Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sonata by Aparna Sen, India: 2017

The reason why I think it is important to talk about the films by Aparna Sen is simple: her films and especially her recent films made in this decade are an impressive demonstration what cinema is still capable of. Despite all obstacles of our time, the fast moving public world of cinema, the lack of diversity in the selection of the mayor festivals - her creativity remains unbroken. That she has not got the recognition for her more recent films is nothing less than a shameful injustice.
Her latest film Sonata is for me another example why I consider Aparna Sen as one of the most sophisticated film directors of our time – and not only in India.
Sonata, a film which Aparna Sen called a “chamber piece”) offers just in the first 10 minutes more cinematic ideas and poetry than another “chamber piece like for example Louis Malle´s My Dinner with André in its full length.
The space where Sonata takes place (a big apartment in Mumbai) is from the first shot a pure cinematic space. The film is based on a play but it is an adaption for cinema like only Aparna Sen is able to do in modern cinema. Anywhere between Ozu, Dreyer or Hitchock´s finest “chamber piece” Rear Window, Sonata stands for a another kind of pure cinema.
How the two main characters are placed in this apartment, how they move in it or how they define or redefine it as their private space has indeed to do with the virtuosity how people in their interiors are revealed in films by John Ford or Yasujiro Ozu. How they claim their place in Sonata in this place is often as well an analogy how they define their place in the world. The apartment in Sonata has it´s barriers from the world but as well openings through which it is connected with it. The every day sounds from the streets are invading this private room. Some windows appear like screens and they are the visual pendant to the soundtrack. The inside and outside are interfusing each other.
The dialogues between Aruna (Aparna Sen) and Dolan (Shabana Azmi) are dealing at the beginning with every day matters and often mutual bantering. It is clear, this two women know each other for a long time. They share this apartment for 25 years. They know each others weakness. Sometimes they make jokes on the other´s cost about gaining too much weight, about the sexuality of two unmarried women and it can be from time to time as cruel like between the aging gentlemen in Ozu´s last films.
How they move differently in this apartment tells a lot about their relationship but as well about their different characters. Dolan actually owns this apartment. While Dolan is often walking around, sometimes even dancing, Aruna prefers a certain place on her desk writing on her computer , framed by big book shelves and her music collection. She is reserved, often retrieved in herself. Dialogs and actions reveal something about the characters but give also hints about what they hide. And even when they try to banter each other, there remains a strange contrast between elements of comedy and the awareness of vulnerability. We get small ideas about their losses and fears.
But Aparna Sen also introduces her characters in another way. We see often how they gaze around, or how they gaze at others. What does it tell about us when we gaze at the screen? What does it tell about the characters when they gaze at each other or at other persons? Aparna Sen´s cinema is always a cinema of glances. Once in this film, Dolan and Aruna are looking out of the window into a neighbour´s apartment. There is a lonely woman they have observed very often. They talk about the strange woman´s loneliness with a certain distance but one feels there is a connection between what they see and what they are. The window is one of the many hidden imagined screens in Aparna Sen´s films and these screens are often like mirrors

A third woman arrives for a visit, Subadhra (Lillete Dubey), a journalist. She is a younger woman and the only woman of this trio who is in a relationship. Behind sun glasses she covers bruises - her violent boyfriend has beaten her. Even though these are three distinguishable characters, they also represent different options of a human life. They drink wine and spend some time with laughter together. When Subadhra finally leaves , there is an echo left on the two unmarried woman who will question each others place in this world. A human life in a film by Aparna Sen is often composed of different options by different characters. It is a bit like with “the beings of time” in Marcel Proust´s On the Search for the Lost Time. Life appears here as a sum of an endless chain of decisions.

How explicit Aparna Sen uses the designed apartment as a cinematic space is evident in many aspects. This space changes often between the emphasis of the illusion of spatial depth and the reminder of the flatness of the film image. When the three woman are sitting on the couch, the space is contracted. In another shot the space is extended in three dimensions. Aparna Sen´s playfulness with revealing these limits and options of cinema is one example for her formal richness.
In the first shot of the film the space of this apartment seems clearly represented. It looks easy to find one´s orientation. But after a few cuts and different shots, we are nearly confused. There are doors which remain closed to us and from different perspectives this apartment looks much more complex than the opening shot suggests. How we define our orientation in this piece of cinema, how Aruna and Dolan define and redefine their place in the world is revealed in pure cinematic esthetics.

Only a few other characters have short appearances, a friend Mira who has chosen a female identity after a gender reassignment is only visible during a skype-conversation and during a mysterious phone call. A drunken man in front of their house and finally the former lover (Kalyan Ray) of Aruna is visible in the only flashback in this film. There is a strange contrast to the real time image of this skype conversation and this engrossed image of a memory.

Sonata offers as well one of the most sophisticated sound tracks in Aparna Sen´s work. The interweaving of every day sounds in the apartment and the street noise from the street separate and connect at the same time the apartment with the world. The music score by Neel Dutt is another aspect of this playfulness which reminds me in Ozu´s last films. We remember when Aruna listens to Beethoven´s Moonlight Sonata. If I am not mistaken it is after this moment when Dutt´s music begins. First paraphrasing, later adapting certain moods in this film like for example a frolic dance by Shabana Azmi. But sometimes the music appears suspended in air between authorial music and a strange mysterious melancholy which is hard to describe but which will be confirmed at the tragic and disturbing end of the film. In contrast to the characters, Dutt´s music seems to move independently from the laws of time and space.
After all what I hear, read and see, the conditions for cinema in India different from the commercial Bollywood industry is not very convenient at all. That applies for the the contemporary masters of this country as much like for new talents, not to mention India´s disastrous handling of its own film heritage. This is one reason more to consider each new film by Aparna Sen as a precious gift to cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Notes on a cinematic journey called Ashwatthama, by Pushpendra Singh, India: 2017

I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade, I see distant lands as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.”
( Salut Au Monde from Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman)

The beginning of this film is like a birth. Before the first light appears we hear a woman talking to her son. She tells him the story of Ashwatthama, a tragic character from the Indian mythology, who was cursed and became an immortal but lost soul. I am not familiar with the Indian mythology which varies from region to region in this complex culture of the Indian sub continent. But I have already a guide which will lead me through this film which will open my eyes and my ears, the curious and open hearted boy Ishvaku who is discovering the world around him. The film is like discovering another world manifested in 2 hours film.

The film is shot in Black and White. Only very few hint´s give an idea that the film is less engrossed from our time than we might think. Only very short colored moments interrupt the atmosphere of the film. They appear like subtle distortions in the space time continuum of the film´s universe.
I remember a shot near the beginning. Ishvaku is feeding the pigeons in the backyard. The backyards is closed by walls. Behind Ishvaku we see a window which leads to the world outside the barrier. The boy is totally absorbed by his action, like I am absorbed by the rich texture of this image. After a while , Ishvaku goes to the entrance of the house and disappears inside this entrance which is hardly more visible than a black spot in this image. For a moment, the camera stays with us and the pigeons in this backyard.
The vision of this piece of world does not seem to be forced at all. It is one of many moments in this film which demand nothing else than attention but it rewards you with a celebration of cinema as the art of seeing.
There is this strong feeling for confidence in cinema, confidence in what the filmmaker has seen, confidence in the apparatus which recorded it – and finally confidence that these images will unfold their intensity and often breathless beauty by themselves.

There must be a relation between the many stories told by the characters to each other and how the film´s narration creates a whole universe of stories which define a culture but also a human life. This collecting of vocally told stories is interwoven the film´s visual and audible narration. The smallest moments, seemingly non events are beside tragic moments which appear as not emphasized. The emotions which will be nevertheless evoked as the film proceeds are the results of attention, of experience and not formed by forced dramatic storytelling. But especially in its nearly shy reservation, the film often appears to me this “sense of wonder” like the time when I discovered cinema for myself.

In its dynamic between intensity and a nearly minimalistic reluctance, Ashwatthama recalls in me the journey I had with the films by Taiwanese Hou hsiao Hsien, especially with Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet master, 1993). In Hou´s work there was a movement from explicit autobiographical inspired films to a quest for history and culture of Taiwan but as well a quest for finding his own specific vision of cinema (evident in his famous extreme long shots). In another kind but with an equal intensity, Ashwattham has the range between personal memories, a precise look to the part of the world the director comes from but as well an own unique vision of cinema.

A brief look back to February 2014 where Pushendra Singh´s first long feature Lajwanti had its world premiere at the Forum of the Berlin Film festival. It happens seldom in my life time that a debut of a new talented filmmaker caused so much expectations for the near future. Legendary film debuts from the history of cinema like the ones by Satyajit Ray, Terrence Malick, Orson Welles or Aparna Sen happened either before my life time or outside of my awareness. With , one of the two finest films I saw at this festival in the last 12 years, I witnessed such a revelation.

After the house is attacked by bandits, Ishvaku´s mother is killed and he moves with his father to relatives. This is one of the few but pointed tragic turning points of this film which create a new situation for the protagonists. A place in the world is lost, a new one has to be found. When they arrive at their new home, the protagonists and the film spend time with mourning. As I said earlier I have not understood all codes and rituals, this is a moment which affected me a lot. The impact of the loss of a beloved person is caused by memories of my own close persons or in so many moments I have seen in the films by John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Terrence Malick or Satyajit Ray.

The interiors are often sparsely lighted. The interiors are places of shelter and privacy. The implicitness of light our eyes are used by so much bad television features where we always see everything is now suspended. As films often pretend there is a a definite place in the world. True cinema and especially films like Ashwatthama suggest to find a place in the world is a permanent search.

In an interview Pushpendra Singh tells about how he developed the film with inspirations from own memories. Some characters are based on close relatives. Singh has really lived in the region where the film takes place. Even without having read this interview, one can get the an idea about this film in many moments as felt memories. But Ashwatthama also offers something like an ethnographic look to its own culture. The universal and the personal, the prosaic and the poetic are often evident interwoven in single moments. There is a small moment when a young woman, the eldest cousin of Ishvaku combs the boy´s hair. Both are looking into a mirror. They look at themselves. It reminds me in some moments in Lajwanti when we see Sanghmitra Hitaishi´s character looking into a mirror. This is a strange revelation to look at people who are looking at themselves. As we trying to get an image of this world and its people visible, we have to realize that these people have already an image of themselves which is not necessarily identical with our image of them.

The more the film proceeds the more we are absorbed by this look to a piece of the world. There are often recurring motives, family meetings or reunions of this community sitting around a campfire and listening to musicians who perform their songs.
The specific sense of time seems to be adapted from the specific sense of time only children have. The world as an endless huge and rich stage of wonders even though from time to time interrupted by momentous events. Some times the plot seems to melt away and than it comes back with silent but painful fierceness.
Sometimes I feel like talking again and again about so much single moments to articulate this specific “sense of wonder” I experienced. The more the film proceeds, the more I feel - despite its often seemingly non events or especially because of it – what I will call a poetic breath. Some times we are absorbed by what the images present and than the awareness of the artist and this apparatus called cinema reappears and with it the cognition that cinema is especially because its ability to create an artificial memory – cinema is desperate and heartbreaking resistance against death and caducity.

There is one unforgettable moment which is representative for the film´s spirit and the delicate style the film is made with. As much as the characters are absorbed by their world and their actions it does not mean they are always accepting their fate without reluctance. The scene , I want to refer is not only a foreshadowing of a tragic event, it is also a striking moment when these children are confronted with invisible and nameless borders. During the film Ishvaku has developed a strong bond with his deaf cousin Laali, a girl who is about the same age like him. They often stroll together through this stony and sparse landscape. One day Ishvaku is sent to school. The relatives decide that Laali shall go too. The school scene seems to be made in one long shot. The perspective is the one of the children who are sitting in front of the teacher, the board and the desk. The seemingly impassive camera evokes a strong sense of power and the little children bodies are exposed to the moody upright standing strict teacher. The view is bouncing to the wall with the board and the teacher and the wall. When the teacher learns of Laali´s deafness, he chases the two children away. The insulted children leave the school and the frame. The fact that the echo of their humiliation the insult of discrimination is left to our imagination. For a moment we remain in this picture looking at the children exposed to this teacher and the wall. For a moment the eyes are prisoners in this room. How the cruelty unfolds in this one moment is intense and afterwards a heartbreaking nearly traumatic moment.

We have seen Laali and Ishvaku discovering the endless world, now witness how they
bounce against meaningless man-made borders.
We gave seen them walking through ruins which are almost in the process to migrate into the landscape they are once built on. It is an image presenting fugacity of human cultures. It evokes a muted melancholy in me. Where it comes from, I can not tell. More and more cracks appear in this world.
The elder cousin who was supposed to be forced into an arranged marriage, has escaped. She resists and disappears. A woman is beaten. The world- or better - the world defined by men with its rules and its order unfolds its complex ambivalence.

Ashwatthama, this kaleidoscope of people , stories and landscapes appears to me as a miracle which does not really stop when the two hours film have ended. It continues to have an effect in my memory. Just the kind how characters are entering a frame and leaving it, stays with me. Sometimes the combination of image and sound widens the world, sometimes image and sound reveal its borders. The visible and the invisible can be experienced similarly. I have no idea which moves me more, the stylistic and daring consequence of this film or its incredible delicateness.
And it is one of theses films I have a hard time to let it go. And yes I have to remember again Walt Whitman´s imagined journey around the world in his poem Salut Au Monde.

Ashwatthama is sone of these cinematic miracles which refer to the great past of cinema but at the same time to its future. The film is still new and still on its journey through film festivals. From time to time, cinema needs a radical redefinition such as Ashwatthama to move forward.

There are these two precious gifts, Pushpendra Singh gave to cinema, the one is Lajwanti, the other is Ashwatthama. Now it is turn of what we call the public world of cinema to proof if it deserves these gifts. About one thing I am absolutely sure – I can´t imagine a near future of cinema without Pushpendra Singh.

Rüdiger Tomczak