Thursday, February 24, 2011

Copa America 2011: Colombia

The first entry of the 2011 Copa America Film & Book Festival.

All countries are far too complex to be reduced to a single word label but that is exactly what normally happens as most nations are often tagged with a single word. One reason for such quick labels is that most nations are ignored in their moments of silence but only given headline space when a war, disease, crisis or a revolution occurs. So naturally, a single word then gets associated with a nation in times of such an event or crisis. Yet, it is in moments of peace that one can truly grasp what a nation is about because at moments of tragedy, a single event/incident overshadows everything else at work in the nation. In the case of Colombia, these single word labels are either "war" or "drugs", two common associations with the South American country. However, there is much more to Colombia than just these two labels but one would not know that going by the quick headlines published in major publications around the world.

A primary goal for the 2011 Copa America festival was to pick a film that gave a richer look at Colombia and moved past this quick label of "war" or "drugs". For the book selection, the idea was to move beyond a different label altogether. When it comes to Colombian literature, the label of "Magic Realism" jumps out. It is true that magic realism was once highly popular but Colombian literature is far more diverse than just "Magic Realism". For example, the McOndo movement was started in contrast to magic realism and sought to portray a true reality of everyday life in the Latin nations. Both Magic Realism and McOndo have common roots in portraying the everyday life yet each movement takes a different route -- magic realism softens the harshness of reality with a mythical element while McOndo does not want to have any filters in its presentation. So when it came to selecting a book from Colombia, the choice was to pick a book about the harsh reality in the vein of McOndo. As it turns out, both film and book choices still have war in the horizon but their treatment ensures the focus is more on the human story as opposed to letting humans be a mere statistic.

Book: The Armies by Evelio Rosero
Film: Crab Trap (2009, Oscar Ruiz Navia)
Bonus Film: The Wind Journeys (2009, Ciro Guerra)

The Armies is about the nerve racking impact on people effected by a constant state of war. The everyday lives of residents are disrupted as disappearances/abductions of loved ones or neighbors can occur at any moment while those left behind try to maintain an illusion of normality. The story may be set in Colombia but could easily apply to a handful of nations across Latin America, Africa or Asia where people live in a constant state of fear. Human nature tries to find a reason for an ongoing war or violent state of a nation. For example, if a person is taken from their house by guerrillas, then neighbors assume reasons for such an abduction because in their view the kidnapping cannot be random. People believe there must be a valid explanation for a kidnapping and that the missing person must have done something or was involved in a negative trade. If no theory can be found to explain the abduction, then a new set of logic is applied. By always trying to find a theory to explain violence ensures that a person is always on edge and constantly attempting to reason things out. In essence, a person is always playing chess in their mind and their internal decisions lead to outward choices such as deciding when to leave the house, which path to take, etc.

The Armies puts forward some of the frenzied decision making that takes place in a person's mind and what the consequences of constantly thinking and living in fear does to a person. Evelio Rosero's background as a journalist certainly helps in crafting a realistic portrayal of people trapped in an endless cycle of uncertainty.

Oscar Ruiz Navia's impressive debut feature Crab Trap is about Daniel's (Rodrigo Velez) need to escape from his old life. His journey takes him to the beach town of La Barra where he just needs a boat to leave Colombia. However, he has to wait for the town's fishermen to return from sea to get an available boat. In the meantime, he eats, sleeps and wanders around town. Sometimes he sleeps by himself and on other occasions with the only available woman around. There are some scattered clues given to Daniel's need to escape but not knowing the reason does not take away from the film's calm and tranquil mood. The peace and quiet of the beach is interrupted frequently by Paisa who enjoys playing loud rap music from his music system. Paisa wants to drive away the locals so he can annex the land and develop a hotel/resort to attract tourists. So his methods from playing loud music to blocking access to an open beach lead him in constant conflict with the locals but Daniel tries best to stay away.

The leisurely paced film ensures that all relevant details, including the visuals and sounds of the ocean or rap songs blaring from a music system, filter onto the screen thereby allowing the viewers to get a sense of the landscape. Nothing about the beach suggests Colombia but news reports on a television set convey that the militants are not far away. The location of the small town is fascinating as in order to arrive at the town a person has to go through a forest. In a sense, the town represents the end of the line for anyone traveling through Colombia. The open sea represents a possibility to jump off to far away lands but in reality the sea only leads people to exit but does not provide an entry point for people wanting to make their first stop in Colombia. One can imagine La Barra's way of living as frozen in time until the forest is cleared and roads built to allow tourists to make their way to the beach or until the war manages to directly touch the inhabitants.

Michael Guillen's excellent interview with Oscar Ruiz Navia is essential reading about the film.

The bonus film entry ends up being another journey through a vast Colombian landscape rarely seen on screen. After his wife's death, Ignacio (Marciano Martinez) wants to return the accordion he has played for most of his life back to his mentor and be freed from the burden of possessing such a powerful devilish instrument. A young teenager Fermin (Yull Nunez) tags along with Ignacio much to Ignacio's displeasure. Fermin wants to be a musician and seeks to be Ignacio's pupil although Ignacio would prefer to be alone and not bothered. Fermin is persistent and continues to shadow Ignacio.

The reluctant master and eager pupil encounter a series of intriguing encounters centered around the hypnotic and magical power of music, be it an accordian duel or a drum initiation blessed with a lizard's blood.
One of the film's most incredible scenes involve a knife duel to the death with Ignacio required to play the music until one man dies. The families of both men are present on opposing sides and it is a gut wrenching moment for both families to witness one (or both) loved one's killing.
The film's visuals and mood echoes Brazilian cinema such as The Middle of the World, Behind the Sun, Central Station, and House of Sand because in the last decade, Brazilian cinema has portrayed journeys across a hot and vast land in search of parental love or friendship. Yet, these stories and journeys are not restricted to Brazil alone or to South America for that matter. The tales could easily be set in any continent. What The Wind Journeys does is garnish the journey tale with a few Colombian ingredients to add some local flavour and differentiate it from other such stories set around the world.

The Wind Journeys is certainly worth a look but overall a tad disappointing compared to the other Brazilian films mentioned above. One reason for the disappointment is that the reserved character of Ignacio prevents any relevant emotional attachment to the film as a whole. Only near the end when Ignacio reaches the conclusion of his journey to his mentor's home do some emotions fill the screen. In fact, the emotional strength of the ending combined with the visuals of a hut on a white sanded beach shares some similarity to the House of Sand.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dhobi Ghat / Mumbai Diaries

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) (2010, India, Kiran Rao)

Often Indian films set in Mumbai start off with a voice-over narration which explains both the endless possibilities Mumbai offers to newcomers and also the perils of living in such a fast moving city. Mumbai demands such an introduction in a film for it is not a passive city but instead a very strong character in itself. Mumbai can be a friend that helps a film's character realize their dream or it can be the villain that leads to a character's downfall. Yet, most Indian films ignore Mumbai after the obligatory introduction. These films then iterate through a succession of quick cuts which rush through the city's famous landmarks while focussing on the character's plights. However, the city cannot be ignored because it influences the character's moods. The traffic, the seemingly endless days of rain all have an effect on a character's feelings yet often such moods do not make it onto the screen. Instead, we are shown characters that talk and behave as if their city has no bearing on their day to day routines.

In that regard, it is a joy to discover that Kiran Rao's debut feature Dhobi Ghat is able to capture some of the emotional resonance that Mumbai inspires. The film uses four characters to depict some of the struggles and joys that can take place in a vibrant and buzzing city like Mumbai. While there is only one native Mumbaiite in the quartet, all the characters observe the city through a unique perspective. Shai (Monica Dogra) is enchanted by the city and wants to capture its reality and beauty via her photography. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) keeps a video journal of her day to day experiences while Arun (Aamir Khan) paints whatever Mumbai inspires in him. Munna (Prateik) experiences the city via two different jobs that enable him to see the city in both daytime and nighttime. Munna is the only character out of the four that experiences the city without any filters. Both his jobs require him to get his hands dirty so to speak, first by cleaning clothes by day in the Ghats and then by lurking in the shadows to rid the city of germ carrying rats by night.

There is a purpose for each character's existence as each character is etched out to form a realistic representation of people that live in Mumbai. Arun is a native of the city and is not bothered by the city's day to day hassles. He is also a loner and keeps his distance from others, easily isolating himself in his apartment while the city races around him. Munna has arrived in Mumbai to chase his dream of becoming an actor like thousands of others. He does not mind doing filthy jobs because the jobs are just a stepping stone to his dreams of becoming a Bollywood star. In between jobs, he finds time to work-out and get in shape because a modern day Bollywood hero is required to have a six-pack. Yasmin is a new migrant to the city via marriage and is both enchanted and puzzled by Mumbai while Shai is a foreign national with Indian heritage who is on a sabbatical in the city. It is never really spelled out but Shai's trip to Mumbai could both be an escape from her American life and a chance to discover her Indian roots.

In a sense these four characters represent four walls of a room and not surprisingly their lives are connected via a series of coincidences and incidents which occur in and around various Mumbai flats. The presence of such coincidences and chance encounters in a vast city like Mumbai may not seem realistic but the characters move around in a closed-off circle thereby increasing their odds of seeing each other often. Of course, the encounters are a springboard for exploring the emotional state of the characters. As a result, the script shrinks the vast and chaotic city down to the microscopic level of these four characters so that they can be observed in tight quarters. Each character has their own set of complex problems and Kiran Rao lets the actors brilliant expressions and body language form a guide to their inner feelings. Throughout the film, the four actors appear to be living out their parts as opposed to acting out scripted lines.

In terms of acting, one expects nothing less than perfection from Aamir Khan and he does not disappoint. However, his character does not grab the camera's full attention thereby allowing Monica Dogra, Prateik and Kriti to truly shine in their roles. Prateik makes an impressive debut and that was illustrated by the positive response he got during the film's premier at TIFF last year. However, the most memorable performances in the film come courtesy of the two female characters. Monica Dogra is magnificent in every frame and delivers every line of dialogue with utmost perfection while Kriti Malhotra steals the show with a soulful performance that conveys the innocence, excitement and tragedy of her character in a realistic manner. Kriti's character has the least screen time of all four principal actors but she makes each second count. Her character's voice, which is heard more than we see her on screen, forms a narrative guide to the city and ends up being the soul of the film. It is via Yasmin's camera that we get to see some of the famous Mumbai landmarks one expects on cinema such as Gateway of India, Elephanta Caves, Marine drive. It is also her character that talks about the endless rain that seems to take over Mumbai every year. Her character provides inspiration for Arun to see Mumbai with fresh and innocent eyes.

Overall, Dhobi Ghat is a beautiful and poetic tribute to the complex city that is Mumbai. In reality, a first time visitor cannot leave Mumbai with a neutral view. Either the visitor will be repelled by the city's extremes or fall in love with the city’s charms. What Dhobi Ghat does is present the city in a humble manner without focusing on either the beauty or ugliness too much. Kiran Rao focuses on characters whose lives are shaped by Mumbai thereby allowing us to experience some of the joys and struggles that Mumbai offers to these people.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Delhi story

Do Dooni Chaar (2010, India, Habib Faisal)

Mumbai manufactures celluloid dreams while Delhi serves up cinematic reality dressed up in fictional clothing. Such is the conclusion derived from a handful of Delhi based films in the last few years, starting with Dibakar Banerjee's 2006 film Khosla Ka Ghosla to 2011’s No One Killed Jessica. There is a reason why Delhi would be responsible for showcasing reality. While Mumbai is home to Bollywood and the vast film making industry, Delhi has no film industry. So if a filmmaker wants to set a film in the nation's capital, then they do so with a specific story in mind. The success of the filmmaker's work depends on how well they integrate a story within Delhi's landscape and let the authenticity of the city engulf the characters. Habib Faisal has done a magnificent job in dipping his film Do Dooni Chaar throughly in Delhi’s way of life and as a result, he has given a true voice to a section of Indian society that rarely gets screen time anymore -- the middle class.

Plenty of magazines and books talk about India’s growing middle class and their new found purchasing power, but in recent decades when Bollywood and Foreign movies have given India a cinematic treatment their cameras have remained fixated on just a few rungs of Indian society. Bollywood’s tales focus mostly on the wealthy who lives are preoccupied by flying to foreign locales and falling in love or showcase stories that take root in slums and follow the emergence of a hero or gangster. Also, Bollywood ignores mainstream society altogether and focuses on the parallel economy powered by the underworld and its association with politicians and corrupt lawmen. Sometimes, the middle class gets a toe in but for the most part they are relegated to the sidelines. Yet, the section of Indian society that is most talked about nowadays is also the least represented in contemporary cinematic coverage. One reason for such limited coverage is that the middle class is such a vast label that encompasses multiple professions and millions of people. The label ranges from members of society who just manage to acquire a concrete roof over their heads to citizens with a measly income of a few thousand rupees a month to those with 5 digit monthly salaries who own multiples houses/apartments. A single film cannot manage to cover all such diverse cases but Habib Faisal has used one family’s experiences as a case study to examine larger issues.

The Duggals are an average middle class family struggling to make ends meet and depend primarily on a single source of income. Santosh (Rishi Kapoor, brilliant) is a school teacher whose meagre income is hardly enough to afford the family modern day luxuries such as a car. So his trusty scooter (moped) is his sole mode of transport much to the shame of his two kids and even sister-in-law. The sister-in-law insists that for once the family arrive in a car for a family wedding so that she does not have to endure further humiliation. Santosh decides to borrow his neighbour Farooqui’s (Akhilendra Mishra) car but since Santosh is not a confident driver, his daughter Payal (Aditi Vasudev) takes the wheel. Farooqui is worried about his car’s safety but despite an extraordinary wedding trip complete with having the car stolen and then recovered via a bribe, the Duggals manage to bring the car safely back to the colony. However, the car gets dented during parking and that damage leads to an altercation with Farooqui’s wife. Kusum Duggal (brilliantly played by Neetu Singh) pays more than enough to cover the damages but the insults don’t stop there. Santosh cannot stand the humiliation any further and makes an impulsive claim to own a car within 15 days. However, Santosh quickly realizes that he cannot buy a car in his teacher’s salary. His daughter Payal proposes to chip in after she finds out that a job in a call center would bring in a decent amount to contribute for a car down payment. But Santosh refuses her offer and wants Payal to focus on her studies. Instead, both Santosh and Kusum debate about honesty and morals after a student offers a substantial bribe to get a passing grade.

Santosh and Kusum lead a simple honest way of life which is why the bribe presents a dilemma. On one hand, the extra money could solve their immediate problems yet that would mean going against everything that the two of them have worked for in their lives. To complicate matters, a popular reality tv show’s sting operations catching people taking bribes gives Santosh nightmares after his son Sandeep’s (Archit Krishna) shocking admission of a cricket gambling habit and the arrest of Sandeep’s broker on that same reality show. Santosh is convinced if he were to navigate down the wrong path, he would be unmasked on the tv show.

The Duggals may be fictional creations but their plight is completely real and by shooting the movie on location in Delhi, Habib Faisal has created a story that could take place in any Delhi colony on a daily basis. Across Delhi, Middle class public school teachers or government employees struggle to make money while their children have the opportunity to earn more in one month than what the parents make in a year. The source of such income for the children comes via working in call centers or other jobs for multinational companies in the private sector. This imbalance in the incomes of two generations especially for families living under the same roof poses a unique set of challenges. By portraying Do Dooni Chaar in a charming humorous manner, Habib Faisal ensures such relevant issues are presented in an accessible manner without compromising the film’s intelligent beating heart.

Rishi Kapoor is in perfect form and gives the best acting performance seen in any Indian film in 2010. Neetu Singh used to portray memorable characters in Indian cinema through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s but she stepped away from films in 1983. She had a comeback via a small role in 2009’s Love Aaj Kaal but Do Dooni Chaar reminds of her acting talent and is proof that the craft never leaves a true artist. Do Dooni Chaar was easily the best Indian film of 2010 yet it was also one that was rarely seen. It certainly deserves a wider audience and hopefully it will get that in 2011.

Note: Habib Faisal had quite a year in 2010 as Do Dooni Chaar marked his directorial debut and he also penned the screenplay for Band Baaja Baaraat, another charming Delhi based film.