By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Last week, I spelt out 10 of my favourite foreign language films of 2015. This week, I would list my preferred Indian movies.
Anu Menon’s second feature Waiting (in Hindi and English) unfolds in a swanky Kochi hospital — where two grieving people meet and strike a rapport, despite a yawning age difference. Naseeruddin Shah’s Professor Shiv Natraj has been waiting in the hospital for eight months hoping that his wife, Pankaja (Suhasini Mani Ratnam), would rise from her coma and smile, demanding her favourite biryani (steaming hot, please), which her hubby gets from his club where he goes to watch his favourite game, cricket. Also waiting at the hospital is Tara Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin) — young, sexy and brash — whose husband, Rajat, (Arjun Mathur), is also in a critical condition, with a brain injury after a road accident. So, while Natraj lives in hope, often frustrating doctors with his deep medical knowledge that he picks up from scientific journals, Tara is angry and cannot believe that this terrible thing could have happened to her, and just weeks after her marriage. The generational contrast between Natraj and Tara is presented with a lot of humour. What is Twitter, asks Natraj, a question that foxes Tara. She thinks hard for an answer, and comes up with one. It is a notice board where one collects followers, thousands of them, she says. But soon realises the hollowness of it all, for not one of her followers is there at the hospital to comfort her; which Natraj does with warmth, wit and a sense of confidence that probably comes with age and life experience.
Ketan Mehta’s Hindi work, Manjhi-The Mountain Man — taken from a true incident — is the story of a poor farmer in Bihar who cut through a hill with just a hammer and chisel — and all by himself — to create a road. Like the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal for his beloved queen, Mumtaz, Manjhi did not erect a mausoleum, but laid a path from his little village to the nearest hospital for his wife. Manjhi lost her, because she could not reach the hospital in time, the mountain making the journey fatally circuitous. A huge boulder fell on her and as she lay bleeding and writhing in pain, Manjhi tried hard to get her to a doctor in time. But the nearest hospital, the closest point of medical help, was 80 km away — the rocky, uneven road delaying the journey even further. By the time, she reached the hospital, she was dead. Manjhi said to himself on that fateful day that he would not let anyone else die because of this deplorable deterrent, and as he chipped away bits and pieces of the mountain single-handedly, his fellow villagers ridiculed him. They called him mad, but he remained undaunted — steadfastly devoted to his cause as he was to his wife. Manjhi finally dug a path through the mountain, reducing the distance from his village to the hospital to a mere 13 km. Yes, it took him 22 years to accomplish this — as many years as Shah Jahan took to erect the Taj, though he had an army of slaves.
Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (also in Hindi) is inspired by the horrific murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and the 45-year-old man-servant from Nepal, Hemraj Banjade, in Noida, close to Delhi. Although Gulzar’s film is a fiction feature, every incident in it actually took place in 2008 and in the following years. The cremation of Aarushi that we see in the movie, the characterisation of her father, Dr Rajesh Talwar (an even tempered man), and the in-house rivalry in the Central Bureau Investigation as well as the goof-up by the local police did really happen off the screen. Written by Vishal Bharadwaj (who has given us classics like Haider, Maqbool and Omkara — all based on Shakespeare), Talvar is gripping to the core with some riveting performances by Irrfan Khan (but of course) and Konkana Sen Sharma, playing a grey character that could not have been easy at all. Despite the plot of the film being drawn from a murder that is still fresh in our minds, Bharadwaj and Gulzar steer it away from a documentary look or feel.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (in Bengali) is about the wartime Calcutta of 1943 — a city frightened by a possible Japanese invasion. Calcutta was the only Indian city that saw bombings during that war. It was a very historic time. Gandhi’s Quit India Movement was on. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from his home in Calcutta, giving the slip to the British who had held him under house arrest. Britain was under siege. Japan had taken over Singapore, Malaya, Burma and so on. This is the backdrop to the mystery that Bakshi is trying to solve in Banerjee’s work. It is the war and it is the city that throws up the dark side of that society. After all, a detective novel is all about environment. Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes without the eeriness of gas-lit London? And perhaps Bakshi could not have been so stimulating without that seedy Calcutta of those times. And it is the 1940s and 1950s Calcutta which is most evocative. “The city and Byomkesh are the two characters in my movie,” Banerjee once told me.
Gurvinder Singh’s second work, The Fourth Direction or Chauthi Koot (in Punjabi), is set in the 1980s Punjab that was in the grip of the Khalistan movement, a bloody insurgency which finally led to the storming of the Golden Temple by the armed forces and flushing out the militants holed in there. The Fourth Direction reminded me of a Hitchcockian trait. Singh recreates fear with just a hint of violence. While we see plenty of anxiety on the faces of the actors, we see virtually no bloodshed and just a trace of physical brutality. Chauthi Koot pictures two unrelated stories. The first focuses on how three men force their way into the guard’s compartment of a train that has been ordered by the military to run between two stations absolutely empty. The men, one Sikh and two Hindus, having missed their last train are left with no choice but to finally push their way into the coach. In the second story, which is the main one, Singh takes us to a farmhouse, far removed from habitation, where a family of father, mother, son, daughter and their grandmother, lives in mortal fear of not just the militants but also the armed forces. Their pet dog, Tommy, is a source of irritation for the insurgents, who find its barking a giveaway as they pass by the farmhouse under the cover of darkness. They walk into the house one night, accept the family’s hospitality and suggest (maybe order) that the animal be put to death. The family abhors the very idea of doing this.
The following morning, the troops arrive, search the house, turning it upside down, and even rough up the man there in their vain effort to find arms or even militants hidden away. The dark days in Punjab which eventually culminated in the assassination of Indira Gandhi are retold by Singh most vividly through the haunted eyes of the small family which lives in fear of both the military and the militants.
Indian cinema can also be subtle and silent. MS Prakash Babu’s Fig Fruit and the Wasps (in Kannada) is a brilliant example of such cinema. Unlike, many, many Indian films, Prakash Babu’s debut feature is neither loud nor exaggerated. What is more, it is entirely believable, and there is this rare authenticity about it — something that Indian movies never care about. And so what do we have in Fig Fruit and the Wasps? Ninety minutes of imagery which appears to form from a colourful palate of paintings — paintings that Prakash Babu had brought alive on his canvases during his days at Tagore’s Abode of Peace, Shantiniketan. He studied art there, like Satyajit Ray had, and a touch of pride is discernible when he talks about the great master whose work once put India on the international map of cinema. Earlier, Prakash Babu was in Ahmedabad where he studied sculpting in addition to painting. Asked whether his sculpture or painting — mostly oils, sometimes water colours — was abstract, Prakash Babu averred some months ago that “life itself is abstract...and this is what I am exploring through cinema too”. There is one shot in his work of a bottle turning into sand, and “this idea came to me from the Italian painter, Giorgio Morandi (1890 to 1964)”, who spent his entire life painting flowers and landscapes on vases, bowls and bottles. One of his favourite observations was that nothing was more abstract than reality. “I explore this, not just in my paintings, but also in my movie,” Prakash Babu said. Fig Fruit and the Wasps is a great example of this. The film starts with a car being seen at a distance. We see only its headlights in the beginning, before the car finally comes into our view. It takes a while for the car to be actually visible. There are two people in the car — documentary movie makers, Gowri (essayed with admirable subtlety by Bhavani) and Vittal (also an impressive performance by Ranjit Bhaskaran) — out in the countryside to try and meet a classical singer. But when he is not to be found, the two decide to wait for him. They hire a room and while away their time — oblivious to the sounds of the region that by themselves form rhythmic patterns, nay melodious notes.
Sanalkumar Sasidharan’s An Off-Day Game (in Malayalam) is a classic buddy picture — which has a slow start, but gives us ample opportunity to understand that this is no ordinary adventure which five grown up men have in a desolate bungalow. As the story begins to unfold, the first images are of an election campaign in Kerala, known for its overly political atmosphere where matters of the state are as important and intrinsic as, let us say, brushing one’s teeth. As a multitude of political parties end their cacophonous crusades through the streets of the city, five friends, taking advantage of the poll-day holiday retreat to the bungalow, armed with a liberal supply of liquor. As the men begin to drink and get tipsier, they get into a power play with tragic consequences.
All that Professor Higgins wanted in My Fair Lady was “a room somewhere”. All that two little boys in first-time director Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg, in Tamil) desire is a pizza. From the slums of Chennai, the lads, who call themselves as Periya Kaaka Muttai (Vignesh, 14) and Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Ramesh, 12), go to the quirkiest of extent to earn that Rs300 needed to buy themselves this Italian delicacy from an outlet which opens next to their shanty. It is both novel and hilarious when the two get a makeshift pull-cart to transport sozzled men from the roadside bar to their homes. At other times, the children pick coal that drops from passing steam engines to feed their family of a mother (played with extraordinary ease by Iyshwarya Rajesh) and a grandmother. The father is in jail, and the wife is struggling to get him out on bail — grappling as she is with crooked lawyers. Finally, when the boys collect their Rs300, they are not allowed into the pizza joint by the manager, who finds that they are shabbily dressed. But the Kaaka Muttais devise a wittily ingenuous method to get themselves new clothes.
Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai (Interrogation in Tamil) is a violent take on police brutality and corruption that sees poor innocent men losing their lives in utterly needless conflicts which cops have with the rich and the politically powerful. With some extremely good actors like Samuthirakani (who plays a police inspector), Dinesh Ravi, Murugadoss and Anandhi enriching the narrative, Visaaranai is based on the real story of a 53-year-old Coimbatore-based autorickshaw driver, Chandra Kumar. When is he not driving his rickshaw, he writes, and his first book, Lock-Up, which was published in 2006 was so inspirational that Vetrimaaran picked it up to weave the ruthless story of Visaaranai. Chandra Kumar said that many years ago, he and his two friends were locked up in a tiny cell in Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) for 13 days for no apparent reason and tortured. His nightmarish experiences translated into Lock-Up. The movie paints the disturbing picture of three daily Tamil-speaking wage earners in Guntur who are taken into custody by a police force which is compelled to solve a theft in the house of a top-ranking civil servant. The three men are stripped to their waist and beaten in the most gruesome manner to elicit a confession.
I will make a departure this time to include among my favourites a great documentary made by the legendary Kannada director, Girish Kasaravalli, on another great, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Indeed, when two legends of the medium meet through a viewfinder, the image can be electrifying. Kasaravalli trained his camera on the extraordinarily perceptive auteur from Kerala, Gopalakrishnan, in recent months to capture the mood and moments of his scintillating cinema. Titled Images/Reflections: A Journey into the Images of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kasaravalli’s documentary is a string of memories of the master’s films. The genteel Kasaravalli — well known for movies such as Mane, Ghatashraddha, Tabarana Kathe, Gulabi Talkies and Dweepa — has zeroed in on some of the most marvellous moments of Gopalakrishnan’s works to tell us the story of a man who is one of the few pioneers of the New Indian Cinema — which began its roll in 1969. Kasaravalli, unlike some other documentarians of Gopalakrishnan, has been incisive enough to pick the most relevant segments of his cinema — and the most absorbing scenes or sequences from them are highlighted. Beginning with a visually stunning shot of Adoor lighting an oil lamp in the evening (“This is the first light that is lit at dusk, and the people of the house stand around it with folded palms in silent prayer,” he remarks), Kasaravalli’s work is divided into five chapters with catchy titles which take us into Gopalakrishnan’s world of make-believe.
l Gautaman Bhaskaran
has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over
three decades, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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