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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My favorite films of 2018

First of all, a lot of films in this list are from 2017. They are either released very late, limited released or not properly released at all.

1. Ashwatthama, by Pushpendra Singh, India: 2017

2.Sonata by Aparna Sen, India: 2017

3. 303 by Hans Weingartner, Germany: 2018

4. The Song of Scorpions by Anup Singh, India: 2017

5.Visages Vilages, Agnes Varda and JR

6.Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico: 2018

7.A Star is born, by Bradley Cooper, USA: 2018

8. Retablo, by Alvaro Delgado Apricio L, Peru: 2017

9. Gundermann, by Andreas Dresen, Germany: 2018

10. First Man, by Damien Chazelle, USA: 2018

11.Sekala Niskala, by Kamila Andini, Indonesia: 2017

12.Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig, USA: 2017

13.Königin von Niehndorf by Joya Thome, Germany: 2017

14-The Rider by Chloé Zhao, USA: 2017

15. Premieres Solitudes by Claire Simon, France: 2018

Respectfully mentioned:

Wind River by Taylor Sheridan, USA: 2017
The Post by Steven Spielberg, USA: 2017
Interchange by Brian W. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, Canada: 2018
The Florida Project by Sean Baker, USA: 2017
Tanikh by Churni Ganguly, India: 2018

Special Events:
the 70mm shows of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Memories of a paradisiac summer at the cinema - 303, by Hans Weingartner, Germany: 2018

(For the German Version, please click here )

These are things, that we discover when we walk through the world far from home: when we learn about other peoples live, we begin to see our own in another light.” (From the novel Go bridle the Storm, by Joan Aiken)


It was a strange intuition I followed when I saw the film the first time in one of the most beautiful film theatres in Berlin, The “International”. I have not expected that the film will mesmerize and move me like it did. And it occupies still my mind. I just had to watch it a second time.

The film is among so much else a Road Movie, those genre mixture which is not always easy to define. These films are often the journeys (the geographic and the mental ones) they show and tell about. First of all, they evoke in me memories of journeys I once made, like for example endless car rides with friends in France and Canada. At the same time those films have always to do with my love for cinema. Often there is a train, a bus, a car or like in 303 a camping bus which are metaphors for the devices cinema is made and finally projected with. Of course at the beginning there are at first the personal memories which are evoked in me. This happened at a time when both of the actors were not even born yet. The old camping vehicle is about 30 years old and it connects me with these young people who could have been my children.
This strange feeling of expectation before a long journey, the promises of freedom and countless opportunities came back to my mind and it made me during watching this film about 30 years younger. The film and it´s metaphors for the devices which made the film possible turned for me into a time machine – not only in that what the film presents in front of my eyes but also in that what it evokes in me.

There are a lot of dialogs in this film. Mr.Weingartner composed these dialog out of hours of video interviews he made with young people over years. This is well documented in several interviews with the director. The dialog are specified like a frame which never appear static. They do not occur artificial but like thought, felt and finally spoken by the actors. It is the same with the journey, which must have been planned and prepared as much as it is possible, unavoidable changes included. But here also, the effect is contrariwise. It seems that Mr. Weingartner has outlined some certain situations after that the film seems to move by itself:

  1. Jule is a biology student. She just failed an examen. She just learned also that she is pregnant for some weeks. She steps into the camping bus she inherited from her late brother and begins her long journey to Portugal to her boyfriend whom she will inform about her pregnancy.
  2. Jan is a student in political science and he finished his semester as well with some frustrations. Now he wants to go to Spain by bus or hitchhiking to get to know his biological father. After some unsuccessful tries to get means of transport he accidentally meets Jule on a resting place. She accepts him as a car passenger. But after a short while after a seemingly harmless conversation they argue separate for now from each other.
  3. The third narrative starting point (or if we want the third opening) takes place again at a resting place. He found already a place in a truck of a truck driver but has lost his mobile in Jule´s car. When he finds her camping bus, he knocks and just saves Jule in the last moment from being raped by an obtrusive stranger. From now on they continue to travel together. And exactly from this point on, the film seems to move by itself, without many twists and as reliable like the old camping bus. The story of Jule´s and Jan´s journey can now move like a quiet river.

303 reminds me sometimes in another great Road Movie from India, Aparna Sen´s Mr. And Mrs. Iyer. Both, Aparna Sen like Hans Weingartner cultivate a very playful and reflected use with traditions, rituals and conventions of Road Movies and develop very soon their own personal signature, which is by the way totally free of an anthology of quotations. Film history is never exploited in these films. It is like a very multi layered dialog of the films with the history of where they came from and the specific present it reflects and where it is finally made for and they deal about. That is the reason the films like Mr. And Mrs. Iyer and 303 appear despite their fictive narrations almost like living organisms. These film are accumulating their wisdom through experiences and not through an imposed cleverness. Like I mentioned – beside so much ideas and thoughts about the world covered by 303 – the film can be as well a subject for philosophizing about cinema.

The streets the camping bus is driving on is frequented untold times, the landscapes passing by are seen countless times. Almost each of us knows this special feeling during a long car ride. 303 achieves in some moments to to bring back this wonder which is stored in my memories. Landscapes places, cities, villages are concentrated to magical cinema moments and there are quite a few moments which turn me again into a wondering child. And quickly I reach a point where I follow the film with unconditional confidence.The film leaves me in this strange mood between being awake and dreaming. One is receptive for all the wonders the film is going to offer.

There are long conversations between Jule and Jan, (some of them very controversial) about the alienation caused by capitalism, the Human Condition from the dawn of men until today or about the mental and seemingly biological mechanisms of love. But sometimes they tell about themselves and fragment by fragment the mosaic of these young human lives is pieced together. The body language of these young people becomes more and more easy and relaxed. The spoken language and the nonverbal one is complementing each other. It is like eyes and ears are opening for the world, the world like it appears on the screen but which is also tangible beyond the borders of the film image. Some conversations are serious (and often shot in longer sequences), some of them are very playful and funny. But they are always authentic and there is not even a trace of an ironic distance. Just the aspect how the young actors Anton Spiekers and Mala Emdes characters are approaching each other belongs to the cinematic adventures of this film. And when the evening comes it is time for having dinner together and it is time again for telling each others stories from their lives. These moments have something native, they refer to the old need of people to tell stories about their experiences, about their lives. In 303 such moments almost appear as mythic moments which we know from the long history of cinema. Ordinary moments are often poetically compressed in this film. It seems they are turned already into memories of a lost paradise.

Sometimes the film interrupts these closeness between us and the film characters. These are small moments where the two protagonists are eluding themselves from us. Once we see them sitting on a bank from behind, another time again from behind when they stand on a rock and looking into the mountain landscape. They look at these landscapes like at an imaginary screen like I know from the films by Aparna Sen. In such moments they seem almost as anonymous like the other spectators sitting with us in a film theatre some rows in front of us. At the same time we have a strange feeling about their autonomous existence independent from us and the 145 minutes of the film. The charme and the freshness of 303 is obvious, But there are always moments which appear to me as poetic reflections about cinema.


A wonderful moment which seems to me very characteristic for the somnambulistic beauty of the film. It is the scene when Jule and Jan are visiting anywhere in Southern Europe a cave of the Cro-Magnon men in which prehistoric cave paintings are preserved. We remember that Jule often referred to the Cro-Magnon man in their discussions on the Human Condition. Now we gaze together with these young people the wonderful paintings. This is an incredible scene. Here the film presents what we experience together with the protagonists. They look with us at the origins of images, people made from their environment. The cave paintings become a screen into a screen. We see not only the young people contemplating this miracle, this moment becomes a pure miracle of cinema itself – and it will be unforgettable.

303 is also a film about a growing friendship between a man and a woman. There are, of course, moments of eroticism and amorousness but they remain options among others. These moments of amorousness and eroticism are fine scattered and sometimes they give only a slight idea of it. Another aspect which reminds me in Aparna Sen´s masterpiece. The exchange of glances between Mala Emde and Anton Spieker are very balanced. They never become objects neither of our gazes nor the gazes they give each other. It is often especially this “Boy meets Girl”-element which goes in films often and quickly out of balance. And sometimes Mala Emde´s performance reminds me in Konkona Sensharma´s one in Mr. And Mrs. Iyer. It is evident especially in these glances which are telling so much without words. And it is just another reason why I consider 303 as the most beautiful Road Movie since Aparna Sen´s film.

If the film were an hour longer, I would not have noticed it. And finally the only thing which is irritating me in this film is the simple fact that it has to end anytime. It is not necessary to reveal the end of the film. The only thing I can say, the film fulfills everything it promised in its first minutes. The whole film seems to mediate a peaceful coexistence between that what the film is about and that what it can evoke in us. Like I mentioned, 303 is a film about possibilities, possibilities in human relationships and possibilities to move and change oneself. And I can´t get rid of this strong feeling that the film shows very impressive what is still possible in cinema.

At all, this single pleasant memory of the summer 2018 will stay with me: the film 303 by the Austrian filmmaker Hans Weingartner.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

shomingeki will be released online.

Almost 6 years has gone by since the last print issue of my film magazine shomingeki was released, if I am not wrong it was August 2012 on the front page a still from Terrence Malick´s masterpiece The Tree of Life. After years of thinking how I will continue shomingeki, I finally came to the conclusion to replace the print issue by an online issue. A new web space is already rented. The text will be in German but if there are English version in existence they will mentioned in the Table of Contents.
The release date is end of May. I still wait for some texts, but latest May 28, the issue No 25 will released. The site shomingeki-online is already in the net but the contents are hidden until the release date. My other website and at least my English blog will continue to exist.

It is not that I closed the print publication of my magazine which was founded in 1995 without regets. I have grown up in the age of print issues and as long as I am alive I never will buy an e-reader and if I find an interesting text in the internet, I still have to print it out. But it is still a question of what can I afford and what not. The print issue became a luxury for me and despite a lot of generous donors, despite mostly very good receptions, it grew far above my financial options.

And it is not that I do not feel bad for some very loyal subscribers. I feel like apologizing to all of them.

As often as it was mentioned, shomingeki was never a special magazine for Japanese and Asian cinema. The fact I published a lot about films from these country has to do that the weight of masters like Ozu or Hou Hsiao Hsien in world cinema is beyond dispute. But I can hardly sell myself anymore as an “expert” of Asian cinema anymore. Just alone in my country there are people much younger than me with a far more profound knowledge about Asian cinema, a fact which I acknowledge with joy.

The online-version of shomingeki will be gratis and without ads unless there are films or projects which are worth to support. Print exemplars of old print issues are still available for the original price.

But I resist to continue shomingeki as if nothing has changed. In these six years I experimented a lot with blogs, I realized that an online version will be rather a new begin. The good thing is I do not have any idea about what shomingeki will be publish in the future. I am happy to say that my experiences with such different masters like Aparna Sen, Terrence Malick, Clint Eastwood, Anjan Dutt, Christopher Nolan, Bill Mousoulis, Anamika Bandopadhyay, Pushpendra Singh etc. Made my passion for cinema harder to predict than in most of the good old print issues. I learned in these 6 years that without an always refreshed curiosity and without trying encounters with films totally unfamiliar to me, the whole love affair can become very stiff and rather imposed than really felt.

I remember the day when I finally choose to continue shomingeki only as an online issue. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was happy to have finished this long years of agony concerning my film magazine and rewarded myself with attending a 70 mm-screening of Lawrence of Arabia in the wonderful new restored Zoo-Palast in Berlin. It was not only the glory of this format, it was as well after a long time I attended an analog film screening. And sometimes cinema is as well often about what we have lost or what we are in danger to loose.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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