Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Notes on A Death in the Gunj, by Konkona Sensharma, India: 2016

you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism

A moment in the first 20 minutes of the film, a seemingly unimposing scene: A young man called Shutu takes an old pullover which once belonged to his recently deceased father. He smells on it an finally puts it on. Later as the film proceeds we will realize that this scene carries already the DNA of the whole film. For now there is nothing more to know that he is distressed by his grieve and very very lonely with it.

It was just a day before the screening in Berlin when I learned by accident that Konkona Sensharma´s A Death in the Gunj one of the films I was waiting for in this year, was shown in my city during an Indogerman Festival. I took a deep breath because I almost missed this note. The excitement has a long history. It was her performance in Shonali Bose´s Amu which lead me to Mr. And Mrs Iyer by Aparna Sen and with that to all the glory to her mother´s work as a director. Konkona Sen Sharma became one of my favorite actresses, Aparna Sen one of my favorite film directors alive. As much about her family.

The morning after the screening I read again Anjan Dutt´s enthusiastic review of A Death in the Gunj. Strangely the film evoked in me in another kind but likely strong my personal echo of the 1970s like Dutt´s masterpiece Dutta Vs Dutta – despite the visible specific hints to a country and culture strange to me. I mean this dynamic between the perception of the strangeness of this culture and at the same time the recognition of the universality of human behavior. The leather jacket of Ranvir Shorey evoked quite a déya vu in me and I almost had this specific smell of leather in my nose. And between what the film is and what it evokes in me, a kind of resonant cavity arises for me. As accidental as it is, I realized on my way home that Shutu is exactly of my generation and there are some parts of him that I and probably a lot of male spectators will recognize if they like it or not. Quite a mixture of feelings are flooding my mind like in one of these heavy bizarre dreams between desire, fear and depression.

The opening of the film is a mystery which will dissolved at the end of the film and which gives the film from the beginning a subliminal suspense. Two men are looking into a boot of their car at a corps which remains invisible to us. As we see them from the perspective of the unknown dead, it is a ghostly non-human perspective. Soon the film opens a flashback seven days before and tells this in exactly 7 chapters. We have no idea what will happen but we are sure something will happen.

A group of city people consisting of family members and friends arrive at a former Anglo-Indian town to spend holiday in one of these old houses. The location seems already engrossed and nearby there are tribal people. For now the film remembers me in Satyajit Ray´s masterpiece Aranyer Din Ratri mixed with a subtle suspense. Without knowing where the film will lead us the slight suspense originated from the opening sharpens our attention to even the smallest detail. The group of people which has just arrived are neither bigger nor smaller than life just perceptible enough for us to connect with them. But as the film proceeds, the holiday idyll reveals small cracks, very small at the beginning but steady growing. The growing doubt that nothing is what it seems causes concern. The protagonists kill time with parlor games, drinking and macabre jokes mostly on the cost of the young sensitive Shutu. One of these subtle but nevertheless disturbing signs is the attitude of the city people towards their servants. As a tribal dance is like a welcomed tourist attraction the contempt of the city people towards the servants is revealed but also the other way around. For the servants the city people are just annoying strangers.

In several interviews, Sensharma always mentioned her empathy for Shutu, because “Men are often victims of the patriarchal system itself”. In her film Shutu will be teased at the beginning than bullied and finally he will be even beaten and hurt. The physical injuries caused by one of these stupid horse plays are visible, the mental ones only perceptible in his face the camera explores and in his posture.
The ensemble of characters are like a color palette of possibilities of human behavior concerted with each other: Tillotama Shome and Kalki Koechlin, two conflictive women or the conflict between the nearly unchained macho Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and the young sensitive almost androgynous Shutu (Vikrant Massey), to mention some of them. In this nowhere land between the adults and a little bored girl girl called Kana, there is Shutu placed. All together this group is something like a kaleidoscope of different human types.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

The former Anglo-Indian town itself appears like a nowhere land between city and countryside, between culture and nature, the always present nature which is already reconquering this man-made location. And between the human definition of rules, gender or power and submission the nameless undefined presence of nature is perceptible. The conditioned human culture appears sometimes like a prison.
When some of the adult men Nandu or Vikram are trying to “toughen up” the fragile Shutu, their motivation is based on this imposed darwinian understanding of nature, a man-made interpretation of nature. The film itself suggests rather a separation or an alienation between men and nature. There is rather an indifferent coexistence between men and nature. In some of these intense cinema scope-images we see the mighty forest and a tiny street. Most of the characters do not have an eye for this beauty, but it often seems this nature watches them. There is an uncanny encounter between Shutu( who falls into a traphole) and a wolf. It is not more than a short eye contact but nevertheless one of the most mysterious moments in this film. We realize that the biggest part of the world which we captured in words lead an existence of its own. And finally the conditioning in which we define the world separates us from nature.

Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) seduces Shutu twice. At first when she is very drunk. Her behavior is a mirroring of both, Vikram who takes what he wants but in her oppressed needs as well of Shutu. She calls him “very beautiful, almost like a girl.” The first seducing scene is symptomatic for the film, an combination of revealing and indicating. The second seducing scene takes place on a grave yard, literally between the dead. sex once in Terrence Malick´s Song to Song poetic defined as “The flame of life” appears here in Sen Sharma´s film as a naked reflex against the fear of death or at least between the wrong persons at the wrong place and wrong time. None of Sensharma´s characters are explicit evil but most of them are careless and unable to feel empathy. This affair triggers a chain of events which lead to the film´s stirring finale which I can´t reveal but which is – still in my system.

The end credits are rolling on a street surrounded by the forest at night seen from the rear window of a driving car, a travelling shot which is in its spookiness evoking in me memories in Murnau´s Nosferatu. Literally the last traces of light are sinking into darkness of the final fade out. This often underrated ritual of cinema, this transition between the film projection and the reality is here as well a little piece of art in its own right
This a very versatile film, playing with different traditions and genres of cinema. The suspense is as decent as the film music but strong enough to engross us. A Death in the Gunj is as well an example of an excellent use of this cinema scope format. This format once invented for films bigger than life in the competition against the rising Television in the 1950s and later used rather for artistic visions, especially by the Japanese since the late 1950s. Sensharma uses in her film this format in a nearly perfect dynamic between opulence (visible especially in the wonderful landscape shots) and intimacy, between chamber piece and landscape panorama.

A Death in the Gunj is not only an impressing film debut feature. It is still echoing in my mind. In simple words – good films like A Death in the Gunj are rooted in the glorious history of cinema, enriching the presence of it and at the same time they offering new perspectives for it´  future.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Monday, July 3, 2017

Notes on The Third Breast by Anamika Bandopadhyay, India/USA: 2017

If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred.”
(Walt Whitman)

At the beginning, ocean waves on a beach in Goa, a popular region for Indians and tourists from abroad. The over voice commentary of Anamika Bandopadhyay tells about this place and the pleasure of drinking coconut water. She recalls the stories told by her grandmother. On the beach we see an old woman and a young girl with sun glasses. For a short moment it appears like an idyll evoked by a Marcel Proust- like memory and caused by coconut water, the pendant to the Madeleine, a French pastry occurring in Proust´s novel In Search of lost times.

The second part of the film´s introduction is a harsh contrast: News headlines report about the gang raping case in Delhi from December 16, 2012 which lead to the death of the victim, a young woman. Images of angry protesting Indian women follow. In the following months after this tragic event a series of gang raping all over the country followed. The public finally took attention on rape cases even though they happened as well long before December 2012. It was evident that the perpetrators felt very safe without the fear being indicted.

Anamika Bandopadhyay mentions that there is no sex education (maturation curriculum) in Indian schools. Her son absolved it already at the age of 11 in an American school. The Indian government rejects the idea of sex education in schools because they say it is “against the Indian tradition”. In Germany for example (which is far from being a pioneering country in this case) sex education in schools was from up around 1975 already obligatory and no biology teacher could refuse to teach sex education anymore.
What is the “Indian tradition” asks Anamika Bandopadhyay and her journey to different places in and periods of Indian history begins.

In the films by Anamika Bandopadhyay I have seen so far, it is impossible to separate the poet from the scholar or the human right activist. Like in her previous films Red (2008) and 1700 Kelvin (2012) she is completely involved.

The Third Breast is a film essay about the contradictions in the Indian culture history of sexuality. On one hand in modern India a total ban of sex in culture and education, on the other hand a brutal oppression of women. As rape is by politicians often underplayed as accidental events, it appears soon that it is caused by a misogyny deeply rooted in the history of colonial and post colonial India. With her questions, for example “What is the Indian tradition?, the filmmaker goes back to the distant past of India. Interviews with different people, scientists, activists or young students give hints to a deeper truth of “Indian tradition”. One of the essential elements of the filmmaker´s research is the comparison between a relatively liberal attitude towards sexuality in the medieval India and its absurd oppression in modern India. This ancient attitude or let me use knowledge of sexuality is documented in old texts, paintings, sculptures and poetry. At least the erotic sculptures in some temples in India are still accessible and proof this once total different attitude towards sexuality in this culture. Even without knowing KamaSutra, it is widely accepted that India has one of the oldest knowledge about the human body. As we experience in this that sex has quite a lot to do with “Indian tradition”. Bandopadhyay works with different elements, the interviews, collage, images as evidence but often as well with a certain playfulness. Beside the researches there is always as well the element of the experience she made during her journey, a reminder that she, the filmmaker is always a part of the complex history she reveals in her recorded images.

The texts by Geet Govinda, the erotic sculptures in several temples which depict sexual practice or even old texts which describe the sexual relationship between the “iconic” Indian (unmarried) lovers Radha and Krishna are in existence. The film is also a confrontation of images, the ones of a relatively liberal sexual moral in the past and the hypocritical images of the present moral of in post colonial India which are established today. And in this confrontation of dominating and suppressed images like established and suppressed ideas of humanity, Bandopadhyay uses one of the most important nature of film, the presentation of images.
She also integrates small episodes where she appears in front of the camera.
In one of them she explains a souvenir seller in Varanasi an object that he has in his collection symbolizes the penis of a Hindu-god. That disturbs not only the seller but as well a client is refusing to buy it.
Even among a group of open minded young people the image of a naked goddess displaying vagina and breasts causes for some of them feelings of discomfort. Paradoxically the tradition of India appears for some contemporaries as something very strange and exotic. Parents,tells Bandopadhyay, avoid to visit with their children these temples with erotic sculptures.

One of the aspects I value most, is that Anamika Bandopadhyay despite her involvement in the subject appears never predetermined and it seems we even witness with her a lot of discoveries she made during this journey. Her questions are punctuating the film and bring us closer to a truth than hasty answers.
There is, for example a moment where it is mentioned that the menstruation was in ancient times regarded as a sign of purity of a woman. Temples with statues of naked goddesses were closed for four days a month when the goddess “menstruates” Later , the menstruation as a symbol of purity and even divineness was distorted into a sign of impurity and these temples denied access for menstruating women. What changed this attitude? One hint mentioned in an interview is the fatal combination of the prudery of the British colonial rulers and the prudery of the Brahmin cast. For a long time the tribal culture was relatively uninfluenced by sexual moral of India. Tribal women had more freedom to choose and separate again from their partner. But even these last traces of a different India seem to have disappeared. Another offered explanation is the rise of a Right wing movement which originated in the 1930s and which took its inspiration from a distorted Hindu-ideology and which includes the vilification of women and the discrimination of lower cast people.

The Third Breast offers different accesses to a certain aspect in Indian culture history and it gives an idea about the complexity of this country. Despite its analytical aspect there is also the “caméra stylo” - element. It is an insight and the film does not leave one moment of doubt that it is made by a woman from its culture. Like the incredible trilogy on the partition of Bengal by one of her spiritual mentors Ritwik Ghatak there is a relationship between the global history and how it is affecting the person who tells us about.
The filmmaker´s questions open the space for new perceptions. Even if she blames religious fanaticism, The Third Breast includes not a statement against religion in general but points out against misuse and distortion Her films are never made with this smart predetermined “I know it all” attitude. That let her appears literally “Unarmed” and vulnerable. The moment when she tries to comfort one of the abused women in Red , illustrates what I mean quite accurate.

Once we see her in an alternative temple called Devipuram, founded by an atom physicist. It is a temple where women are worshipped and we see her washed by temple servants. It is again one of the protected zones for women in this film. At the end we see again the old woman and the girl with the sun glasses on the beach a poetic image for a memory and another of these “protected zones” in this film, where oppression and abuses of women is suspended for a short while. This moments reminds me in a moment from one of her previous films Rough Cut, actually the only moment from this film ( which is probably lost) available for me. Only about 5 wonderful minutes are available on Bandopadhyay´s YouTube channel. A man and a young girl are in a temple. The man is painting or busy with a maintenance of one of the sculptures. The girl stands in front of a naked goddess. On her toe tips she stretches her body to touch the statue. She is measuring the size of the artificial body, touching its proportions and compares them with the proportions of her own. Her actions are like unspoken questions. Whenever I have to articulate my appreciation for Anamika Bandopadhyay´s films this fragment comes to my mind.

At the end of The Third Breast, the filmmaker reveals the story of the goddess Meenakshi as told by her grandmother. Meenakshi is born with a third breast. The parents were worried about this “deformation” and raised her like a boy. Some consider it not as a deformation but an extra of erotic appeal or strength. The film ends with the image of the old woman and the girl with sun glasses on the beach in front of the ocean waves. They are at the same time exposed to a natural force but the image is one of these “protected zones”. A fleeting moment in a film which told us so much about a disturbed world where women have to struggle to assert their space.

The Third Breast is another example for a “committed “ cinema which is full of compassion, anger but also tenderness without giving in for a second to any kind of sensationalism. I feel confidence in these images which appear to me as documented of true encounters, true experiences and true reflections.

Rüdiger Tomczak