Roja (1992, directed by Mani Ratnam):
It took me almost 14 years to get around to watch this film. However, this was one of those movies that I knew so much about despite not having seen it. I had heard the songs, watched the music videos and had seen quite a few enough movie clips that I didn’t feel a need to see it. But I was repeatedly reminded that this movie had to be seen. I am glad for all those reminders because this is indeed a movie that has to be seen. When this film first came out, not many in Northern India had heard of A.R Rahman, Santosh Sivan, P.K Mishra or even Mani Ratnam. But Roja changed all that. Rahman’s music has truly reached the far corners of the world, past the Indian borders; P.K Mishra’s offbeat lyrics have generated a lot of musical hits; Santosh Sivan’s cinematography has garnered a few awards for him on the global scene and he also tried his venture at film directing both for independent and commercial films. And Mani Ratnam went onto make Bombay which truly shone the spotlight on him in Indian cinema.
But what of Roja? Somewhere in between the songs and the love story lies a beautiful political debate about a topic that the world ignored until 2001. Terrorism, Freedom fighters, militants and insurgents were terms that have existed for the longest time but the West (especially America) chose to not openly use such terms because it had no need to. Ethnic cleansing and proxy wars were conducted in Kashmir in the 1990’s with the aid of the Taliban but it went under the radar so to speak. While Roja got plenty of respect in India, no one really cared for it outside the country. An Indian plane was hijacked on the eve of 2000 and the hijackers demanded to be flown to Khandhar where they fled to safety after killing an innocent person on board. What did the world do? Nothing! India was left to clean up the mess while the rest of the world got drunk and celebrated the new century. And then more than a year later, 2 buildings fell and everything changed. Did everything change? Did terrorists not exist in Kashmir before that? Did a corrupt regime not support and train young "freedom fighters" to kill innocent people? The same corrupt regime became an ally in the "war on terror" after 2001 (or as Borat calls it "war of terror"). But I am getting off-tangent here. This film also contains another topic that the West will start exploring more via films in the upcoming years – kidnapping of innocent victims to demand release of terrorist prisoners. Roja shows how militants (freedom fighters, terrorists, whatever they are called) kidnap an innocent person (engineer) and use him as a bargaining chip to get their leader released in exchange. Back in 1993, it might have seemed unrealistic that the Indian government would release a terrorist in order to save an innocent person’s life but that is exactly what happened on the eve of 2000 when the families of the kidnapped plane victims urged the government to release the terrorists in exchange for their loved films.
What makes Roja incredibly interesting is that the film attempts to have a dialogue on the topic of jihad and whether violence is justified or not. An interesting scenario added in the film occurs when young kashmiri youth crossing the border into Pakistan to get training in the terrorist camps are gunned down by the Pakistani army by mistake. Was it really a mistake? Or was it another instance of the double-sided political game being played? The film ends on a note of slight optimism, but unfortunately, optimism is something not found when it comes to the Kashmir debate nowadays. One can’t change the course of events – proxy wars once started can’t be un-stopped. But atleast this film will stand as being one of the first few movies (since the 1990’s) to tackle a very common topic nowadays, although the effort slants a bit towards the commercial.
Note: the film suffers from poor dubbing. In order to make this film more accessible to the Indian market, it was dubbed in Hindi and leads to mangled dialogues in some scenes.
Premonition (2004, directed by Norio Tsuruta): Rating 6/10
Watching Japanese horror films post Ring and Ju-On is a mixed experience One tries to watch a different story yet one can’t help shake the sense of familiarity that exists in most frames. The same techniques, the impending doom that is about to unfold and a terrified face waiting to greet its victim. In this film, a newspaper has the ability to predict people’s death. The newspaper merely serves as a warning but if someone acts on the headlines and tries to change the future, they will end up in an infinite cycle of their worst nightmares.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (directed by Niels Mueller): Rating 9/10
This is Sean Penn’s film. He is an almost every frame and carries this film with his fine acting of a troubled person stuck in a corrupt and insane world.
Remember me, my love (2003, directed by Gabriele Muccino): Rating 8.5/10
A family of four yet each person is their own island. The father hates his career and life; the mother aspires to be an actor and wishes she never game up on her dreams after marriage; the teenage son is frustrated with not getting the girl he loves and the 18 year old daughter is willing to do anything to get on tv. A soap opera in one sense but yet, I was drawn to this film. Plenty of scenes capture the perfect loneliness that a family can go through and no matter what age a person is at, they still long for that innocent happiness they once knew they could have had.
Take the Lead (directed by Liz Friedlander): Rating 7.5/10
The trailers made this film look like two clichés in one – a high-school dance story combined with the element of an inspirational teacher helping troubled high school kids. But the trailers were wrong. The teacher is not a paid member of staff, he is someone from the community who volunteers his time to help the kids. The film is a fictional story based on the real life work of Pierre Dulaine (played by Antonio Banderas in the film) who believed that teaching ballroom dancing to kids will give them dignity and teach them how to respect other people. The film was fun to watch, even though it felt clichéd at times.
I Can’t Sleep(1994, directed by Claire Denis): Rating 9/10
This film deserves a longer write-up. Every frame contains enough action to give us an insight into the complicated racial & cosmopolitan Parisian life. Two brothers, one a struggling musician and the other a transvestite dancer, a newly arrived Lithuanian citizen and a series of murders! Yet Denis knows what to show and what we need to understand ourselves. Everything is not laid out for us but we have to decipher what is going on. And that is what makes this such a rich watching experience.
Little Jerusalem (directed by Karin Albou): Rating 8.5/10
Paris again, but a completely world from the one Denis focused on. This one deals with questions of philosophy, religion and the morality of sexual relations from a Jewish point of view. The philosophy is European (Kant’s need for routines) and the main character is caught between her love for philosophy and her need to live within her religious boundaries.