Friday, September 30, 2011

Violence - between Catharsis and Solution

I often wonder how I ever started watching Indian movies (particularly from the South) where people get killed every 5 minutes in the most gruesome ways. I am fairly certain that part of my problem with Hollywood movies at a point was that there is too much violence in them, so how did I end up here?

More importantly, how do I reconcile my moral compass and its respect for life with revenge sagas like Dookudu, Munna, Kaakha Kaakha and Anwar, all movies that I quite enjoyed? (And yes, this post is a result of having just seen the Telugu film Dookudu in the theatres, a movie about a police officer who takes revenge on the people who offed his father, and reading that it's on its way to become a superhit.)

The first question is actually easier to answer. I still find the violence in American movies way too realistic to tolerate, and in fact, I still cover my eyes through the more gruesome parts of Indian films as well. It helps that most of the time it's more about the rowdies flying like frisbees than it is about chopping off their legs with machetes, so I suppose if I could watch Tom and Jerry inflict pain on each other when I was a kid (well, usually just Jerry on Tom but you get the idea), this is the somewhat grown-up version of it. Besides, most of the times I watch it for the choreography and the creativity of the fights rather than for the actual end result. It never ceases to amaze me how many objects can be broken with one rowdy and how artfully two people can tangle in midair.

And even though I still have an undying love for a good reverse roundhouse kick, I have developed a soft spot for all kinds of flying kicks too, some more realistic than others.

Lately however, what with guns and water taps becoming more popular, the good old kick in the neck followed by a bloodless knock-out seems to have been replaced by buckets of fake red dye and impalings. And this is where I think my old lack of tolerance for violence will make a comeback.

But that's only part of what I wanted to talk about.

Because once we get past the visuals, we come to the more thorny issue of morals. And morally ambiguous films. You know, the ones where the hero just "gets them all" in the end. Not to say that only the South does it, because that's certainly not true, Ghajini, Shor in the City and A Wednesday being stellar examples of Bollywood films that seem to condone killing off all the bad guys. And not to say that Hollywood doesn't do it, though for the most part they tend to sugar-coat it as superhero movies, historicals, war movies and all kinds of scenarios far enough removed from the immediate reality that they do away with our moral compass by sheer virtue of displacement. Certainly something worth talking about as well (why the moral compass doesn't apply there), but perhaps by someone more qualified in the field of American movies than me.

I think one way or another every film industry does it because, let's face it, it satisfies a basic human need that wants to see all evil disappear even if it's only for 10 minutes after the climax of a movie. Revenge sagas are a lot like spicy food to me. Spicy food (specifically hot chillies) apparently activates the pain receptors in the mouth and throat which triggers the brain to pump your heart faster and also to release endorphins. But at the same time, you know that it cannot harm you, so what you're really getting is free endorphins. Revenge sagas seem to work in much the same way: you get the endorphins associated with the bad guys getting offed, but none of the guilt or pain associated with it if it were for real. It doesn't stop you from feeling compassion in real life just like spicy food doesn't stop you from feeling pain, but it definitely helps you feel good for the moment.

I would imagine in a country where terrorism and corruption are every-day news, that need for catharsis is exacerbated, which would explain why there is virtually no need to sugar-coat anything and the hero can even be a cop and still get away with killing off all the villains. But is there no limit to how many people a hero can kill off before anyone wonders: what if they're not all bad? Sure, a film like Dookudu makes a pretty solid case for eliminating them, and besides you get to really admire the creative ways in which the villains are done away with, but is Mahesh being badass reason enough to not even wonder: what was this guy's side of the story?

Malayalam movie Anwar gets particularly puzzling on the topic because the bloody (and gorgeously shot) finale is preceded by some discussions in the beginning of the movie about precisely that: should all terrorists or suspected terrorists be trialed and sentenced to death based on word of mouth or ethnicity? Which in the end begs the question: if the rest of the world is not fit to judge them, why is the hero? Just because he's been wronged? Now don't get me wrong, I did appreciate the angle of not pitching different religions against each other, for a change, but nonetheless, does that make anything right?

Sometimes I think my brain has trained itself, and perhaps this is also the case with Indian audiences, to view this as a game of sorts, to the point where it doesn't actually have anything to do with what I find acceptable in real life and what I don't. After all, I don't find fist-fighting acceptable in real life either, and yet here I am cheering for all these guys to kick ass, right? Similarly, while I would always be in favour of a fair trial for anyone, it doesn't create much of a cognitive dissonance to see the chief villain getting beaten to a pulp and then hung by some loose pipe or hook. It still bugs me on some level, but I can still enjoy the movie just fine. But is it really only that?

I'll tell you a quick story from my motherland. There was a ruler once, some 500 years ago, who would give an awfully painful death to anyone who sinned against society: thieves, liars, criminals, etc. He also had many battles to his name and even some brilliant political moves, but I bet people would be hard pressed to name them. However, everyone remembers him for the fact that he cleaned the country of its bad elements. Nowadays when the country is about as corrupt as India and hopeless for a recovery, his name gets mentioned a lot in association with the only possible solution to the corruption plague: kill'em all!...

I used to only think of revenge plots and kill-them-all climaxes as catharsis, but with the inclusion of state powers more and more lately, I am slowly starting to see another explanation. If catharsis was the only goal, then the hero could just be a likable pokiri (no pun intended), standing on the side of good and triumphing against evil. But with the hero being in the force (police, military, what have you) or being helped by someone in the force, it becomes much more than the "side of good", now it's also the "side of just". Not only justice for the hero, but for all of society. It's a small shift, but I think it changes a lot in the perception of those watching. You see, it's not just the lonely hero getting revenge for the death of his lover, now he's also the hand of justice, purging out the bad elements in society. It's no longer just a personal battle, it becomes symbolic of everyone's battle against terror, corruption and evil-doers, because the law is on the hero's side.

Which makes me wonder, if we think of artists as a mirror of their times, as well as the instruments for change in an era, how much of this is intentional? Are film makers really trying to suggest this type of no-trial justice is what should be happening? I don't dare think so, but it does make me wonder. Certainly audiences are becoming more and more interested in this type of plot, fact proved by the fact that just today we have another "cop out for revenge" movie coming out: Force.

Maybe it's not only catharsis after all, maybe there's more to it than just seeing the hero being badass...

As it turns out, my moral issues with these films are rather shallow, because this is about much more than an ethical question about whether or not the police should protect people or kill them. Not only does the kill-em-all plot fulfil a need to see justice triumph, it also, in a very twisted way, gives one hope that this can happen *with* the help of the law.

I think I am going to feel a whole lot better about Pokiri the next time I watch it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smiles and Frowns at TIFF11

Well, this was certainly not the year when I should have decided to broaden my horizons and experiment with more films at TIFF. I am usually broke by the end of the summer, so I tend to just go to one or two highly anticipated Hindi films and call it a day. This year I figured, heck, let's support Indian-ness at TIFF a little bit more consistently, and had planned an (almost) "a film a day extravaganza".


The disappointments started before the stars even rolled into town: my trusted friend and fellow Bo/Ko/Tollywood aficionada, Larissa (@elegnt_hedgehg on Twitter), had to break it to me that tickets for the much buzzed about Breakaway (about which I blogged briefly here) were sold out in less than an hour and that I would have to wait just like the rest of them until September the 30th to see it.

Just as I was falling in love with the soundtrack. It's hard to say if that was a blessing in disguise since reviews for it have been rather unkind, but what can I say, I must be a sucker for marketing because I really wanted to see it.

Despite this... um... thing. Whatever it is...

Or maybe all the more because of it!

And for crying out loud, they brought in an elephant on Yonge Street on the day of the premiere!!

But you know, I missed the elephant because of another film: Azhagarsamy's Horse. The Tamil movie at TIFF this year.

**Azhagarsamy's Horse**

Azhagarsamy's Horse is one of those films that are perfect educational material when one wants to explain the concept of "first half" and "second half" in Indian films. I would imagine it's hard for people who don't watch Indian films to understand how a movie can be excellent in one half and terrible during the other. Hollywood films are either good overall or bad overall. Azhagarsamy's Horse falls under: awful first half, brilliant second half.

The first half sets up the scene in a poor village where agriculture (and by extension rain) is the only lifeline for some hundred villagers. When it hasn't rained for a few years, unlike the resourceful bunch in Lagaan, who knew exactly what gods to pray to (the gods of cricket, obviously!), the villagers resort to all kinds of solutions, one more pathetic than the other. They all involve white magic, or better said crooks posing as priests or messengers of the Gods. And of course, they all involve the villagers rounding up what little money they have left to pay these crooks or to make sacrifices for the gods.

I think I may be a little tired of these types of shenanigans and of the side plots with the priest whose job consists of fooling the poor innocent villagers. They seem to show up in all kinds of Tamil and Telugu films, often as the comic relief, and I find it neither funny nor sympathetic. So a whole hour of these clowns parading around on the screen sure made the prospect of going out and seeing the Breakaway elephant terribly attractive. Add to that some 20 minutes of technical difficulties before the second half started and you can just about picture my long face before the second half of Azhagarsamy's Horse.

But then this little guy shows up.

And all of a sudden... we have a movie! We have a beautiful, touching story, actually several of them, we have some character development, we have some charming surprises, we have love, we have justice, we have compassion, we have forgiveness, we have friendship, and just about everything that makes for a lovely film. Truly lovely. All thanks to this one character, played superbly by Appukutty.

**Mushrooms (Chatrak)**

My next adventure was Vimukthi Jayasundara's Mushrooms (Chatrak), a French production shot in Calcutta and spoken for the most part in Bengali.

It's a very slow paced film (we're talking "2001: Space Oddysey" slow here!) about the consequences of industrialization and about the downside of progress. The grey majesty of Calcutta is shot in a masterful way which lets you ponder in between short scenes of plot development. I can't say I liked the movie, though I am certain I would have felt very positively about it had it been a 20 minute short film instead of a full feature, but it did leave me with some brilliant imagery and some profound symbolism that I am not likely to forget any time soon.


After having to revise my choice for "most awaited film at TIFF" twice, I finally defaulted to Michael, as the only much awaited film I did actually see at TIFF. Anurag Kashyap's newest production, directed by the very amiable newcomer Ribhu Dasgupta, is a psychological thriller about a former police officer who is struggling with progressive myopia. Protecting his 12 year old son and maintaining a relationship with him is the force that keeps him going and as we watch Michael fall apart we begin to experience some of that over-protectiveness ourselves, shifting our empathy from Michael to the little helpless boy.

Michael works as a thriller up to a certain point, when it becomes all too clear what is happening, but by then we are already caught in the web of curiosity so we continue watching in awe at what may or may not happen. The ending was changed by the director upon receiving feedback from people in the industry, and that in itself is sad, because they were probably right. I always have to keep in mind that us festival going audiences are not the same as the audiences in India, so where we would love to see ambiguity, other audiences would probably not. But except for this little disappointment, Michael delivers a very tender emotional story that sends the psychological aspect to the back seat which is why it worked for me. 

As always, Naseeruddin Shah shines in a role that exploits his tremendous talent to its fullest and he is beautifully complemented by young Purab Bhandari (whose talent we had the pleasure to appreciate before in the heart-melting Tahaan).

Unfortunately, even this film came with its own frown, perhaps the saddest of them all: the film is dedicated to the late Somak Mukherjee, the brilliant cinematographer who gave us Pankh and Iti Mrinalini (which I have yet to see) before Michael. A very talented man whose work in Michael deserves every praise: a film that was shot mostly at night, in a decaying Calcutta, and yet its quaint beauty shines through in every frame. Such was this man's talent. I am truly sad that I have to praise Somak Mukherjee in past tense.


Of course, the most dramatic frown of the festival was reserved to the cancellation of Mausam, a day before its world premiere. I have spent far too much time expressing my displeasure with many of the details of this fiasco, so for this post I will remain peaceful and use the paragraph to give props to the organizers at TIFF for the extremely professional way in which they handled this disaster. We got our money back the very next day and they were in excellent crisis management form. I'm sure vases were broken behind closed doors, and I can only hope TIFF never has to experience this again, but they did make me proud.

**More frowns**

Speaking of frowns, I should mention my greatest disappointment this TIFF: I didn't get to see Salman Rushdie in a conversation with Deepa Mehta about Midnight's Children. Poor timing, and it sold out quickly, so I suppose it wasn't meant to be. Now I don't like Deepa Mehta and find that her skills as a film-maker are always overshadowed by her bitterness as a person, but I still await Midnight's Children with trepidation because, you know, I adore Salman Rushdie. Since he was involved in the script writing, there is hope for this movie still.

Of the three films I did manage to see so far, only two of the directors showed up, and none of the cast. Truly a shame to not see Naseeruddin Shah at the premiere of Michael after that fantastic performance. I am sure the audience would have been off their seats!

Last on my list for TIFF this year: Trishna - Michael Winterbottom's interpretation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, set in modern-day India. But barring a sensational performance from Freida Pinto, I doubt I will find anything to blog about since Tess is definitely not one of my favourite books. Sorry, was that too subtle? Ok, I hated this story, so there!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bol & Khuda Kay Liye - Shoaib Mansoor's Yin & Yang

I still have no idea how Bol, a Pakistani movie by director Shoaib Mansoor, even got distribution in Toronto. Heck, Anurag Kashyap has trouble bringing his films to the big screens here sometimes! But imagine my surprise when, while looking for screening times for Bodyguard, I found this little gem playing all over the city. Sometimes the Gods of Filmistan just smile upon Toronto and it seems that September is that magical month of the year when They give in abundance. Lucky us!

So off I went, despite the late hour and despite the length of the film (2:45), and most importantly despite being terrified of seeing a film by the director of Khuda Kay Liye alone in a theatre. And good thing I went. Because as hard hitting as Bol is, it's no Khuda Kay Liye. Mercifully! Though it does complement Khuda Kay Liye in many ways and it resolves all the issues I had with Shoaib Mansoor's first film.

If most of the acting in Khuda Kay Liye was forced and cringe-worthy, there are no more traces of that in Bol where every single character, no matter how small, lingers in your thoughts long after the movie is done. If Khuda Kay Liye was depressing beyond tears, Bol brings a ray of hope at the end of the long gutting journey. If Khuda Kay Liye was excessively explicit visually (and I do understand why that was needed, I can't even disagree, but still had a hard time erasing some of the images from my memory for months), Bol shows almost no violence, even though the characters go through many ugly, terrifying experiences. It's almost like the director made this movie to create the perfect pair for Khuda Kay Liye. All while keeping, just like the yin and yang symbols, a thread of darkness in Bol and a glitter of lightheartedness in Khuda Kay Liye (pretty much summed up by the fantastic Bandya).

The one thing that stayed the same for both films was the brilliant direction and the remarkable script.

After seeing both films, I have to say I am trully impressed with Shoaib Mansoor's campaign for gender equality, a theme that has been given prime time in both of his films. If Khuda Kay Liye deals with a father's right over his daughter and how the Quoran can be twisted and distorted to make that power seem boundless, Bol takes up a different angle: a woman's right to say no to pregnancy (and to make any decisions for herself for that matter). A very delicate issue still, even in Western countries where families can afford to feed all their offsprings, unlike Hakim Khan, the father figure in Bol, whose profession (traditional medicine) is steadily declining while his family grows incontrollably. All his fault of course, because he is blinded not only by his desire to have a son instead of 7 daughters, but also by his faith that says every pregnancy coming from Allah should be accepted (a belief that will turn out to be nothing more than a convenient disguise when the family is "blessed" with a hermaphrodite son).

Needless to say, my admiration for the director only increased after reading the following words from him on the film's website:

"Having been so blessed in life, I often think of the things that I should be grateful for. The list always seems to be never ending, but invariably it ends at one thing... that I was born as a MAN.
Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan, where obscurantism has deep roots. It is very unfortunate that we make tall claims, full of pride, about the rights of woman granted by our religion and yet when I look around in underdeveloped Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular I find things totally the opposite. Tragically, our interpretation and application of religion seems to begin and end with woman. Leave the 5% urban educated elite aside, women seem to be the playground (battleground) where we practice a medieval form of religion."

Such a disarmingly candid statement of facts, and at the same time such an unlikely base to build movies like "Khuda Kay Liye" and "Bol" on. I suppose it's precisely this type of honesty that gives birth to such powerful female characters in his films. Perhaps sometimes one must be on the outside to better understand what is happening behind closed doors? Some could look at these words and call them almost offensive, but I can only think of what balls it takes to make a movie like Bol while admitting your worst fear is to have been one of the film's characters.

The trailer hardly touches on any of the issues that the film brings forward: hermaphrodites, honour killings, gang male rape, prostitution, birth control, and instead focuses on the action and the suspense. That's what sells I suppose, but I for one was very happy to find out that most of the violence and the action in the film was already shown in the trailer and there was not much left to shock me in the theatre.

It's entirely unexpected in fact that this seems like such a dark film judging by the trailers, but while watching you spend some of the most tense scenes smiling, whether it's at the little moments shared between the sisters, or at the sweet nothings shared by the lovers. But most of all you smile at the irony of the world of prostitutes and pimps mirroring the orthodox world of Hakim Khan: if in the latter a house full of daughters is a cross one must bear in the name of Allah, in the former, a house full of working girls would be a blessing and a gift from God. The events that have the two worlds gallop towards each other for the first 2 hours are certainly compelling and fascinating to watch, but it's this final battle of virtues and ethics that makes this movie such a gem. Add to that the mindblowing performance of Shafqat Cheema, the head pimp and Iman Ali's glowing presence as the alluring Meena, and... let's just say you'll never think of Umrao Jaan quite the same.

I must admit, I was disappointed by the fact that Atif Aslam's role is not as big as I would have wanted it to be, though he does get to be a through and through hero, which makes him even more crushable for Dolce's fragile heart. I was a little nervous about how he would do in his first film, but he had no problems winning my heart as the open-minded young urban professional (and literally boy next door) Mustafa. And wait, he sings too! Aye haye!...

Of course, despite my love for Atif Aslam, I must (reluctantly) admit, this is not his film. This film belongs to Manzar Sehbai (who plays Hakim, the father of the family) and to Humaima Malik (the daughter who recounts the story of her family and the events that lead to the death sentence she is about to face). Not only is this lady strikingly beautiful, but she truly makes the character of Zainub a part of your life for 2 hours. Her voice in particular bleeds with so much grief and such sadness that you're almost afraid to hear her speak further.

But of course she does and as she tells her story, the many questions that the movie will leave you with arise. Even if none of them get resolved (and how could they?) the doubt alone and the ability to question the status quo are enough to consider the film's purpose achieved.

The only part of the movie that I am still torn on is the ending. On the one side I really needed it to end this way, but on the other, I have to question the credibility of such an epilogue. Then again, like I said in the beginning, if Bol is the yin to Khuda Kay Liye's yang, then it's absolutely the perfect ending.

Either way, a movie well worth travelling at late hours for and a great preview (even if unrelated) for my Toronto Film Festival week which starts in some... 40 hours. Not that anyone's counting of course.