Showing posts with label Shonali Bose. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shonali Bose. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Notes on Margarita With A Straw by Shonali Bose, India/USA: 2014

“I think the great artists (..) have always thought with the heart.” 
/Douglas Sirk)

Cinema is not only a kind of magic but it includes often as well a reference to this mighty apparatus where cinema is built with. I remember that I wrote more than 20 years ago on Hou Hsiao Hsiens masterpiece Hsimeng Rensheng, a bio pic on a famous Taiwanese puppeteer (The Puppetmaster, 1993) something like "that we are first absorbed by the performance and later we see exactly the hands who causes this magic.

Laila is since her birth disabled by cerebral palsy. As she can´t walk on her own she moves in an electric wheel chair, This device enables her to lead a social life, university shopping or meeting friends. It is almost like a dolly or a crane for the camera which enables us to participate in the this piece of the world revealed in this film. For approaching a certain standards in life quality, Laila is depending on these devices like wheel chair or a computer tablet with voice program. Like we move virtually through the space the film reveals, we do it like Laila with the help of technical devices.

If one read the synopsis of this kind of coming of age-drama about a disabled young woman, her desires, longings and losses one expect a lot of melodrama. Invited to New York for a fellowship in creative writing she fells in love with a lesbian girl Khanum who is of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. Back in her home town Delhi for summer vacation she has not only to deal with her new sexual identity but also confront them with her mother´s conservative attitude about love and life.
When I finally saw this film, I was astonished by the kind this dramatic story finally got flesh and blood in a very nonorthodox way. There two competing forces in this film. The first is the tendency of identification and to be absorbed in this story. It begins with the analogy of the movement of Laila´s wheel chair and the movements of the camera. But we are also very close to Laila´s every day life, her longing for love and last but not least to her very special humour. The other tendency is that the film seems to be resisting itself to drift into pure melodrama. And there is an analogy to this tendency in Laila´s reluctance to be seen through pity.

When Laila for example masturbates after watching a porn site in the Internet, she suddenly turns her back to us. This image motive when she turns the back to us happens several time in this film. In this moment it seems our presence as a voyeur is not welcomed at all.
Much later in the film Laila confesses to her girlfriend Khanum that she has betrayed her once with a British boy. There is as well a moment when both women turn their back ti us. Like so often in this film some even intimate secret the characters shares with us, others not.

As the film proceeds, we do not only witness that a lot of Laila´s longings and desires remain unfulfilled, our own desire to be absorbed by a melodramatic identification will fail sometimes too. The dynamic between the tendencies of identification and reflection is one of the film´s most striking aspects. The most dramatic event, the death of the Laila´s mother is almost Ozu-esque. The sound is reduced to an absolute minimum. We hear only the sound of the medicinal apparatus on which the life of Laila´s mother depends on. Than a sudden beep invades the silence and a doctors says: “Sorry, she has gone.” As the soundtrack is mostly composed of a lot of nuances creating an every day-like atmosphere and with a very emphatic music – in these moments it seems to disappear almost completely. That remembers me in the Japanese term Mu which means emptiness or nothingness.
A likely moment we have again in a scene of a confrontation between Laila and Khanum. After a heavy crosstalk, a moment of silence will follow.  The loneliness of the characters , occupied by their grieve or losses and this strange loneliness of the spectator come together in an uncanny way. 

I still remember Konkona Sen Sharma´s brilliant and almost minimalistic and nearly "Noh-like" performance in Shonali Bose´s debut film Amu. There was a metamorphism of Amu from an every day like drama into a tragedy caused by a concrete historic event. In Margarita with a Straw the film changes alway from every day like and seemingly event less story telling to drama and back, a rhythm which can be seen in the whole film. While Sen Sharma´s Amu becomes almost a prisoner of her own past like James Stewart in Hitchcoc´s Vertigo, Kalki Koechlin´s equally impressing performed Laila is in most parts of the film despite all her losses in control of her own life. She remains in the Here and Now. She does not always approach the happiness she is longing for but she is aware in the sense of Marcel Proust "about the reasons which prevent her from being happy".
Sen Sharma´s Amu has in the narrative strategy of this film the double function as the main character but also as the mediator between audience and the film´s fiction. This strong relation ship will vanish completely in this great last moment when disappears and the end of the film´s fiction is marked with a slow train which crossed the frame diagonal. In Margarita With A Straw, this other wonderful portrait of a woman the relationship between spectator and Kalki Koechlin´s Laila works different. When we often have the feeling she is just performing for us, she gets finally a life on her own. In some moments we see only her face with traces of tiredness and it is hard to say if this tiredness is performed or if it is it the real tiredness of Kalki Koechlin (who considered her role as physically very demanding). Shonali Boses´s film has often these touch points between the virtual universe of the film´s fiction and the reality beyond the film. These are evidences of a truthfulness of Bose´s films which is hard to describe but traceable in her films.

 At the end, Laila´s mother has passed away and her girlfriend Khanum has raturned to New York. The final moment of this film (even though much more cheerful than the famous endings of a film by Ozu) is a bittersweet variation of the Japanese term mono no aware. It is a conclusion of experiences like Tom Milne once defined the end of Ozu´s Tokyo monogatari.
At the hairdresser, Laila gets a phone call. Some friends invite her to see a movie. "I have a date", she says. We see her reflection in a mirror (like we often did in the film) and we will later learn that this date is finally a date with herself. Her father gives her a ride to a place where she will enjoy her beloved cocktail Margarita "with a straw". She smiles while enjoying her cocktail and blows a kiss to herself reflected in another mirror. For a moment this mirror frames her like a film image which is again framed in the whole aspect ratio of the film format.After having much struggled in this film with her disability, her journey finally leads her to a moment of accepting herself and finally the things like they are.
A cheerful but at the same moment very moving last moment which also includes the fleetingness of the things the whole film has told about. With this last smile we are finally gently dismissed from the film which was partly inspired by Shonali´Bose´s cousin and partly by the director´s  own experiences. 

The credits begin with the Rumi-quotation: “ The wound is the place where light enters you.” and a dedication to her late son who passed away under tragic circumstances.
Credits of a film this caesura between the end of the virtual reality of a film and the world we live in is for me often a very special moment. Soon the experience we made with this film will become a memory. It is also a moment of recapitulating the whole experience the film has offered and the emotions it has evoked in me. There is this magic aspect in cinema: A film can enchant you and they can be truthful as well. Margarita with A Straw is one of these miracles.

Rüdiger Tomczak


Another draft version of this text included a passage which suggested to define Margarita with a Straw as a kind of "Caméra Stylo", those definition of radical personal films which are filmed like written, a term which fits very different kind of films, documentaries, essay films but also narrative films. For now I discarded this chapter completely. But after watching the whole "Making Of"- bonus features on the Indian DVD I still think this could be another interesting aspect of this film. 
I also discarded a comparison from a more recent version of this text in which I compared the last smile of Kalki Koechlin with the smile of Sean Penn at the end of Terrence Malick´s  autobiographical inspired The Tree Of Life. This idea was a very strong feeling but probably better saved for an audiovisual essay than a text.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Amu, by Shonali Bose by Shonali Bose, India: 2004

The film deals with a repressed and dark chapter of Indian histroy in 1984, when the Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was killed by her Sikh-bodyguards. The incident provoked high politicians to use this for provoking a campaign against the Sikh minority in New Delhi that lead a terrible backlash. More than 5000 people were reported killed by the incited crowd. Their houses were burnt – even the houses of Hindus who wanted to protect their neighbors were not spared. 
In every image of Amu we feel concerned, which can´t be achieved in cinema just because of a collection of facts. Like in the films by Ritwik Ghatak or Cambodian Rithy Panh, this human concerns find its cinematic form in a natural way.
During the opening titles we hear sounds from an airport. And before the film begins it shows the machine-like character of cinema which allows us to travel through time and space and which creates a very special space for imagination.

Kaju is a young Indian woman grown up in the USA. After finishing her studies, she returns to her native country. She visits the family of her foster mother Keya who had emigrated with her to America when she was a little child. Her parents she is told died under an epidemic in a village. She tries now with the assistance of her video camera tracking places and things which shall help her to remember. She is received by this family in New Delhi like one of their own. But though, underneath it seems that she is a stranger She converses mostly in English with American accent and wears western clothes which obviously provoke attention.

At the beginning the film has a more episodic narration. Like Kaju we have just arrived and like her we try to get familiar with places and a lot of other strange impressions. Like Kaju, we see at the first sight banal things and places which do not tell us much. Slowly bit by bit it becomes obvious that Keya and her family try to keep her away from certain places. Kaju does not find the very place supposed to bring back her memories. The strange behavior of her foster family confirms her doubts and causes more questions in her than answers. Kaju´s image about her own biography opens cracks. The credibility of her own story is questioned more and more by herself. It is a little bit like the story of Madeleine in Hitchcock´s masterpiece Vertigo.
Kaja is attracted in a ghetto in New Delhi which seems strangely familiar to her with its small lanes and houses. While visiting this ghetto she wins the friendship of a family. Rather like in trance and following an impulse she slides gradually in the precipice of her past. Gradually and surprising, the films seems to turn into a tight net composed of images and signs in which every detail becomes important.
Wherever a film deals with memories, I have to recall the „beings of time“ by Marcel Proust of which human identities are composed. And these „beings of time“ begin to have a life. Of their own. With sudden violence they occupy Kajus consciousness with fragments of memories. We feel it through strong image,- and sound montages which come over Kaju like inner earthquakes. There is a sequence that seems like a rupture in the world and where we sense almost physical Kaju´s hidden pain: she looks at a railway passage where a noisy train passes by. In a film theatre on a big screen it appears like gigantic Laterna Magica. Behind the train we see an irritated and scared woman who looks for help. Kaju is irritated and almost dizzy from this vision. For now the rupture is closed but the world won´t be the same for Kaju as before.
The family story which began episodically turns now into a thriller-like intensity and at the same time it becomes a search for the truth like in Orson Welles Citizen Kane.
The time of doubting begins.
She learns that the epidemic under that her parents seem to have died is pure fiction. A track leads her to the 1984 riot against the Sikh minority in New Delhi. Her biography like it is told to her is a lie. Kaju and this film have to tell her story once again. And we like Kaju, who often believe blindly in stories told in films have to re-define our own place in this cinematic universe. What became of her parents? Where they victims or perpetrators?

There is the small idea of a love story between Kaju and Kabir, a son of a very powerful politician. But it brings little ease because of the involvement of Kabir´s father in the agenda of 1984. There are not only the flashbacks or verbally narrated memories that pitch Kaju more and more into the mental state of an irritated child. These different „beings of time“ are visible in the beginning. Kaju learns to believe that And Konkona Sen Sharma embodies in the truest meaning of the word her character Kaju. On a big screen this tiny young woman has an almost “Orson Welles-like” presence.
The film moves like a time machine backwards to the tragedy of 1984. When so much films dealing with grim subjects turns knotty – the director Shonali Bose is managing the delicate balance between consequence and sensibility with a purity of feelings. Even though her atitude is explicit, she does not give up her gentleness.

Finally, Kaju is told by her foster mother the real story of her early childhood. We see them sitting in a car behind the front window which frames Keya and Kaju and also isolate them from the world outside. The flashback begins with the very day of the pogrom. We hear noises from the street. And we see her father, her mother, her little brother and Kaju whose name was Amrit and whose pet name was Amu. Her family was part of the Sikh minority. The flashbacks of Keyas memories are punctuated by Kajus fragmental memories which are presented with emphasis. We realize the story and at the same time we witness Kaju´s emotional reactions and the kind she imagines traumatic details. There is the tiny girl who looks through a small window how the angry crowd is beating her father to death. But actually Kaju (and we) see only a mass of very hectic moving bodies. That is a moment which shows the horror of this event without any voyeuristic effect.
There is again the scared woman on the railway tracks whom we now recognize as Kaju´s mother. And we see also (what Keya tells but in which Kaju can´t remember) like policemen are just watching without interfering and how politicians are provoking from certain sistance the madness of the killing crowd. Their sentence „No Sikh shall survive,“ is one of the sentences which got deleted in the Indian theatrical version because of pressure of the censorship. The film returns often from the flashbacks to the car in which Keya and Kaju sit and where we see Kaju´s emotional reactions.

The revelation now reaches us. We are told that Kaju´ s family died and their story is almost forgotten in the public memory. The film does not tell how Kaju will continue her life with the knowledge of here real story. The time comes when we have to leave the fictive story and as well the character of Kaju whom we have so far accompanied. For me it has a tragic dimension. Since a very long time I haven´t seen a final scene which moved me like the end of Amu. At the station, Amu sits with Kabir on a bank. They are holding each other´shand. And at this very moment we get the idea of a more hopeful future for Kaju – the harmony is again disturbed . On television they report about a bomb assassination on a full packed train.
Again a seemingly religious motivated mass killing that makes the history of 1984 so alive to today. Slowly the camera moves over railways which are now shown from an extreme distance. We see some persons crossing the rails. I think having recognized Kaju and Kabir as well among them. Our close relationship to Kaju, built through the fiction doesn´t exist anymore. The fiction has disappeared now from the world in this film. Even though nothing happens which refers to the story – I am strangely moved like at the end of Hou Hsiao Hsien´s Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppetmaster) or Rithy Panh´s Neak Sre (The Rice field). And while music appears we read the dedication of Shonali Bose to the memory of her mother who lived from 1943 to 1986. It is a span of only 43 years. The letters which stay a while on the image have the appearance like a tombstone. And this image still remains. A long train passes heavy and in incredible slow pace diagonally shown through the image frame. After a seeming eternity the train finally leaves the frame. Then comes the black on which the end titles roll.
There are films which show their greatness just in the kind how we are introduced and dismissed. There are the sounds of landing aircrafts at the beginning and the train in the last image which frames 100 minutes of composed (Life) time.
This film has - of course - already raised attention because of its delicate subject. But this attention was achieved by Shonali Bose and her film "Amu" only through the possibilities of the cinema. In several ways, "Amu", the only new narrative masterpiece which was shown at the Berlinale 2005, is a piece of "re-searched time" ( Temps retrouvé).

Rüdiger Tomczak (first published in shomingeki No. 16, Summer 2005)