Friday, January 18, 2019

Notes on Once again, by Kanwal Sethi, India: 2018

In recent years, I often came across films which have either a limited release, no proper release at all or they are distributed soon as Video on demand. In the best case these films have limited theatrical release or at least some screenings before they are sacked by Netflix and Co. One of these films is Once again by Kanwal Sethi, a work which definitely should be seen on the big screen.
In recent years, I came across films which are strong enough to stand for themselves but which offer as well a vision or at least an idea of the greatness of cinema and its history. It does not mind in what part of the world they take place or in what part of the world they tell from.
Once again belongs to the films which reveal stories about ordinary people and reminded me in the stylized Japanese every day dramas like for example in the legendary masterpieces by Mikio Naruse or Yasujiro Ozu, the style remains at the first sight hidden behind a simplicity which suggests these films are almost made by themselves. When one begins to look a bit deeper, one can come to the conclusion that these films seemingly simplicity can also be seen as one of the highest cultivated aesthetic principle.

The synopsis of Once again could be told in one sentence. An aging Bollywood-star fells in love with a widowed restaurant owner. But to describe its formal fineness and all the different moods, feelings and ideas the film evokes is quite a different challenge.

A big part of the dialog are phone calls between two middle aged people the divorced actor Amar and the widow Tara. Sometimes we see them during their secret phone calls, sometimes the phone dialog appear as voice-over and independent from the action of the protagonists. Once again is also a “city film”, in this case it takes place in Mumbai and often at night. Old and modern buildings, crowded streets, shops, food,- and tea stalls suggest a place which has its own life without the film´s fiction but also without us as spectators. The fiction appears as very delicate and I often fear it will vanish in this microcosm Mumbai. But this fear increases my attention. The characters do not explain themselves only in words. One has to watch them and listen to their mostly very quiet conservations performed with an incredible stylized, almost Japanese slowness. But the attention will be rewarded by glimpses of beauty and poetry hidden in this seemingly sober constructed film. The wonders seem to grow amidst the sad and monotonous every day life of two middle aged and very lonely persons.
There are moments of high intensity. In one of these moments brings Tara, the restaurant owner like on many evenings food to Amar´s luxurious apartment. This time some colleagues of him are are there. He introduces Tara as the “woman who cooks for him”. After his clumsily lack of sensitivity we see a close up of Shefali Shah. In this shot reveals in seconds what Tara might feel. And again like in the films by Ozu, such small moments can have a mysterious emotional power.

Another moment is a dialog between Amar and his driver. When Amar learns that his driver is abandoned by his wife and children because of his time-consuming work, there is nothing more to say, Amar hugs his driver in a sudden mood of compassion.
A look to the seaside, seen from Amar s apartment: there is nothing idyllic in this glance. It seems as empty like an abandoned film set. The famous aging film star appears for this moment like the ghost he plays in one of his recent films.
When we see Tara telephoning with him, she is in her little bedroom, the last hideaway to safe a minimal privacy.

The “dramatic conflict” as suggested by the story unfolds when a paparazzi discovers Amar and Tara during one of their secret meetings at night and soon Tara´s whole family gets alarmed. Especially Tara´s son has no sympathy for his mother´s longings. It is a likely conflict we know from two different masterpieces which as well embody two different approaches: Douglas Sirk´s melodramatic All That Heaven Allows and Yasujiro Ozu´s Akibiyori (Late Autumn). Kanwal Sethi seems to tend strongly to the Ozu-option to defuse the dramatic effect and again to count on the spectator´s attention. Both options evoke feelings, but Ozu and Sethi´ s approach begin as a start on a very sober revealing of a woman´s place in a society under certain circumstances, the conflict of the individual longings and wishes and the obligations forced on them by their position in a society.
The expectations, the longings of people are often contrasted with the indifference of the city and their longings seems like a subversion against the heart,- and meaningless social rules.
Moments of magic do not come as guaranteed. One has to look for it in nuances and often only in a few seconds, a gesture or in an expression in a human face.

Once they meet at Amar´s apartment. He tries to declare his feelings for her. For a moment their hands are folding into one another. But when Amar´s expresses his doubts if he is ready at all for a relationship, their hands are separating from each other suddenly.
There are moments of happiness, the many secret excursions at night or when they attending a shadow play. But they remain fleeting and unforgettable at the same time as precious cinematic miracles.
As most of the scenes take place at night with mostly sparse light, the film itself seems frail and often under threat to disappear into darkness. The dialog between Amar and Tara have the same frailty. They mostly talk very quiet and slow and before, between and after they talk there is always the presence of silence.
But in all its accuracy, in all its formal clarity - the film never abandons the longings and dreams of its protagonists.
Once again, by Kanwal Sethi, a film of the 21th century is not only a fine unique piece of contemporary Indian cinema. It carries as well the wisdom of the long history of cinema in itself and even more – it reminds us once again how important cinema is for our contemporary world.

Rüdiger Tomczak

For reading the German version of my review on Once again, please click HERE.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Notes on The Song of Scorpions by Anup Singh, India: 2017

Ten years ago I had a talk with a Bengali film critic. When I praised Anup Singh´s Ritwik Ghatak-homage Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River), the critic answered that he (Singh) was not one of us:” That irritated me a lot, not only I consider his dreamlike poetic reflection on Ghatak as one of the finest homages one filmmaker dedicated to another, I felt uncomfortable with this arbitrary and easy use of “us” and who belongs to what etc. This memory came back to my mind when I saw last summer Anup Singh´s latest film The Song of Scorpions during a Film festival in Berlin with the strange name “Indo-German Film festival. In the discussion after the film, Singh explained his decision to cast the female main character with the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. He met her once during a festival and they had intense discussions about Singh´s previous film Qissa and as well about what it means being exiled from one´s country and culture (Farahani is exiled from Iran since 2012). Finally Farahani plays a woman from Rajastan. The often overused terms like home or identity are often fixed values in different civilizations. But they can be taken away from us very quickly. Singh described her character Nooran as “exiled from her house, her family and finally from her body”.
In the three films by Anup Singh (who was born in Tanzania) exile appears always in the complex meaning of this word. All his characters (as well in his poetic essayistic Ghatak Homage) are uprooted exiled and homeless. Irrfan Khans and Tilotama Shomes characters in Qissa or Irrfan Khans and Golshifteh Farahani´s characters in The Song of the Scorpions offer visible embodiments of what Kumar Shahani said once on Ritwik Ghatak that partition does not only mean a geographical partition but a partition which goes through body and soul of the people.

Singh called his new film as inspired by folk tales. This invites me to compare it with another great contemporary film which takes place in Rajastan and is also inspired by a folktale, Lajwanti by Pushpendra Singh. While Lajwanti presents an image of human civilization where the people are deeply rooted in their landscape and culture and what we call identity. The world in Lajwanti might be already an echo of a world which is already lost - but that is another field. The world in The Song of Scorpions is already introduced as a world in the process of going apart. If I am as a spectator in Lajwanti an invisible guest who can contemplate, in The Song of Scorpions I feel an uncanny and painful closeness to the cameleer Aadam (Irrfan Khan) and the young healer Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani and their disrooting from a world they once belonged to.
These two great films present two sides of cinema, the first reminds us that we are part of the world, part of our culture, of all we call home, the other film reminds us this certainty is not guaranteed. It is bit like we see first a film by Ozu and later a film by Ghatak.

There is for example the tradition of healing. Nooran is learning from her grandmother Zubaida (Waheeda Rehman) the art of healing. A sting of a scorpion can kill a person in 24 hours. These healer can safe lives when they literally sing the poison out of the body of the victims. But this tradition carried from one generation to the next is endangered. Nooran is not yet ready to replace Zubaida and the old woman herself is close to the end of her life. There is the threat that this circulation will be interrupted. I remember an intense glance of Waheeda Rehman the moment before she falls into sleep which is intense and at the same time a reminder of cinema as the art of presenting glances. The fact that is the last moment of her appearance in this film makes this moment the more unforgettable. This notion of disappearance and death stays with me.

Another narrative element is the relationship between Nooran and Aadam. There is no chance that a kind of love story can develop, just two lost souls who never should have met appear. One gets an idea of this disaffected relationship which will be confirmed much later through Aadam´s very cruel intrigue. Nooran is attacked and hurt by a friend of Aadam. The grandmother has already disappeared and might be dead. As the film proceeds Nooran agrees to be Aadam´s second wife (after she rejected him before) the tragedy unfolds.
When one of Aadam´ s children asks her to sing the song that heals a sting from a scorpion she answers, that she can not sing anymore because the poison is inside her.

A central visual motive in this film is the harsh contrast between darkness and light, night and day. At night one sees only fireplaces, vague silhouettes of people and sometimes reflections of traces of light in their eyes. It is a darkness almost as a night sky with far distant stars. During the day the sun burns merciless on people, animals and the desert landscape. In both extremes people appear as exposed and vulnerable.
The contrast between darkness and light presents also two extreme poles of cinema, the inspiration, imagination caused by things we can rather guess than notice. The other extreme is the burning sun during the day. It burns merciless on the faces of these actors. No detail can escape our attention. They are exposed and for a moment the thin layer of fiction is suspended behind a strong feeling for the physical presence of Golshifteh Farahani and Irrfan Khan. Cinema can not exist without light, but here light appears as well as an destructive power.
Near the end there are some close ups of the faces of Irrfan Khan and Golshifteh Farahani. It has an intensity which is only sensible on a big screen.These are faces of two lost souls in a failed relationship and a civilization which goes apart.
This fatal combination of human failure and the indifference of nature in this desrt landscape give the film an almost apocalyptical taste like the ending moments in films like Erich von Stroheim´s Greed or Ritwik Ghatak´s Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (The River Titash), moments which are literally burnt in my memory.

Nooran disappears at the end just like her Grandmother and more or less this film is as well a film about disappearance.
In a sentimental and blissful mood, I often consider Cinema as my true home but nevertheless a film like The Song of the Scorpions can remind us as well how fragile these terms home or identity are and that they can be taken from us without warning. There is a kind of cinema through which we approach at least an idea how to dwell in the world as strange or familiar it appears and there is a cinema in which we have to redefine our place in the world.

Rüdiger Tomczak