Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rituparno Ghosh

I am absolutely shocked by the sudden death of Rituparno Ghosh, one of the best contemporary Indian directors, who passed away at the young age of 49.

My view of Rituparno changed significantly with 2006's Dosar, an absolutely lovely film. But even more memorable was the experience of helping acquire this film for the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF). It turned out that CIFF had the international premier of Dosar.

Back in 2005, I was tipped off about Dosar by a good friend who is a film critic in Mumbai. Then in early 2006, my friend put me in touch with a Bengali critic who provided me Rituparno's home phone number in Kolkata. I still remember being nervous about having to phone him at home. In the early 2000's, my attempts to interview Bollywood actors was a horrible experience. I was once shouted at and treated rudely by a famous Bollywood actor's wife. And Rituparno Ghosh was an exceptional director with multiple award winning films to his name in 2006, with Utsab, Choker Bali & Raincoat. So I was not sure what to expect.

The phone rang and someone picked up. I asked for Rituparno and was told to wait. The phone must have been placed on a table as I could hear the morning street noise heard on most Indian streets. Those street noises of passing cars, horns, vendors and birds chirping allowed me to calm my nerves a bit. After a brief passage of time, Rituparno came on the phone and his calm soothing voice immediately put me at ease. He was incredibly polite and so respectful. Even though he was not aware of CIFF, he didn't hesitate about having his film premier at our festival. In fact, he even talked about flying over to present his film but that didn't happen as our festival dates didn't mesh with his schedule. Rituparno put me in contact with the film's production company, Planman Motion Pictures, who were exceptionally co-operative and friendly in flying the film over. I never interacted with Rituparno after that and never got a chance to tell him how much our audience loved his film.

Rituparno Ghosh's films have a poetic touch to them, with some films depicting riveting dialogue one often finds in plays. Plus, he also managed to extract some memorable performances from Prasenjit Chatterjee, Konkona Sen Sharma, Raima Sen, Kiron Kher, Amitabh Bachchan, Annu Kapoor, Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. He will be sorely missed.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

CUFF 2013

This past April marked the 10th anniversary of the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) and the festival celebrated it by having the strongest lineup in their history. The remarkable aspect about the selection was that it felt like someone read my mind in booking the films. 7 titles from my must-see list played at the festival. I had been eagerly waiting to see Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Pieta, Sightseers, The Act of Killing and Upstream Color. So I was delighted CUFF booked them. Unfortunately in the end, I could only see 5 of those titles:

Berberian Sound Studio (2012, UK, Peter Strickland)
Upstream Color (2013, USA, Shane Carruth)
Pieta (2012, South Korea, Kim-ki Duk)
The Act of Killing (2012, USA, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Computer Chess(2013, USA, Andrew Bujalski)

I also missed out on Clip, Vanishing Waves, The Rambler and The Final Member, films that got really strong word of mouth buzz.

Here are some brief notes on the films, arranged in order of preference.

1) The Act of Killing

Even though the documentary is rooted in Indonesia, it is universal in depicting how men kill with the aid of media and politicians. The depiction of torture/killing could easily be set in Latin/South America/Africa while the media manipulation applies to most nations. But no individuals will ever admit their crime with such brutal honesty as those in The Act of Killing, making it a living digital document. The killers walk about the city freely, sometimes boasting about their murders. Such honesty ensures the film hits like a ton of bricks but it is one of the most essential and relevant docs ever made.

2) Computer Chess

A playful look at various computer programmer personalties, ranging from the very shy to those whose supreme confidence borders on arrogance. The black and white visuals coupled with the video footage give the film a 1980’s look and feel, at a time when computers were bulky machines that required some effort to transport from room to room. The humor is derived from the collection of eccentric personalities and as a result, the scenarios feel natural and not forced. As a bonus, the film also literally depicts HAL's birth.

3) Berberian Sound Studio

An eerie slow-burning film that smartly uses sound manipulation & cues to abstract a horror genre. As a result, one can appreciate the few elements that make a horror film nerve racking and terrifying. This aspect is reinforced by the decision to not show the film-within-film, thereby letting viewers fill in their own worst images.

4) Upstream Color

A multi-shaped puzzle that assembles the look and feel of a Lynchian nightmare with a Malickian landscape. The film manages to find a balance between sci-fi, horror and nature by rapid fire editing and a score that contrasts the mood of the images that the viewer is seeing. The film’s two editors, Shane Carruth and David Lowery, cover a lot of ground in the opening minutes. One can make 2-3 features from the opening 20 minutes of Upstream Color. After the fast paced opening, the film settles down a little, allowing viewers to get a brief footing before heading off in a different direction altogether.

Credit must be given to Andrew Sensenig whose wordless performance speaks volumes and lends the film a graceful covering. Also, Upstream Color also extends Godard's quote: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl" plus some pigs & worms.

5) Pieta

I believe Kim Ki-duk made this film on a bet. He must have wagered with friends that he could make a sloppy film in a few days and throw enough heavy references to fool critics into thinking the film meant something. And his ploy appears to have paid off with the top prize at Venice 2012, even though festival rules prevented The Master from getting that prize. Still, it is hard to imagine that jury, which consisted of Michael Mann, Matteo Garrone, Pablo Trapero, Marina Abramovic, Ursula Meier, Ari Folman, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Laetitia Casta, Samantha Morton, could not have picked any other film if they could not select The Master. Maybe the jury picked Pieta to prove a point that if they could not pick the best film in the competition, they would pick the worst. But given the praise Pieta has gotten in some quarters, it does feel like maybe some in the jury gave the prize on merit.

The entire film feels like a joke on the audience. Pieta contains shocking scenes for no reason other than to get a reaction from people while the acting and editing give it a B-grade appearance. As painful as the experience proved to be, I managed to get through it. Thankfully, the many other stellar films at CUFF quickly washed away the experience of Pieta.