion. Gondo is a man trying to balance out the lingering strains of feudal Japan with the booming urban culture brewing in its cities. He is a man strongly grounded in principles and ideals (while disagreeing with his fellow director's view that women treat both hats and shoes as throwaway accessories, he reminds that "shoes carry the whole weight of the body") yet he has risen above the hum and din of the day-to-day existence that the city folk have to grapple with (his hilltop apartment is a constant reminder of this). The three directors leave fuming at their humiliation. Gondo harbours plans for taking the reins of the firm in his hand - he has been buying stock surreptitiously for years - and a deal he is about to seal will get him enough share to completely overthrow all the other directors. For this he has had to raise a formidable fifty million yen, which he did by lending against all his property. Having concluded the latest buying of stocks on phone, he rejoices seeing his dream within easy reach. The celebrations are however brought to an abrupt halt with, ironically, a phone call: Jun, his son, has been kidnapped. Held against a ransom of thirty million. An extraordinary sum, unprecedented according to police records. A man about to touch his career-high is yanked back with a sudden jerk, yet he does not hesitate to agree to the kidnapper's demand. No success in business compensates for a personal loss. Surprisingly, Jun is safe in his home. Shinichi - the chauffer's son - has been grabbed instead.

Caught between business ambitions and his own conscience, Gondo wrestles with himself over paying the ransom. A police team of four headed by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) sneak in in disguise to help the family out. Determined not to cave in to sentiments - Aoki's, Jun's, his wife's and most importantly, his own - Gondo tries to justify his decision not to pay with everything he can get a hand at. The circumstances are certainly not favourable. First, the money is acquired on credit. If the police cannot recover the ransom, he is sure to go bankrupt. What's more, all his property - the collateral for the loans - is going to be seized. Second, dishing out the money means that the stock deal does not go through. This means the end of his tenure at National Shoes: the three directors are sure to join forces with the Old Man to boot him out. Third, inspite of his partial affection or concern for Shinichi, he cannot get the rather selfish notion out of his mind that he'll be helping out someone without any blood relation or hope of personal gain. He reasons that even if he could take it rough, Reiko (his wife) would not be able to stand the hardships of starting from scratch, born as she is in luxury. In shabby efforts to console and quieten his own conscience, he repeats time and again that he would not hesitate in helping Shinichi out had the circumstances allowed so, believing in the idea for a few moments before realising with doubled intensity that no logic or argument can stand against the very fact that a human life is on stake. Over a sleepless night, he tries to make his ground steady. Morning finds him stressing that he stands by his decision. Something transpires meanwhile: Kawanishi, his assistant, betrays the secret deal to the other directors for personal gain. The evening before he had noticed Gondo soften enough to throw the deal, and therefore Kawanishi's own career, in jeopardy. Enraged, Gondo becomes determined to follow his heart, now that he has nothing to lose on the business front. When the kidnapper calls in the morning, Gondo agrees to pay the ransom provided Shinichi is shown alive and wholesome during the handover.

These fifty-five minutes shot inside the house - chiefly the living room - are remarkable for some facts. The set is small, so it takes a constant change of camera angles and positions to keep the flow intact (in this aspect similar to Sidney Lumet's classic courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men). The moderate long shots used by Kurosawa capture both Gondo's dilemma and the reactions of his family, Aoki and the cops. The limited space of the setting radiates a sense of claustrophobia that is heightened by the troubling matters pressing upon the protagonist. By a simple placement of the persons within the room, the director achieves a sense of moral distance between Gondo and the others. This is further established with the sparse furnishings of the room, and more importantly, silent dissent: while Gondo tries in vain to justify his decision, the others turn their back towards him and hang their faces down. The silence depicts a deeper sense of disagreement on moral terms than dialogue could have. The policemen are different in their characterisations - a lesser director may have sketched them with a similar brush - Tokura's apparently grudging sympathy is contrasted by the visibly cold disapproval of Taguchi (or Bos'n, as he is affectionately called). Gondo's urgency is deepened by one small reaction: that of Jun, his son. Even if he can silence his own conscience, he just cannot overlook how Jun is anxious to see his friend and holds himself responsible for Shinichi's plight. Aoki's reactions are constantly evolving: his initial silent resignation to fate gives way to a desperate request to his employer. Morning finds him apologising for the excessive burden he demanded of Gondo the night before, then he uncontrollably breaks down into sobs realising his utter helplessness. Mifune's iconic angry expression conveys the violent upheaval inside Gondo: which erupts only for a brief moment when he goes to take a shower, hiding his turbulent inner passions from others. His dilemma is underlined in the impatient way in which he walks and sits throughout the evening. When turning Aoki's request down, he turns towards the drawn curtains. The light behind casts his shadow just face-to-face: as if he were asking his shadow for some solace. The variety and gradual evolution in mindscapes reveal the underlying human crisis effectively. In a very memorable scene, Gondo volunteers the cops in planting detection devices into the briefcases to be used for the barter. He requests his wife to bring his old tool-kit (with which he started as a shoemaking apprentice). Then mumbling to himself "it feels as if I am already starting over", he starts with the job. Awestruck and reverent, everyone in the room silently stands up as they witness the proud self-made millionaire humbly get back to his roots. It's a little snippet of cinematic expression; but one that exposes the humane, emotional side of people who find themselves coping with severe circumstances. It is through small scenes like this that Kurosawa reveals his lifelong pre-occupation in connecting with the conscience and hearts of men and women: his characters and his viewers.

If the first fifty-five minutes center around the "high" half of the story, the other half plunges straight into Yokohama's "low". Connecting these two halves is the train sequence: the exchange. Racily shot (proof for anyone who thinks otherwise that Kurosawa could master fast-paced filmmaking with quick editing and unconventional camera techniques), its highlight is a moment that does not stand out at first glance. Disguised as a civilian passenger, the youngest of the four cops dozes off for a while in the soothing comfort of a luxury train inspite of his better sense, underlining how a grave situation often drives people with very human limitations to assume superhuman responsibilities. He has had not much sleep for almost two days, yet his job demands alert vigilance.

The second half acquaints us to the urban confusion of Yokohama: dominated by crowds thronging in its nightclubs and streets, shady alleys inhabited by drug-addicts letting their lives ebb in misty-eyed stupor, dirty stretches of wasteland dumped with garbage, stinking cesspools adjoining blocks of apartments, mud-splattered markets, and sooty factories. It's a disconcerting picture of a Japan coping from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A society stuck in economic rubble trying to exorcise the phantoms of war. The kidnapper, Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is one of the less fortunate. A medical intern, he boards in a cluttered tiny studio apartment which has to tolerate the extreme whims of man and nature. From his window, he can see Gondo's plush house on the top of the hill. He can imagine it with its heavenly facilities, away from the suffocating heat and humidity of his own quarters. What however irks him most is that the house high up is a king(o)'s palace: sheltering a man who can control and order his own fate, a bloated manipulator of circumstances. Takeuchi not only envies Gondo, his dislike assumes proportions of a passionate hatred fuelled by a complete ignorance of his victim's character. The kidnap is a ploy to humble the magnate, give him a taste of demeaning poverty. For once, make the dictator of fate helpless. The irony is that Gondo is a rare man who has risen out of the very low Takeuchi finds himself in, surely helped by luck in his sojourn but equally owing his success to intelligence and diligent effort.

The investigation and culmination into the final pindown are captured excellently, with Kurosawa always keeping an eye out to distill the emotional element pervading this cat-and-mouse game. Aoki's gratitude manifests in an urgent need to investigate on his own parallel to police procedures, pressurising a relieved Shinichi more than required to extract key nuggets of information. In a little mentioned scene, Takeuchi (who is being tailed by a sleuth network extending over a whole area) approaches Gondo on the street for a light. The dethroned tycoon looks longingly at a window-display of his beloved shoes. Oblivious to the kidnapper's identity, he obliges. It expresses the almost sadistic glee Takeuchi derives from seeing the man humbled.
Nothing however makes the film memorable as the finale. A jailed kidnapper wishes to see Gondo, whose property has been confiscated (even the clock that doles the advent of a new chapter in his life is auctioned off). He has joined a modest shoemaking firm as co-owner, hoping to compete with National Shoes someday. A wire-mesh and glass screen separate the two: and Kurosawa uses the latter to great effect. The reflection of one character in the glass is held in direct contrast with the juxtaposing face of the other. (Even from a technical POV, it eliminates the need for separate close-ups; capturing two facial expressions in a single frame.) Both of them have roots in the same ground, yet they have chosen to tread different paths. Takeuchi proudly confesses that he is not afraid of death: the chief reason to meet his victim is just to assert his nihilistic view of life. He cannot stand sympathy; his drive to live stemming from the intense hatred of Gondo. Reflections are a common motif in this film - whether it be in Takeuchi's dark shades or the cesspool on which the shadows of both the passing kidnapper and Gondo's mansion fall. They are a connect between the two contrasting poles, High and Low; a symbolic device hinting at introspection, also a mirror of the day's social conditions.

The most troubling ambiguity about the film is its forte: it is not quite made clear why Takeuchi is seized by violent tremors during the final few seconds. Is it because of his realisation that one's fate in heaven or hell is not designed by circumstances but action? Gondo chooses a financial low to a moral low, thereby retaining his position in heaven. Takeuchi chooses hell - a choice he declares he does not repent. Is it because his whole scheme and view is ultimately futile and self-defeating? After all, had it not been for the kidnap, Gondo might have lost his touch with humanity. The episode made him turn a new leaf: embracing hard-work with renewed enthusiasm. Is it because Takeuchi learns a little too late that inspite of his best efforts Gondo is the same as a man, perhaps even closer to his true self? Finally, can we completely dismiss the kidnapper? His life has been spent in grinding poverty and humiliation, rarely giving him time for reflection, twisting ingrained prejudices and hatreds into gigantic proportions. Can we unequivocally blame him? These five ending minutes dramatically change the viewer's perception, leaving him thoughtful even as the last shot has faded away. Like someone said, it is sheer poetry captured in motion. Violent passionate poetry that cuts straight into one's heart.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Rear Window

Arani da wrote this wonderful review of The Trouble With Harry. I thank him a lot for opening up my eyes to Hitchcock's genius. I had watched his North By Northwest about four or five months back and mumbled to myself "Now, what's really the big deal with Hitchcock, eh?". Must get back to that film one of these days; but since then I have poured over a lot of Hitch... and noticed what I would have missed had it not been for that splendid write-up.

Rear Window is remarkable, first of all, for one simple fact: it is shot exclusively from two camera perspectives; both of a backyard in just about any small-town American neighbourhood. One is the POV of our protagonist, LB Jefferies (James Stewart), the other belongs to the audience. (There is a third, but it is given a screentime of barely ten seconds at the most) Given such a small setting and narrow range of views available, it is a challenging task for the director to construct the story so as to keep the viewer enthralled. So what do we have at hand? A kaleidoscope of contrasting characters. Facing Jeff's rear window, ground-floor left is an old spinster who likes sculpting and giving free advice to others; on the apartment over hers stays "Miss Torso", the ballerina. This pretty young thing is always twiddling around doing her chores, or entertaining affluent gentlemen. As a direct contrast to this, there's "Miss Lonelyhearts" on the righthand ground-floor apartment. She has, from the look of it, just stepped into middle age and every other night after meticulously dressing herself she lays out the best China and pours out the best wine. Then opening the door, she welcomes an unseen lover, invites him into the dining area, coyly accepts a warm kiss before breaking down into sobs. Her unhappy solitude is in direct contrast to Miss Torso's bustling room. Over Miss Lonelyhearts stays the quarrelsome couple - the husband a salesman, the wife a bickering invalid. Just the apartment overhead stays the peaceful man and wife. They possibly have no children and always sleep out in the balcony except when it's raining. In a studio apartment to Jeff's right, the musician practises all day long, his landlady the only encouragement. To Jeff's left, a newlywed couple have moved in. This canvas of different and complementing colours establish the perfect long shot. The need of the close-up is also established when the camera zooms in to any one of these several windows: a minute detail crucial to understanding the concerned person(s) replaces the bewildering melange in the long shot.

Jeff is a cameraman who has a broken leg cocooned in a cast due to a nasty accident on a motor-race track. Since he has little to do other than be cooped up in a wheelchair, he stares out of his window. His casual and nonchalant interest in the proceedings of these various characters parallels the narrow concern of the artist for his model. A painter sketching the imposing facade of some monument may not be quite interested in its history. Yet as he scans the salesman's or Miss Lonelyheart's apartment through his long-focus camera, his interest deepens. Quite imperceptibly, he starts getting involved. He is no more noticing just how they act, also why. The camera is Jeff's conduit to the privacy of his subjects much as it is to Jeff and his rear-window world for the audience. The audience's growing involvement is also mirrored in him. The broken leg does not allow him to get directly entangled even when he wants to, so he has to take the aid of his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), pal Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). This is when he has to overcome the artistic limitations of being neutral witness to events. Ironically, the broken leg is why he gets interested in his neighbours in the first place! Had he been fit to move around freely, he'd already be on assignment in Kashmir!

Hitchcock of course asks the mandatory questions he is wont to. The ethics of voyeurism are challenged: after all, had Jeff not snooped in, would not the salesman walk away with a clean sheet? Something traditionally regarded as unethical - voyeurism - ironically delivers justice to a murder victim! Doyle initially dismisses Jeff's inference about the murder as backward (at the moment, we all agree that his verdict is in the right place given the lack of legal evidence) and lightly ridicules Lisa's feminine intuition, though both the points are ultimately proved correct. His argument is the banality of Jeff's observations and the slim probability of his conclusion being true. The director, through his film, reminds us that slim probabilities can click even in our lives; that things we imagine as commonplace can conceal what exceeds our perception of the normal. Hasn't everyone reassured himself at some point that death and disaster can strike all but him? Something so apparently commonplace as marital friction leads to murder in a neighbourhood that could easily be ours - so really how normal is normal? Intuition, a much misjudged instinct, is also dealt with - Stella's knack of predicting with astonishing precision is verified even in the murder case. Her predictions are derived from what one calls common-sense, which in turn is intuitive in nature. And yet, how many times have we rejected an intuitive thought in favour of "better judgement"?

The reclusive couple who sleep in their balcony own a pup. When it dies mysteriously, the enraged woman laments the lack of any warmth and compassion in her neighbourhood. It's a small town where one would expect old-world wisdom like "love thy neighbour" to be the byword. Ironically the place reeks of the very lack of it. Piqued by the woman's furore, the neighbours peek out of their windows, yet very few are really troubled by the dog's death. It's a dog who's died after all, not a man! Jeff and Lisa are among the very few who are really bothered, and they are voyeurs! Rear window ethics are questioned again.

When Doyle's investigation reveals facts that apparently indicate Mr. Thorwald's (the salesman) innocence, Jeff and Lisa are visibly disappointed. Lisa suddenly notes the irony in their behaviour - after all, that Mrs. Thorwald, the supposed murder victim, is alive should make one happy (again, what really is being normal?). Hitchcock hints how man is instinctively interested in mystery and morbidity (as if the lack of it somehow takes away some colour from life) even though he may seem and proclaim otherwise. Isn't that why thrillers - including the ones Hitchcock made - sell so well? Isn't that why people pay to visit horror-houses? Isn't that also why Jeff gets interested in the oddities at Thorwald's place?

The only other person who appears as a notable counterpoint (working as something more than an element of contrast) to the three main characters - Jeff, Lisa, Stella - is the pianist. The three see and act, he weaves their experience in music. He practises diligently from the start, working his notes well till his magnificent compostion has been polished to perfection. When he is still having trouble with the keys, Jeff and Lisa's relationship is seemingly in rough waters: they are on good talking terms but a little cold. Jeff is apprehensive if she can fit in with his adventurous lifestyle. His worries are taken care of when she daringly sneaks into the Thorwald house without prior warning. The tension regarding her safety does wonders for their bond: gone is the barrier that separated the two. The pianist meanwhile learns to master his songs, and works it out with a full ensemble. The musician represents the film-maker. The director has to create his own vision of a masterpiece all by himself, work little details slowly, smoothe out hurdles and then execute it with his crew. It is with his film's flow that the complications in the protagonist's lives are sorted out. At the end of the movie, the pianist reveals to his landlady - a constant source of enthusiasm - that his album is out after all the effort. As his completed record plays out in the background, we see that Jeff and Lisa are reconciled and living together. The album parallels the completion of the director's movie. Both the artists await the response to their art. (A little snippet that supports this inference: Hitchcock's cameo has him standing by the fireplace in the musician's studio apartment.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Floating Lamp of Shadow Valley

"If there's paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this."

Kashmir. The closest thing to heaven on Earth. A valley sparkling in serene beauty-- snow capped mountains, moss-covered lakes, trees adorned in brilliant green, boathouses, and a little boy named Arif.

This is the story of a boat-"man". Of Arif. A nine-year old child who has the wondrous eyes to look at his world; who, at this tender age, knows what is duty and what is whim, what is right and what is wrong. This is the story of Arif. And of a reason why I still want to live.

The sole earning member of a family of six, Arif gets up every morning and goes out with his boat for a day's work. He has to work every day; for if he doesn't, the whole family will have to go without food. With such a firm responsibility placed on his tender shoulders, Arif has accepted his fate with cheerful happiness. That is why the cold winter days cannot subdue his spirit-- he still manages to push his boat through the frozen Dal lake with firm determination. His thin arms have already developed the strength to push the oar through such a difficult terrain, which is no different from Arif's own life. And Arif knows that his arms have to push the oar forward so that he can reach the other bank-- for that is where his dreams lie.

Arif lives in a small shack built on the edge of the water with his mother and four other siblings:
two little brothers, an elder sister and a little one too! His father is a terrorist, who does not take care of the family but wastes his time swaying between gun and dope. Hence, Arif has been left with no other choice. On a good day, he gets about 50 rupees from ferrying passengers to and fro. And he hands all of the money to his mother, who is slowly saving up so that one day they can buy some land of their own and build a house.

When asked about his father, Arif says that he does not care for him. Arif knows that what his father is doing is not right, and he does not mince his words when expressing so. Even at the early age of nine, Arif has already learnt one of the greatest, and yet undeniably important lessons in life-- killing people is unpardonable and wrong. He could easily have chosen the gun to eradicate his misery. He picked up the oar at the age of seven instead. Rightly has Dumbledore said that it is choices that ultimately decide who we are.

The little boy has witnessed the burning face of terror himself-- once when he was in Srinagar, the tourist department was blown up by terrorists before Arif's own eyes. That was the day before the now (in)famous Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus started as a conciliatory gesture between India and Pakistan. The boy expresses how suddenly fear struck him that day-- fear not for his safety-- fear from apprehension and a terrible gut-feeling: what if one of the terrorists involved is his own father!

Arif's shack has got new holes in the tiled roof. So he sets off for the big city once more with his younger brother to buy a new sheet of plastic to stretch on the roof of hishouse. This time, he takes a different route than the previous time. What if terrorists attack again? Well, terrorists may attack anywhere, but then Arif will have to find another route then! At least, that is what the innocent child thinks.

The house is mended. But the Dal Lake belongs to none, and most certainly not Arif and his family. The authorities have notified Arif's mother that if they do not evacuate within a time bracket, the shack will be torn down. Arif has no answer this time. He does not know where he will go if his house is demolished. But he knows one thing-- that there is only one gateway to a bright future: education. And hence, Arif takes himself and his siblings school by himself on his dear old boat (which has gone through a repair already so that it does not fall apart from being worn down by water and weather). The image of a nine-year old child in school uniform rowing four other children in his own boat is heartening-- the boy is already performing a duty that elders do. A young boy shouldering the responsibility of grown-ups is something that is rare in our 'normal' world. Perhaps, only desperate times and situations rear mature men! Oh, how happy would I have been to see people my age become only half as mature and responsible as Arif!

And yet for all his maturity, Arif is a child. A child at heart, not one merely by age. It's raining hard, and Arif has a huge lotus leaf perched on his head to protect him from the downpour. And suddenly he notices a small pup playfully balancing itself in a small "island" of floating debris in the lake. A boy who has no friends because he has suddenly grown up so much has a new companion now. He takes the pup home with him, lovingly caressing it's fur in between bursts of rowing. The children rejoice in the arrival of a new friend back at home. But happiness abandons the family again. The little dog is run over by a car. And it is absolutely heartbreaking to see tears rolling down the cheeks of all the small children as they give their lamp of shortlived mirth a proper Muslim farewell.

It's good bye time for us too. Who knows what happens to Arif? No one. And yet, as a viewer, I am optimistic. Perhaps he is still ferrying passengers. Perhaps his family have finally succeeded in affording a plot of land of their own. But we do know one thing. We know that there is something to learn from this story. A few things from that little child. The school-shooting champions (if you know what I mean!) could learn a bit of right and wrong. The spoilt and pampered brat could learn a bit of responsibility. And, maybe, everyone of us could learn a whole lot of unaffected innocence.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)

Courtesy Zee Studio, I got to see this timeless classic by Satyajit Ray this Sunday. And inspite of the examinations looming over my head, I just can't suppress the urge to have my say on the movie.

Ray's third film, and the final instalment of the Apu Trilogy, begins with a portrayal of Apu staying in a rundown shabby quarter in Kolkata. He has no fixed job, just a few tuitions thrown here and there to earn himself enough money to have a meagre meal each day. Apu also writes an occasional short story and sends it to literary magazines-- and that's what pleases him most about his life. Even in this life of extreme poverty and deprivation, nothing can suppress his indomitable, and yet apprehensive and shy, spirit-- he has not lost his dreams of becoming a great author. When Pulu, Apu's best friend, arrives and offers him assistance in finding a fixed job, Apu expresses his dissatisfaction over the idea. Apu has realised that his life's goal is to remain free and thoughtful-- not bound to a job he doesn't like doing (he quotes names of great men who never once in their life 'settled down', to prove his point). Nonetheless Apu agrees to go to Pulu's mamabari (maternal uncle's house) at Khulna with him for Pulu's cousin's wedding ceremony. On the way to Khulna, Apu shows Pulu the manuscript of a novel he has started writing-- a work of art that Pulu admires quite a lot after giving a read. However on Pulu's cousin, Aparna's, wedding-day, it's revealed that her bridegroom is mentally unstable. Aparna's mother disagrees to surrender her daughter to a madman. In a strange turn of events, Apu somewhat unwillingly yields to the pressure of marrying Aparna-- for if he refuses, no one shall ever marry her again. On their first night together, Apu openly talks to his new bride, and honestly says that he is nothing more than a poor, thoughtful man with a penchant for writing stories-- who has nothing more than a few pennies and a ramshackle quarter to his name. Apu says that Aparna may have to adjust to living such a deprived life. Aparna willingly accepts her fate-- determined to be happy even amongst such poverty.

When Aparna is brought to Apu's Kolkata quarters, she suddenly realises the magnitude of his poverty-- and the hardships that await her. But as she gazes down the window through tearful eyes, she sees a poor child smiling and playing on the street with his mother-- and this cheers her up. Apu understands how hard it must be for Aparna to see the sharp contrast in lifestyles-- but when he asks her about the same, he is greeted with a warm smile, which reflects the love and respect Aparna has for Apu, and also the readiness with which she accepts her new life. Special credit must go to Satyajit Ray here for a cinematic metaphor which only geniuses can conceive-- in place of Apu's erstwhile tattered and dirty window-curtain hangs a clean one. The visually improved condition of Apu's household couldn't be portrayed better. There hasn't been much financial betterment since his marriage, but Apu's life has become more arranged, orderly and beautiful-- something which only a soft feminine touch of care and concern can bring about. After several blissful months together, Aparna leaves for her maternal home due to pregnancy. In the following two months, Apu and Aparna exchange warm letters of love-- their craving for each other almost seems childish at times. Apu's promise to visit her at the end of the month remains unfulfilled however-- while delivering their child, Aparna dies due to labour pains. Apu is so much aggrieved to hear the news that he can't stand the truth anymore-- in a trance of unspoken and unbearable pain and sorrow, he leaves Kolkata and wanders on meaninglessly. Suddenly, Apu's life and love lose all meaning to him-- he throws away the manuscript he so thoughtfully and carefully wrote at one point of time.

Several years pass by, and in the meantime Apu and Aparna's son Kajal grows up in the Khulna-house under the care of his maternal grandparents. The little child is just like his father-- carefree, imaginative, capricious and endearing. Aparna's father soon develops a grudge against Apu-- he can't bear the fact that a father never once came to take his son with him. Even the child, named Kajal, starts regarding his father with contempt-- people taunt him due to him being practically 'fatherless'. Pulu, Apu's old friend, comes back to Khulna from abroad and finds the house in a poor state-- his mama is old and nearing his end, while Kajal remains 'fatherless' and uncared for by the old man (who naturally can't run after the naughty child and cater to all his childish whims!). Incidentally, Pulu discovers Apu in the vicinity of Khulna and learns that Apu has been doing a job to somehow sustain himself. Apu is torn between his pain due to the loss of his beloved Aparna and his duty towards his son-- he can't stand the fact that he has to love a child whose birth resulted in the death of his beloved wife. (This explains Apu's negligence towards his child.) Apu therefore requests Pulu to arrange for his son's education in some boarding school, the expenses of which he is ready to bear. Because Pulu is in a hurry to leave the place and can't keep his friend's request, as a last plea, he urges Apu to visit the Khulna-house once and at least see his son for one time. Somewhat unwillingly, Apu does so. But when Apu sees Kajal, he discovers an affection for the boy hidden in some obscure corner of his heart and overshadowed by his immense bitterness towards his fate-- but on the contrary, Kajal is not ready to accept his father's affection. Touchingly, Apu presents his son with a toy-train (those who remember Pather Panchali remember how both Apu and Durga were fascinated with trains as children), but the child throws the gift away. Just when Apu is about to leave the place, broken-hearted for a second time, Kajal hesitatingly asks if Apu is ready to take him to his father in Kolkata (which actually shows that Kajal doesn't actually believe that Apu is his own father, but still touchingly discovers love for Apu too-- if not a father, Apu still is a close friend to the little one).

The film, quite simply, is poetry on celluloid. Ravi Shankar's touching sitar chords and the brilliant camerawork only make the film better. All the actors, and especially Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (for both it was a debut-- and a debut couldn't have been better!), deserve plaudits for their natural and superb performances.

Again, some of my favourite scenes in the film deserve special mention. When Apu and Aparna come back from the theatre in a horse carriage, Apu stares at his beautiful wife's expressive eyes and lovingly asks "Tomaar chokhe ki aachhe?". With a charming glint in her eyes, she evades the real essence of the question, and answers "Kajal". And hence the name of their child-- the fruit of their immense but short-lived love-- finds a special meaning.

A second favourite scene would be the one in which Apu tries to befriend a reluctant and bitter Kajal, in the same room in which he had first talked his heart out to Aparna. The expression on Apu's face as Kajal threw the toy-train away in anger reflects how hurt he is-- a symbol of his love (both for his child, and for his lifelong fascination: trains) is so hastily dismissed by his own son.

The final scene is perhaps the grandest one: Apu gets his son-- the last physical manifestation of his undying love for Aparna, Kajal not only finds his father but a close friend, and Aparna's father sees his little dream of Apu and Kajal staying together come true-- he smiles as he sees father and son go away to their land of dreams. What happens thereafter to Apu and Kajal is left for us to imagine and decide.

Taare Zameen Par

There are films that make you laugh, and there are films that make you cry terribly. Having grown up in India, a country reputed for a film industry churning out either mindless laughathons or melodramatic sob-stories, it's difficult to get to watch the genuinely funny, or genuinely emotional film. And Aamir Khan gifts us both! Taare Zameen Par gives one lots of reasons to both laugh out loud and feel extremely sad. It's a story that relates to everyone of us in the world who have biologically grown up and yet never cease to look at the world through the eyes of innocent children: we can all see the Ishan Awasthi in ourselves, and with more or less intensity, we have all felt the same emotions cross our mind. And that is where TZP succeeds: it brilliantly connects with the viewers. While the antics of Ishan are sure to draw many a laugh (not through spurious rib-tickling humour, but the eccentricity which defines a fantastic childhood), his sobs are also quite certain to melt the hearts of those who have even a tiny morsel of love left in themselves.

To put the theme quite simply: this is the story of a dreamy boy. A boy who had the courage (and I don't say 'courage' because I don't find a better word) to look at the world through different eyes. Someone who could spend his day staring at a puddle of mud stuck in the craters of a road, or the birds flying high in the sky. Or even the little unknown fishes swimming in the drain by the road. This is a story of how the boy, inspite of his markedly different attitude towards life, still managed to attract criticism and wrath for being different. This is a tribute to the Apu-s blossoming in the jungle of bricks and amongst the 'racehorses' running life's 'race' in the cities of India (even if you think the parallel to Pather Panchali is too much, kindly wait till I end this post!). This is the story of Ishan Awasthi.

[Warning: I am revealing a lot of details about the film. So, forgive me for the spoilers!]
The story starts with all the teachers reading out the marks that the students have got in class tests held in Class III, St Xavier's School, Mumbai. And each time Ishan Awasthi manages to score the least of the lot! But no, Ishan isn't worried even a bit about his marks. The day at the school ends, and Ishan is by the drain outside his school, catching little fish using a homemade net, and putting them inside his water bottle! Ishan reaches home, discovers his favourite couple of dogs in his garden and without a bit of hesitation feeds them his test-papers! And that's just a little fun that Ishan has all throughout the day. And so he carefully pours out the fishes from his waterbottle into his personal collection of guppies, and then deliberately annoys his mother. Ishan's life is in complete contrast with that of his brother Yohan, the class-topper, avid sportsman and in short, Mr. perfect-son. But inspite of their differences, Yohan has a soft corner for his brother, whom he dearly loves. The only member of the family not happy with his less-than-genius freaky boy is Ishan's father-- who can't bear to think that while his elder son is everybody's favourite, his younger son is at the end of everybody's complaint: from teachers to neighbourhood parents. And while everyone in house is running about preparing for another day of hardwork, Ishan sleeps peacefully and blissfully in his room amidst an assortment of colours, paintings and toys.

Inspite of Ishan's mother's best efforts, she can't help her son with his studies because he easily forgets everything he learnt the previous day. Ishan can't follow his teacher's orders of opening page no. such-and-such and chapter no. such-and-such, which annoys her-- she thinks that the boy is deliberately pretending not to be able to follow her simple instructions. Worser still, Ishan can't read a word out of his English book! He's ordered out of the class, but given the 'bindaas' boy Ishan is, he takes the opportunity to indulge in his childish pranks. (Needless to say, punishments never perturb Ishan: he has grown both used to and rather fond of them!)

On the day his test-papers are distributed, Ishan cuts his classes-- roaming around in the streets of Mumbai by himself; staring at the pigeons flying, the ice-candyman spraying brilliant colours on balls of crushed ice, and even the most ordinary and common man making his way through the street. That night he cajoles his brother Yohan to write a false absence note for him. But Ishan's misdeeds are discovered by his parents, and when they visit school, they find a barrage of complaints against Ishan waiting for them. And hence Ishan's father decides that he'll have his son sent to a boarding school, in which one of his friends is a trustee. Ishan, of course, is quite angry with his father (brilliant expression of anger from Darsheel, by the way!), but nothing can dissuade his father now.

And hence inspite of all his wishes, the little boy is sent to a boarding school. Ishan can't bear the pain of separating from his family, and especially his mother (the person he loves most). The scene where the family leaves Ishan behind is brilliant and full-to-the-brim with emotion: the viewer can feel, almost tangibly, the pain wrenching Ishan's heart. The song 'Maa' brilliantly brings out the emotions that swirl around in Ishan's heart-- and kudos to Prasoon Joshi, the lyricist, for immortalising the feelings of a child towards his mother (I think Shankar Mahadevan also deserves special mention for his excellent and soulful vocal performance on the track).

It's too much for a little child to resist the heart-break of staying away from the family, and when that is compounded with a feeling of desperation and extreme loneliness, Ishan starts feeling that his mother deliberately left him back. He cries every night in the hostel bathroom, but no one can help him. Ishan's reception at his new school is the same as his old one. He still can't follow lectures, obey instructions, or for that matter, even read out a few lines from his reader! During the hindi class, the teacher orders Ishan to sit beside the topper of the class Rajan so that the company of a 'good boy' may help Ishan with his studies. That, quite incidentally, is a blessing in disguise-- for in Rajan, Ishan finds a confidante and a friend who understands his needs. Moreover, Rajan realises that Ishan has an inherent ability to see beyond the ordinary-- the only problem with the boy is that he cannot properly comprehend or express everything. Ishan is still regularly punished by his teachers, most notably the one teaching arts, which of course complicates matters for the already gloomy and depressed boy.

All until one day when the arts teacher leaves for New Zealand and a stand-in man named Ram Shankar Nikumbh is brought in to temporarily fill in the role. And Nikumbh is none other than Aamir Khan! (Aamir shows us that he is more of a dedicated director in this movie rather than an actor, and that is why he chooses to enter the scenario only at intermission, placing the huge responsibility on carrying the first half almost entirely on Darsheel's shoulders: of course, a job that Darsheel more than ably accomplishes.)

Nikumbh is vastly different from the other teachers in the school. He is originally one of the teachers associated with the Tulip's school: an institution for the mentally retarded and physically challenged. While the other teachers are engrossed in their 'duty' to make 'racehorses' for life's 'race'-- Nikumbh understands that children must be allowed the freedom to imagine and make their own decisions. The role of the teacher is limited to that of a guide only-- children cannot simply be spoonfed some knowledge, or dry facts, and be expected to really shine in life! But above everything else, it's his attitude towards the students in which he is most different from others: he lets the kids have their share of fun, laughter, music and dance (another brilliant song 'Bum Bum Bole' actually expresses Nikumbh's feelings about education, Wordsworth-style!). The children are overjoyed to have such a friendly teacher, who not only lets them sing and dance, but also gives them the freedom to express whatever they want, in whichever way they wish to! But Nikumbh notices that a boy sits quietly throughout the arts period. Through his interactions with Rajan, Nikumbh comes to know about Ishan's problems with dyslexia and loneliness. Having been a dyslexic in his early life, he realises how suffocating the world must seem to Ishan, and therefore he sets foot on a mission to save the boy from emotional collapse.

Through a thorough study of Ishan's notebooks, Nikumbh spots a distinct trend in the mistakes the little boy commits. Since such a delicate matter needs the counsel of parents, Nikumbh himself reaches Ishan's house. Upon reaching, he is clearly dumbstruck. Firstly, he discovers the avid interest in art that Ishan has, and yet failed to show in the previous few weeks. And secondly, also more sadly, Ishan's father just refuses to believe that his son has learning problems: he still opines that Ishan must be seeking for excuses to skip studying. Nikumbh is much disappointed after his conversation with Ishan's parents, and especially his father: he discovers another one of those pathetic parents who are so concerned with (quite literally) cultivating/growing geniuses in their homes, that they forget the basics of human understanding and compassion. But Nikumbh does give a cheeky reply to Ishan's father before he leaves for his return back to school.

Nikumbh talks to the principal about the boy's weaknesses and personally requests for separate examination procedures for the boy, at least for the time being. He persuades the principal with strong arguments: showing him Ishan's brilliant paintings, surely the sign of a boy with above-average intelligence! And finally he personally undertakes the responsibility to train the boy in developing good language and mathematical skills. Somewhat hesitatingly, the principal agrees. And hence begins Ishan's journey towards overcoming the problems that threaten to destroy the very essence of his life. As the days pass by, Ishan slowly and steadily progresses until he can read and write for himself. Meanwhile, Ishan's father comes to 'visit' Ishan: actually meaning to remind Nikumbh that as a parent he was doing his part-- how? He proudly declares that his wife has read every article about dyslexia on the net. To which Nikumbh gives a tongue-in-cheek reply: something that is too much for the shameless man to stand. As he is about to leave Nikumbh's art-studio, he discovers Ishan quietly reading out a notice from the pin-board. The man is so moved to tears at his own foolishness and insensitive nature towards his own son that he can't bear to stand there for even a second.

Meanwhile, Nikumbh arranges for an Art Mela. Open for everyone, especially for the school staff and students, along with the Tulip school-children. The teachers do attend, most of them with a wish to just show the principal that they had attended the mela, but something forces them to stay back (Shan't reveal what, for that'll take away half of the fun regarding the Mela!!). But Nikumbh can't spot Ishan. The boy arrives after a long time and willingly chooses a lonely corner of the place. And Nikumbh starts his portrait of his own reflection, a student he had seen grow up before his own eyes in a certain sense: his dear Ishan. Funnily enough, even the initially unwilling teachers have their share of 'art' (You'll laugh till your stomach aches as you see them draw, and that's a guarantee!!). Both Nikumbh's and Ishan's paintings are shortlisted as the best but Ishan is ultimately awarded. Ishan can't bear the emotions overwhelming his simple mind, he breaks down and embraces his teacher! And all I can say is, that was brilliant!! The film ends with Ishan going back home with a happy family with the promise that he'll return to school later. I think it wouldn't be unjustified to say that the footage accompanying the end-credits was truly excellent: an honest portrayal of childhood in all its innocence and glory.
Darsheel is the best child-actor seen in Bollywood in decades. I shall miss him in case he doesn't do more films henceforth. On the other hand, I shall also eagerly wait for Aamir to direct more films. This man never ceases to outdo himself as the days pass by! Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy get their due credit with a mighty nice soundtrack-- the songs were touching and very relevant to the essence of the movie.

Now the inevitable comparisons with Black. Aamir himself is much critical of the film, and going by the recent trend of comments on other blogs I visit, most people have rated Black as the 'greatest ham-movie of all time'. I disagree. Black shall still remain one of my most favourite hindi-movies inspite of everyone's verdict against it. For one, I believe in my own heart; and Black moved me really well (perhaps, more on the defense of Black later!). And so did TZP. The two stories compare because at the core of the matter, both are about student-teacher relationships. And both are about the triumph of human spirit against all odds: and as such, both are brilliant in their own ways.

Wait, I remember saying something about Pather Panchali back at some point in my post. I don't take that one back! Yes, Ray was much more accomplished a director than Khan is, but in both their debut films, these two men chose to deal with different and sensitive subjects: that of children losing their identity and imagination in this big, bad and insensitive world. Apu was born in Nishchindipur, Ishan in Mumbai: and yet both were kings in their own worlds of imagination. Both loved the mysteries of nature, and both were enchanted by the colours of life. And in that sense, Apu and Ishan are just two names for the same person: only the time and place have changed, nothing else has changed much! Interestingly enough, Aamir himself graciously accepts the superiority of Ray over himself: and if you ask me, I have no problem in embracing such honest and hard-working (should we also add 'perfectionist'?) an actor and director as Mr. Khan.
And finally let me end with an observation of mine. I'd been to the cinema to watch this movie and the guy sitting next to me went out with his cellphone ringing at least ten times throughout the whole duration of the film. At the end of two hours, he asked his girlfriend an all-important question: "darling, what is this film about?" :) And finally forty minutes before the film ended, the couple left altogether for good. That's what Indians come to the cinema for! :D

P.S.-- You may also like to visit the film's official site,