Dev. D …and Reflections on…

February 27, 2009 at 7:25 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

 

I often wondered if the time would come when I would have to write a piece on a film that I do not like, made by someone who I am friends with, and whose work I normally support. It really is scary as I know people who have lost friends. Anurag Kashyap is someone I place a lot of hope in as far as Indian Cinema goes and I also see him as a kindred spirit.

 

Having said that, I think the true allegiance of both filmmaker and viewer should be to the art in question, in this case Cinema.

 

A contemporary reworking of Devdas, a sort of Bengali potboiler by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay – this is a text that has been approached by Indian filmmakers many times over, in various languages, with the kind of reverence more appropriate to classics. The writer himself, as my learned Bengali friends tell me, seemed to have a low opinion of the book that has over time become most closely associated with him.

 

When adapting a book (whatever its merits – dubious or otherwise) for a film, I have always believed that just translating it slavishly into film is meaningless. A filmmaker should appropriate the text and make it his own, filtering it through his/her particular artistic sensibility. Apart from this, the adaptation should also expand the possibilities by which the viewer can experience the work. Films that readily come to mind are Godard’s Prenom Carmen that updates Carmen of Merimee’s story and Bizet’s opera to the 80s, but reworks and strips it to its essence to explore its themes. Another example is Rivette’s Hurlevent (Windswept), a film version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which goes beyond any other film adaptation of the same text in evoking the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff (called Roch in this film). Rivette changes the time and place in which the story was set, interestingly not to the 80s when the film was actually made, but to the early 1930s, and creates a masterpiece. Similarly, one of Rivette’s greatest works, the four-hour long La Belle Noiseuse, is based on Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, in which he explores the artistic process to its tiniest detail. Buñuel too adapted in the mid-50s Wuthering Heights – a favorite book among the surrealists – in his film Absimos de Passion. This was in his Mexican period. Using the existing story, he converted it into something unique and unmistakably Buñuelian despite a very meagre budget. Twenty years have passed since I saw this film, yet the memory of the experience lingers. Derek Jarman’s Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play, is a wonderful evocation of the magical world contained within the original text, which allows the viewer to enter it from a completely different set of perspectives. The common thing about all the works I’ve mentioned is that the original texts have been adapted and changed in time, space and structure, sometimes even context, and in so doing have emerged as unique, original works each bearing the unmistakable stamp of the director, while extending and exemplifying the director’s body of work both thematically and stylistically.

 

With Anurag Kashyap’s Dev. D unfortunately we are left with nothing but a superficial reworking of Devdas. It does little to the source other than contemporize it in the most obvious of ways and make it hip to people with limited imaginations and a vocabulary that begins and ends with “IT ROCKS!” which must be the most infantile figure of speech since the first Neanderthal belched.

 

Broken into three chapters based on the principals Paro, Chanda and Dev. D, the first is the only one that seems to work, if not entirely at least reasonably, thanks in large measure to Mahi Gill and the character of Paro that Kashyap has created.

 

As the film progresses it just meanders, using unnecessary devices that do not add anything to enrich the narrative. The whole MMS scandal, though borrowed from real life incidents, does nothing for the Chanda character – it just looks like a gimmick to justify her actions. Very often the film tends to go out of the way to explain and rationalize things, probably to cater to unthinking audiences and sham critics, something that No Smoking – Anurag’s best film to date – generally avoids. Unlike No Smoking, the reason Dev. D has been received well by its audience is because they have the plot to hang on to and the back-stories to give them comfort.

 

Despite being a passionate and attentive filmmaker, many of the scenes in this film do not seem to have been worked through well enough. The end, when Dev. D decides he loves Chanda, seems too pat and does not achieve the state of grace that such a realization should have come with. It seems to be a shallow posture that’s geared to please an easily-deceivable audience.

 

The other big problem with the film is that while lust is supposed to be the driving force of the film it curiously shies away and trivializes it and makes it comical. I’m not looking for the erotics of genitalia en regalia but the filmmaker should have explored this aspect seriously, considering it is one of the themes running through the film.

 

While what Chanda actually does in the brothel is probably of no concern to the narrative, if things like a BDSM scenario is being used, at least let it not be used like a pathetic joke just to entertain morons. I do not think even the people concerned with the film know anything about the aspect of The Theatre Of Pain, nor understand the fundamental need some people have for physical pain using basic and unsophisticated devices like cigarette burns and blades. If it was intended as a way to be vacuously cool and impressive, then things like Violet Wands or Waternberg’s Wheel could have been used to give it more edge and visual flair, rather than the tired whipping that Kalki Koechlin dispenses.

 

Similarly, the scenes of intoxication seem to lack any sort of imagination. Neither the alcohol nor cocaine usage has any differentiating quality. Using subjectivity for depicting intoxication is something that needs to be seriously worked on and it is very difficult. Here the easiest way out is taken. Gus Van Sant too falls prey to it in a couple of scenes in Drugstore Cowboy in which the really powerful moments are when he films Matt Dillon’s response to the various drugs he consumes, each moment exquisitely realized. In Dev. D, even if Abhay Deol has had these experiences in real life, they just do not show on screen.

 

Unlike Kashyap’s earlier film – where his references fuelled by anger, hurt, and an unfettered ego, work perfectly, each one connecting to something larger, creating interesting narrative arcs – sadly in this film they persistently fall flat.

 

As far as performances go, Mahi Gill fares the best and is convincing whenever she appears on screen. Kalki Koelchin, while an unusual presence, somehow does not seem to work at all beyond her physical being. Abhay Deol does give a sincere and technically good performance and is miles beyond Shahrukh Khan’s Devdas which looked like an attack of apoplexy. However the one problem Deol has is that he lacks the ability to hold an audience, something essential to cinema. Pauline Kael, once comparing the young Robert De Niro to another talented actor whose name I don’t remember said, when you see De Niro act you get the feeling that something is eating him, and when you see the other guy act you wonder if he is eating pizza.

 

The music by Amit Trivedi is quite refreshing and often funny and entertaining.

 

What I really loved about Dev D., though isolated from the body of the film, were the TWILIGHT PLAYERS – Messrs. Sinbad Phugra, Ammo ‘Too Sweet’ and Jimi ‘The Quiff’. I’d pay to see them again. They were amazing.

 

The funny thing is that Kashyap managed to make No Smoking from the bowels of mainstream Indian cinema, which to be honest is quite a feat. I’m sure the producer must still be trying to figure out what hit him. Yet with Dev. D he seems to have worked with a production house that appears – at least on paper – more educated, sophisticated and claims to respond to somewhat better cinema – but see the outcome.

 

While I hate Bhansali’s work with a passion – and while I also know that if I were told my life would be spared if I saw his Devdas instead of Dev D. I would without hesitation see Anurag’s film – still, in a curious way, I think Sanjay Leela has appropriated the novel within his aesthetic more successfully. Sad but true.

 

Like No Smoking, Dev D. too is personal in that it is a reflection of who the filmmaker is and what he is going through currently, but somehow the story and his personality seem to be at odds. And unfortunately, nothing unique seems to happen due to this dissonance. There are external elements, like the desperate need to please, that seems to have crept in and destroyed what may otherwise have worked. Probably Anurag was hurt by the response to his previous film and felt a need to be accepted. However, this is not justifiable when what is at stake is the quest to be an artist. The reason why over the centuries artists have been viewed as something special is because they are true to their art and the inner truth they possess, for which of course there is hell to pay. Today this does not matter. Anyone seen in the media seems to have arrived and is treated like a god by the public. There are a plethora of these kinds of ‘celebrities’ –  from filmmakers to TV personalities to painters to mealy-mouthed RJs and wannabe-writers. There will always be people and false artists who justify creating works as consumer products, to appease audiences who consume like swine, without thinking. These people possess large reserves of energy with which they can wear down people of sensitivity and tell you how concerned they are for the common man and that challenging work is pretentious. But this does nothing but help create masses of unthinking consumers that will, over time, have serious repercussions. An unthinking people only benefits politician, dubious religious activity, television and mediocre dabblers. If works of art can make this mythical common man think it will be a beginning. It could even facilitate a ‘climate of thinking’ which would greatly enrich other aspects of our existence. I am not saying you need to only make art cinema, many great filmmakers have come out of commercial establishments like Hollywood and created cinematic landmarks, and to really appreciate their work one has to be attentive to more than just the obvious.  In fact in Histoire du Cinema Jean Luc Godard says that Alfred Hitchcock is the only poet who made money. It is important for us to know and recognize that such poetry can exist beyond the apparent narratives.

 

Anurag will soon have to decide which path he needs to take or he stands in danger of becoming a part of that large amorphous mass that pats each other’s backs. I honestly hope he gets out of this zone and moves on to something significant. It is an artist’s duty above all else to make an audience think, whatever the idiom he works within.

 

In any case, for people who desperately respond only to hip rubbish, we have Danny Boyle, the latest Indian on the block with his Oscars, and Anil Kapoor with his Armani Suit.

 

– Kiran David

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Message in a Poem

February 22, 2009 at 9:06 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

 

 

Into the body, the mind

finally goes.

Dream, skin, flesh, bones.

And packs and packs of

wild ghosts chasing

a child.

Footfalls, silence, screams.

Love’s darkness, love’s light.

Love’s kingdom, love’s hell.

Time’s shell. Your mind’s dream

and your death.

 

– Dominic Alapat

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Star’s Pain

February 12, 2009 at 10:26 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

No day in the book.

No marbles.

Empty homes,

empty hearts.

No marbles.

Sky’s distance,

its joke.

The buildings’ anger

and loss of speech.

The trees’ death,

bird’s dead song.

Echoes, smoke,

ghosts, lies.

Tears’ pain and love.

Heart’s horror, moon’s

loss, day’s death,

the music’s end. 

 

– Dominic Alapat

 

 

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Slumdog Millionaire : Half-Boyled Cinema and Other Ruminations

February 8, 2009 at 6:04 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

 

Prologue for no particular reason:

Walking out of PVR Mulund down the stairway after watching Slumdog Millionaire I overheard a slob tell his family (who probably had their brains fried with watching too much television) that the film was great but would hurt Indian sentiments. If I had the balls I should have kicked him on his jelly bum and sent him flying down the stairs.

I do not remember the quote exactly, but Billy Wilder in an interview in his later years said he did not take shots that made middle class morons say wow. Unfortunately Mr. Danny Boyle has made a career doing exactly that.

 

While his first film Shallow Grave just about passes muster, thanks mostly to its cast, it was in no way unique. There are many better films dealing with similar themes, including A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi. By the time Boyle made the iconic hip Trainspotting he exposed his vacuity to any one with half a brain. This is not to say many did not consume it wholeheartedly and hail him as the MAN.

 

Like a handful of British filmmakers, particularly the ones who have come through advertising and TV, Boyle believes in glibness and over-producing a work which may seduce fools who consume but in truth do not experience cinema. Being glib works in the afore-mentioned idioms as they are communication tools which aim to deceive. However, in a more evocative medium like cinema, it just destroys. Unhappily, there is a vast audience who loves this kind of thing.

 

Coming to his latest mediocrity Slumdog Millionaire, a very tedious rags-to-riches tale of a slum kid who makes his millions on a TV Quiz show, the film is probably most closely related to Trainspotting replete with a shit-pot dive. The biggest problem is that it exists beneath any kind of debate. Audiences have been divided into people who think it’s a masterpiece and others who feel that Boyle exploits third world poverty. To be fair to the director, I do not think he is consciously exploiting poverty nor tarnishing India’s image despite Armond White (one of the few western critics who seem to have seen through the film) calling him a “poverty pimp with an avid”. But the sad truth is that despite its acclaim, popularity and awards it is plain ordinary. It lacks any quality and is just simply innocuous. It is neither good nor does it have the personality to be bad.

 

The rapid cutting does nothing but display the director’s banality and lack of imagination, and his inability to evoke anything. Despite being an old codger, I do not have anything against frenetic cutting like many others of my age, but it should work and there are directors doing it very effectively. Cyber punk films of Iishi Sogo, Shinya Tsukamoto’s early work, and sections of films by Takeshi Miike, particularly the prologue of the insane Dead Or Alive all use maddeningly wild cutting, but unlike Boyle’s mechanical representations, they rattle you and evoke something that truly enriches the work. Boyle lobotomizes his viewer with his technique and cloying sentimentality, and deceives both his audience and the art he claims to serve. A better filmmaker may use similar techniques but arrive at something unique separating the artist from the salesman or the pimp.

 

There is an idiotic belief among some audiences that rapid cutting and dazzling camera angles are modern and hip, but let us not forget that many silent film makers did it to fine effect over eighty years ago. A few months ago I saw Battleship Potemkin after almost thirty years, three times in a row and finally shut my system in a state of ecstasy hopping about the room like a rabbit. This despite the propagandist nature of the film. I mention this just to point out that Danny Boyle, despite his popularity and fake hipness, is far from being the Real Thing.

 

Shot in real Mumbai slums, the director’s aesthetic or lack of it manages to squeeze the life out of the images he uses. This harms Slumdog even to a greater extent than it does his other films. We are left with dead, almost graphic representations of images that could have breathed and pulsated.

 

The cast, with the exception of perhaps the slum kids and even they are filmed to be cute, are very ordinary, and the less said about Anil Kapoor and Frieda Pinto the better, let them bask in their delirious ignorance.

 

Even the sound, music and song are strictly functional but then again sound for ninety percent of films worldwide has a dubious function. Pookutty is, I think, a bit more subtle in Slumdog than in the local films, at least the ones I have seen…but….? And if Celine Dion could win an Oscar for that Titanic thing why not Rahman, who among the Indians associated with this film, at least behaves with dignity and decorum.

 

I am not surprised that the West has lapped up this drivel with glee; every now and then they need a fix of the Cinema of the Deprived to warm the cockles of the heart and make them experience generosity in all its melodrama. While there are many great films dealing with poverty, they lack the kind of audience support that something mediocre like Slumdog gets, thanks largely to the high level of illiteracy and posturing of the media. Also ignorant audiences who gain knowledge wolfing down substandard supplements on DVDs and hack internet sites which have created an odd culture that gains faulty knowledge without experiencing cinema the way it is meant to be.

 

What is shocking, however, is India’s reception of the film. Our media seems to have gone gaga over it. We seem to have adopted Boyle and naively believe that it is an Indian film winning the Oscars, which itself is quite often a dubious award. The perennially hilarious Barkha Dutt and her NDTV circus put on the most unintentionally comic show with the cast and crew of Slumdog. For a moment, I thought that poor Anil Kapoor, now on cloud 9, and who mistakenly thinks he has contributed to the glories of cinema, was going to sing the classic film song from the 1958 film Phagun – ‘Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya’ (‘A foreigner has stolen my heart’) to his dear Danny Saab, while the channel blokes wag their behinds to the tune of Prince’s ‘Sexy motherfucker shaking his ass, shaking his ass, shaking his ass’ playing in their minds.

 

With this newfound Indian adoration, Danny Boyle himself seems to be all over the place with a lost expression that reminds me of Captain Willard’s [Martin Sheen] description of Mr Clean [Laurence Fishburn] in Apocalypse Now – “The light and space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head. ”

 

It’s time we in India realize there is something called ‘Cinema’ even if they do not win Oscars, Golden Globes, and other trashy honors, or are  not showcased on tacky TV shows with their ridiculous hosts. We have had greater filmmakers some no longer alive like Ray, Ghatak Aravindan, we have Mani Kaul who did some very interesting work in the first part of his career, before his narrative phase. There are also a couple of younger film makers who, though still finding their feet, need to be considered. All of them are worthy of far greater respect than the said Danny Boyle.  

 

In case, like the boy in Trivandrum who was disappointed to know I was an Indian, you prefer to see films made by foreigners on India, then Louis Malle’s Phantom India series, Rossellini’s Mathrubhumi India 1955 and Renoir’s River (despite the casting flaw of Radha) are great and superior works.

 

Rumour has it that Danny Saab and Anil Kapoor are planning another film in Mumbai, and why not. Even if he wins all the Oscars, he will never get the treatment in his country that he gets here. He may even win Padma Vibhushan and why not, perhaps even an impromptu Bharat Ratna before the Oscars, something even Ray got in hindsight after his lifetime achievement award from the Academy

 

My only wish before he starts his next film is that someone gets Boyle to dive into a paan-stained unwashed shit-pot before he makes another film, maybe then he could find the truth…but would he dare to?

 

– Kiran David

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Heimat 2:The Second Homeland

February 2, 2009 at 4:27 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

 

Years ago, probably in the late 80s of the previous century, I was fortunate enough to see Edgar Reitz’s eleven part TV Film Heimat at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.

 

Set in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsruck area of Rhineland Germany, the story of Heimat begins in 1919, at the end of World War I and ends in 1982, chronicling the years between through the lives of the Simon family, their friends and relatives.

 

The title is partly ironic in its reference to the cloying Heimat films made during 50s postwar-Germany, with their rural settings, sentimentality and simplistic ideals.

 

While being well received, it was, in some quarters, accused of sidestepping key issues like the holocaust. While not directly dealing with this, I think the criticism is unfair because one senses the effects of Nazism looming over the village and affecting the people and shaping their lives and decisions. At a running time of about fifteen hours, Reitz’s film is proof (along with Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz) that interesting things can be done on television.

 

Sometime in the early 90s, I heard that there was a Heimat 2: A Chronicle of a Generation, and strangely, I was skeptical of it being any good, and never really bothered to locate and see it. People who had seen it did not endorse the project either. However, a recent screening of it literally blew my mind. Not only was it good, but in many ways it was a better work than Part 1.

 

The original German title Die Zweite Heimat (wrongly translated as Heimat 2) actually means The Second Homeland, which carries a much more loaded inference.

 

Beginning in 1960 Munich, it breaks away from the thread of the earlier film, and follows the life of Hermann Simon [Henry Arnold], the son of Maria and her wartime lover Otto. Hermann leaves Schabbach after his family ends his affair with an older woman Klarchen, swearing never to return. Herman is the central figure around whom the work revolves, but it also follows the lives of various artists who are both primarily and peripherally connected to his life, musicians, poets and filmmakers trying to find their voice in the 60s.

 

Divided into thirteen parts and about twenty-six hours in length, it pulls us into the question of artistic endeavor. I do not remember seeing any film that deals with young artists with such affection and understanding. While they are shown as uncompromising adults who see themselves as Gods hoping to create a new art, be it in music or cinema, they often flounder and are plagued by doubt. As artists they are uncompromising (or hope to be), yet as young men and women they are so human, experiencing all the insecurities and jealousies of young love.

 

Being set in the 60s, the time when the filmmakers of the German New Wave were in the process of emerging, Reitz seems to have an in-depth understanding of the time and the milieu – there are references to the Oberhausen manifesto, the beating up of young free spirits by the cops, the Bohemian spirit of the times and above all, the quest for pure unfettered art.

 

The film also deals with the rift between the protagonists and their parents’ generation. There is an intense hatred for what they believed their parents stood for and they hold them responsible for Germany’s past including the terrible Nazi era. This is most harrowingly addressed in the relationship between Ansgar Hertzsprung [Michael Seyfried], possibly the genius of the group who dies early, and his parents. The slogan from the Oberhausen Manifesto – ‘Papa Cinema Is Dead’ – seems therefore to go well beyond cinema and comments on the nature of the prevalent situation and the unbridgeable rift.

 

As affectionately as Reitz deals with the artists and their quests, he seems rather harsh when dealing with politics, and the youth who lean toward the left. Particularly when dealing with Helga Aufschrey [Noemi Steur], he gives her an abrasive persona and you get the feeling that her political beliefs exist to offset her inability to get love from Hermann. Similarly Kathrin Schops [Carolin Fink], the leftist and hippie, seems to forget all her communist posturing after fucking Hermann.

 

For me as a viewer, dealing with the political side of the work put me in a quandary of sorts. Unlike Godard who treated his protagonists of the 60s (with all their foibles and inconsistencies) with great compassion, Reitz almost seems mean towards them and pushes them toward caricature. One reason could be that Godard’s films stemmed from the moment whereas Edgar Reitz film is viewing the moment from a distance of thirty years, having experienced and seen the history of the left up to the 90s. Secondly, there could be some truth, cynical as it may sound, in people gravitating towards ideology to seek comfort, without the necessary beliefs based on reason, something that I often noticed and talked about as a student in the 70s.

 

Another problem, though minor, is the director’s use of dreams which often strike a false note. Clarissa Litchblau’s [Salome Kammer] dream of the cello’s f-holes etched on her back just does not ring true, even though it foreshadows events later on in the narrative. The last chapter when Hermann seems to traverse a dreamscape populated by the people he knows also creates confusion instead of working like a coda of sorts. 

 

While the character of Hermann is the glue that holds the work together, each of the thirteen parts foregrounds one of the major characters. The cast is handpicked and works beautifully, each actor generously contributing even in episodes where they have small parts.  Some of them are not actors, Reitz has cast musicians in many of the key roles so that they look and feel comfortable while playing the instruments of their choice.

 

 

Despite minor discrepancies, this is a monumental work, where protagonists seek their homeland in the art they love. Heimat 2 ends with Hermann still in a quandary, searching, and finally going back to Schabbach, reminding us of the first film when Paul Simon leaves, passing to my joy on his way into the village Glasisch Karl [Kurt Wagner], my favorite character from the earlier film.

 

So finally, I hope to see Heimat 3: A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings soon, which begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Heimat Fragments which uses, out-takes from the three films as well as new footage.

 

– Kiran David

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