Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Notes on A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, Germany/USA: 2019

For my Indian friends

I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by his secular ruler.”
(Franz Jägerstätter,Berlin, 1943)

This is Terrence Malick´s first film based on reliable historic sources which are not yet blurred by myth or insufficient past on written records. The is almost entirely made in English language. The film is about the tragedy of the Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who refuses to join Hitler´s army and who is imprisoned for that and executed in 1943.
There was a lot of talk about the role of the English language inn a film mostly cast with German speaking actors. Strangely the use of English in a film which was supposed to be entirely in German language did not irritate me as much as I expected. It even worked very well in the voice overs but one has to get a bit used to the dialogs. Only some background phrases are audible in German. But as soon as we get acquainted with this weird fact, we are open to the wonders the film will offer like they appear in each of his films from the last decade.

The often mentioned “beauty” of a film by Terrence Malick is often a painful reminder of the fleetingness of it. In this case, the beauty of the mountain landscape of an Austrian village with its seemingly intact social life collides already at the beginning with hints and images of terror and destruction.

The film begins with a memory of the couple Jägerstätter´s first encounter, the young love an excursion on the bike through a landscape of breathtaking beauty. To love and to be in the world in all its glory, these euphoric moments of happiness, only Malick can transform in unforgettable visual moments. Suddenly the flowing movement of the camera stops and the beauty of a beginning love is suspended by an excerpt of a propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl. Centered in the middle of this mighty cinema scope format and transparent as a quotation between the film´s narration, Malick does not use it without a comment or better without an “attitude” ( a quite unsatisfying English pendant of the German words “Einstellung” or “Haltung” about something.)The sound design of Malick´s film like the cinema scope-format over proportional to the academy aspect ratio of Riefenstahl´s film let literally Hitler´s hate speech drown. The fatal hate speech appears as a miserable hardly understandable croak. This moment alone is Malick´s formal very sophisticated pendant to Chaplin´s mocking of Hitler in his The Great Dictator. But it is also an example of Malick´s aesthetic system which works like sometimes an organic immune system.

That stands also for an aspect in Malick´s work which is often denied or ignored and it stands for the fact that it is pure nonsense to label Malicks films as “esoteric”. Malick´s view on human civilizations deals always with the contrast between the beauty that mankind is able to create but as well its ability for cruelty and destruction. That brings A Hidden Life close to The Thin Red Line where the cruelty and destructive power of war is confronted with an island of breathtaking beauty. It is like the beauty of the light in his most underrated masterpiece To The Wonder contrasts with images of desperate poverty and decay of America with the country´s beautiful landscapes. Malick presents the world in an extremely bright scale between happiness and deepest despair. Malick´s christianity (often mocked in much spiteful reviews) and whenever it appears is the most non dogmatic religious point of view one can imagine. And even more his religious aspect is in now way in conflict with this often overlooked realistic aspect of all his films. Sometimes, Malick´s images can be disturbing the audience like they probably disturbed himself too but this specific moments of beauty are not understandable for people who believe in nothing.

It is true with A Hidden Life, Malick leaves for now the terrain of his most personal and often playfully autobiographical inspired films from up to The Tree of Life. But it nevertheless correspondents with all his previous films. Valerie Pachners “Fani” Franziska adds another unforgettable female character to his work. As she reminds in all of his female characters from Sissy Spacec, Linda Manz, Q´Orianka Kilcher, Jessica Chastain or Olga Kurylenko, she is also the closest Malick character to René Falconetti in Dreyers La Passion de Jeanne d´Arc. That reminds us that A Hidden Life is not only “The passion of Franz Jägerstätter” but the “Passion of the couple Jägerstätter”. At all one could collect shots of human faces from all Malick´films and one had a variety of human faces as landscapes like in the films by Dreyer but as well like the heartbreaking vulnerability in the human faces in the films by Ritwik Ghatak.

The rollicking of the lovers or playing with their little daughters on the porch at the beginning are revealed with a freely moving camera almost freed of the law of gravitation. The closer the fatal signs of history are coming the more the camera seems to turn into a prisoner itself. The moment, Jägerstätter is imprisoned, the view of the camera is leaning towards a miserably trace of light from the window like a desperate captured child or a captured animal. Even Fani lives from now on like a prisoner in her own village . Outlawed by most of the villagers who call her husband a traitor the mundane walks through the village become a running the gauntlet.
Hitler´s fascism did invade and conquer other countries but also poisoned his own country from inside. Seemingly casually, A Hidden Life is full of very wise observations about fascism and its impact on every day life.

There is one pan shot through a cathedral, a breathtaking movement which captures centuries of art and architecture. These cinematic admiration is again a contrast of news reel excerpts of the invaded and bombed cities the Nazis just conquered. As Jägerstätter looks for consultation from authorities of the church and when he tells them that he can´t support Hitler because he is evil, a bishop tells him “one has a duty to the own country because the church told you so.” (Very late, in 2007,Franz Jägerstätter got his beatification, more than 60 years after his execution).
Here also Malick distinguishes religious faith and it´s distortion, in this case of the institution church (which gave in the enormous pressure the Nazi-Regime put on the church) He did it also in The New World when British conquerors occupied the new world “in the name of God”. And he also distinguished between the two man made concepts of God in The Tree of Life, the angry god of the old testament who is to be feared and the other concept of God as eternal love and forgiveness in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. O` Brian.

The scenes when Jägerstätter is imprisoned and Fani outlawed by the villagers belong to the darkest moments in Malick´s work.
Even though there is no excessive display of violence, the moments when Jägerstätter is tortured and mocked by the prison guards are often hard to bear. They remind him cynically that his faith , his decision does not cause any effect at all. Separated from his family, his martyrdom is a very lonely one. Even if we already know that Jägerstätter´s death is a historic fact like we know already about Pocahontas in The New World or about the death of the younger brother in The Tree of Life, the emotional intensity of this scene is almost to big for my little soul.
The camera movements, especially this rollicking in landscapes without borders is suspended in Jägerstätter´s small prison cell and reduced on small pan shots and this point of view seems to me like the one of awed and captured children.
We see a man who is going to die literally what Jean Cocteau means with “watching the work of the death”. But the closer the film moves to Jägerstätter´s execution the more the narration splits in these claustrophobic prison scenes and fragmented flashbacks of lost times of happiness. They try to resist against the inevitable death.
Since Malick´s comeback 1998, his aesthetic system and all the moods and emotion it evokes appear as organic - despite or probably because his use of the most recent film technology. Since his collaboration with Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, Malick cultivated a kind of cinematic dances between camera and acteurs, a very specific element of his recent films – and which is completely and congenial continued by Jörg Widmer, Malick´s new director of photography. It is evident in this rare and strange accordance between the image making technology and the performance of actors. Usually there is a lot of space and freedom for actors and camera. It is very striking that the suspended freedom of moving actors and camera in the prison scenes gives A Hidden Life for moments a nightmarish atmosphere. The camera, the protagonists and our own view is captured in it´s rollicking around suspended.

When Fani is allowed to visit Franz the first and last time, they sit on a table face to face. Touches and hugs are not allowed. When they try to hug each other for a last time, they are violently separated. Touches, physical signs of affection, essential in a film by Malick whose god is pure love, is suppressed. The last hour of the film is literally a tour de force between heaven and hell, a fight between hope and desperation.
As the film is by its subject more bound to linearity than other filmy by the director there is a special dynamic between more grounded elements and a camera which tries always free itself. Malick uses a lot of original letters between Fani and Franz Jägerstätter, mostly spoken in voice overs by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner. That creates this dynamic between a historical drama and a poem about an almost forgotten martyr.

After 3 hours the end credits begin with a quotation by George Eliot: The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
So ends the film, for my side one of the most emotionally exhausting cinematic requiem since The Tree of Life. But it is as well the end Malick´s most important decade of film making, the last film of a breathtaking series of 6 masterpieces in only 8 years. It is not only another example of his exquisite meditations about faith and religion, but it is as well one of the wisest meditations about fascism and its fatal impact on ordinary lives. Terrence Malick´s A Hidden Life is in good company with another masterpiece from 2019, Aparna Sen´s Tagore adaptation Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World today) which is like Malick´s film a very rare symbiosis of a political comment and formal cinematic excellence.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Notes on Aami ashbo Phirey (Coming back), by Anjan Dutt, India: 2018

Sometimes we know, sometimes we don't

Sometimes we give, sometimes we won't

Sometimes we're strong, sometimes we're wrong

Sometimes we cry.

(Sometimes we cry by Van Morrison)

The three film directors whose films occupied my mind most in this decade are Terrence Malick, Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt. The films by Anjan Dutt or Aparna Sen are not available in my country, not to mention on the big screen and since some years even difficult or impossible to find even as an Indian DVD-release.
Aami ashbo Phirey, one of the most recent films by Anjan Dutt, I could see at my Bengali friends home in Idaho at Amazon Prime (available only for British, Indians and Americans). Ironically, the fact that the films by Aparna Sen or Anjan Dutt are nearly unavailable in Germany and to watch them on the big screen remains a dream – I always feel a strong awareness that they are made for the big screen and I always like to imagine them in a full packed theatre. This is a very strong feeling like a longing for a home for these films which had such an impact on me.

Aami ashbo phirey is one of Anjan Dutt´s more experimental films especially with the narrative form but it has the same intensity like his Dutta Vs Dutta.
I remember last year during my last passage to India when Anjan Dutt told me about his film and its synopsis and I even saw some excerpts which made me want to see the whole film. One years later, when I saw it finally in Idaho, it appeared to me as a kaleidoscope of different human stories interwoven with 7 songs composed by Neel Dutt and with lyrics by Anjan Dutt.

During watching this film and now when I remember this film, the songs are like an echo of this wonderful experience I had. I listened them often and used them like a key to reconstruct the mood I was in when I saw the film.

First of all, Aami ashbo Phirey is with his Hamlet-adaptation Hemanta, Dutt´s most melancholic film and surprisingly with little humour. Despite the thing Aparna Sen calls “Bengaliness” like others mentioned about Ozu the “Japaneseness” or the typical French gestures in the films by Jean Renoir, I felt a deep empathy with the characters. Sometimes I even had the strange sensation of a very personal film experience. And also there was this strange confidence in this film that made me giving in because all what I am even my vulnerability is with this film in good hands. It was a strange “Coming home” for me to all what I love in cinema. With these films, it is bit like with one of my favorite songs, Madame George by Van Morrison, I listen for more than 40 years in so much different times of my life that it almost became “my” song.

Anjan Dutts films often begin with endangered families or family like constellations and the endangerment can come from inside or outside. In any case familiar or family-like security is in the process to vanish. And there are often young people who struggle to try - despite the lack of security - to find their place in the world, if the young Anglo-Indian in Bow Barracks Forever, the young singer in Ranjana Amir Ashbo na or the young Rono in his autobiographical inspired Dutta Vs. Dutta. In Aami ashbo Phirey there are even several young persons struggling. For example the girl Ranjana who is traumatized after she was raped by a young man. But almost each character in this film appears as vulnerable and their life is on the edges. The disintegration of social security is tightened like in no other film by Anjan Dutt. These moments, often dialogs between arguing people causes a strange feeling of discomfort and it often reminds us in our own uneasiness while confronted with the world as a single individual. For a big part of the film we are very close to these lonely and often desperate characters.
As Aami ashbo Phirey is a kaleidoscope of so much different human feelings and moods, often visible in facial expressions and gestures of the whole excellent ensemble of actors. The stories always connected with certain characters are both, very concrete, sometimes very heartbreaking but at the same time the narrative style is an accomplishment of cinematic abstraction. There is often a subliminal connection between the characters and sometimes even a dialog between different lifetimes. The narrative style is very brave and it avoids focusing on only a few characters. It is among other things as well an ensemble film with a huge number of main characters.

A try to find my own orientation in this network of stories:
Rono is a failed musician. His son is in prison because he raped a young woman.
Ranjana, the victim is traumatized. She is refusing to leave her home.
Her lawyer , an ambitioned woman wants to win the case but she is stuck because Ranjana refuses to appear at the court. Her depressive daughter has a relationship with an elder man.
Rono´s divorced wife has a relationship with another man. She often argues with Rono about who is to blame for the son´s crime, who failed as a parent.
A young musician and his band who rented a room in Rono´s house for rehearsals is close to be thrown out by Rono.
A narrative twist changes radically the level of the film. Rono makes a deal with the young musician. After he found in a box from his imprisoned son some written songs, he frees the musician from rent arrears when he records these songs. He finally distributes the songs to the different characters of the film and these songs cause different impacts on each character. These songs circle through the episodic narration like the earrings in Max Ophül"s Madame de...
Of course between this very rough sketch of the film´s narration there are other stories, for example the mother of Rono´s ex wife who gets a stroke and dies later in the film. The narrative structure is much tighter than it seems.

For now and at the first sight, all characters appear like prisoners of their grieve, loss, fear , failure or guilt. Dutt reveals this with very intense chamber scenes which bring together the intensity of the moments in Dutta Vs Dutta which have as well a tendency to minimalism like in his Hemanta which actually translated Shakespeare´s Hamlet almost into a chamber piece.
Near the opening there is one of these arguments between Rono and his ex wife about their failure as parents. Anjan Dutt as Rono acts in front of a blueish empty wall. The dynamic of his acting is strangely running idle, his character seems dithering in front of a nightmarish empty stage. It left a strong visual impression on me like it is burnt in my memory.
Other chamber scenes evoke a strange feeling for the vanishing of light. Rono again arguing with his ex wife:.The shutter of the window is closed but a small shine of street light from the nocturnal Kolkata is visible. Another small lamp is on but the light seems to loose its fight against the darkness.
In several moments, Aami ashbo Phirey has the darkness of Ozu´s nightmarish bleak but masterfulTokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight). Among the many moments which leaves us in a mood of heavy melancholy there are two shots taking place in bathrooms. Rono under the shower, extremely sad, I think he is even crying and in another shot we see the traumatized Ranjana under the shower but still dressed. These two little moments in one of the most intimate rooms we can imagine are as well quite precise images for a vulnerability the film evokes in us for the characters but as well for ourselves. If Rono retrieves himself under the shower from all his trouble, for Ranjana even the shower is not a hide way for her troubled soul and abused body.

The fact that the film is full of different currents and counter currents is evident in its changes of moods. One secret of the enormous richness of the film are the seven songs which were written and composed before the screenplay was written. They finally keep the promise of the Bob Marley quotation from the beginning: “Music when it hits you you feel no pain.”
Despite Anjan and Neel Dutt are passionate musicians, the songs are in Dutt´s films always included with most accuracy and economical. The songs change the whole chemistry of the film. They do not just reveal certain moods and feelings already evoked through the images, they sometimes paraphrase it, sometimes sad, sometimes slightly jaunty, but first of all they change our vision of the film. The songs punctuate the dominating sadness of the film with moments - if not happiness – than at least slight moments hope. The mood I compared with Ozu´s darkest film is for moments suspended. The songs do not really relativize the melancholy of this film but they open the the door for a different perception, an option of another look at life like, that includes the life as it is revealed in the film.
The songs do not seem to appear for a certain wanted effect but rather like an unexpected miracle.
The song texts like translated in the subtitles and as far as I was able to write them down are about hope after nightmares and often comforting. During , if I am not mistaken, the first song we see Rono alone walking through the city, as sad and lost like the jew Cohen in Aparna Sen´s Mr. And Mrs. Iyer. But the song actually is a slight counter current of the lostness. Another song, an elegy is about “an afternoon where the birds do not sing anymore” or about someone “who does not see the dawn anymore”. There is also a song about loneliness but it is not just an emphasis of the loneliness of the characters but an abstraction, poetry formed out of human feelings. Another song compares life with cigarettes, a rather light song but which actually later evokes a strong feeling for mortality. The feeling for mortality is always a shock especially in a medium like film which embalms a piece of time in the sense of André Bazin for the eternity. I think the song appears around the scene when an old woman dies. As the song reminds us that “we all have to die one day” it implied the strange dynamic of the film between very rough and naked emotions and poetic abstraction. The songs finally help the film through its movements between two aspects of film, the realism the mirror of our social life and the poetry, an imaged of the world but also how one can sing about the world. The songs and how they are integrated into in the fiction of Aami ashbo Phirey are from a dysfunctional person (the film leaves no doubt that the young man will stay in prison for a long time) and probably they are the only things he has to give to the world. At the end of the film, a short epilogue tells about the stories of the characters continue. Some of them are going on with their life, others disappear without a trace.

Aami ashbo Phirey is a film about pain and grieve which we can´t watch from a safe place or as a voyeur without being affected. But it is also great cinema between the recognition of what we call world and poetic abstraction, between action and contemplation.

This is a film which has a long “second life” in my memory long after I have watched it. Sometimes I recall some of these different moods and emotions the film evoked in my, sometimes I listen to the songs which sometimes seem like a secret code to open doors to other memories of this film.
It is a film which disappeared too fast from the public memory of the film world. That is a sad thing with so much films I care for. But that films like Dutta Vs. Dutta or Aami Ashbo Phirey (which has not even a DVD release) disappeared almost without any international festival screenings is a tragedy. While I am able to watch Dutta VS Dutta as often on DVD like I want, this, my other favorite film by Anjan Dutt Aami ashbo Phirey I have to entrust the film to my fallible organic memory. I already miss watching this film.

Rüdiger Tomczak

 I saw as well last year in Idaho his most recent film, Finally Bhalobasha from 2019, another film I would like to watch again and film about that I am sure which will grow after watching it again. This film and his Hemanta, an adaptation from Hamlet are available at the streaming channel hoichoi. It would be interesting to compare Hemanta with the American TV series Sons of Anarchy which is also based on Shakespeare´s drama and which also focuses like Anjan Dutt´s film on the destruction causes by revenge. But compared with the TV show, Anjan Dutt created almost a chamber piece which concentrates the intensity of the several seasons long TV series into less then 150 film minutes. I have seen Hemanta only once and without subtitles, but it left a strong impression on me.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorite Films of 2019

5-Ami O Manohar, Amitabha Chatterjee, India: 2018

9-Ad Astra, James Gray, USA: 2019

12.Jianghu ermu (Ash is the purest White),  Jia Zhangke, China: 2018

13-Und der Zukunft zugewandt, Bernd Böhlich, Germany: 2018

14-Finally Bhalabosha, Anjan Dutt, India: 2019

15-The Irishman, Martin Scorsese, USA: 2019

Special Mentions:
The Mule, Clint Eastwood, USA: 2018
Der Funktionär, Andreas Goldstein, Germany: 2018
En Guerre, Stéphane Brizé, France: 2018
Mjin Bijzonder Rare Week met Tess (My wonderful week with Tess), Steven Wouterlood, Niederlande: 2019
Systemsprenger, Nora Fingscheidt, Germany: 2019
Joker, Todd Phillips, USA: 2019

special events in 2019.
(the restored version of an almost forgotten masterpiece)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Notes on Mayurakshi, by Atanu Ghosh, India: 2017

At the first sight, Mayurakshi appears to me as a very sober film. But finally as the film proceeds, the surface, the first impression competes with the thoughts and emotion the film will evoke. One of the basic abilities of cinema is to confront us with the material reality of our world (in this case as well the time we live in) it can mesmerize, move or scare us not so much in what its images present but in what they evoke in us. These emotions of grief, sorrow or fear are often feelings often hidden in our every day routine.

The narration of Mayurakshi (even though we know that every narration in a fiction film is modified, invented or sometimes even forced) does not appear as a told story but as a story which literally arise from certain defined situations. Aryanil is a middle aged man who arrives in Kolkata from Chicago where he lives and works. He returns to his native city for a few days to visit his old father Sushovan. Sushovan, once a brilliant professor for history, is now suffering under a beginning dementia and other symptoms of mental and physical decay typically for his age..
Aryanil is already divorced twice and has a teenage son who studies abroad. If he is not with his old and fragile father he spends some time with his cousin or a Sahana, a woman of his age, who is a close friend since childhood.

At the beginning the film deals a lot with the measurable things of our modern time, airports, cars, the accurate book keeping recorded in the computer by the house keeper,, the precise technology of the medical instruments which analyze the physical condition of Sushovan and finally the precision of the filmmaker´s instruments for creating images and sounds itself are slightly tangible. A counter current of this very sober and rational aspect arises from Aryanil´s unsteadiness, his doubts, his failures and finally his helplessness towards the decay of his father. There is the wealth and the order of a middle class household on the surface and the small hardly perceptible ruptures underneath.

The film does not only present images of people things and places in the here and now but also memories of lives and stories which are going to disappear from human memories which depend on mortal bodies. And these human memories are depending on a living and mortal human body.
As the film proceeds beside the presentation of the characters lives, there are slight shadows, ideas how their life could have been otherwise if they had made different decisions. Aryanil, alienated and disconnected with his native city and whose life is stagnating is confronted with both: his failures but as well with the chances, the options he missed or abandoned.

There is a small, but unforgettable moment. Aryanil spends an afternoon with his childhood friend Sahana. They are in the (her?) bedroom and share a cigarette. There is a deep intimacy between them but without any obvious erotic attraction. He rests with his head on her lap and dozes off. When she asks him:”Did you just fall asleep”, she sounds rather slightly irritated than shocked. In a few seconds this scene reveals both: a closeness between them in every day activities but also (whatever they went through in their history and if there was once a kind of amorousness between them or not) the certainty that they will never be a couple.
From now on the seeming soberness of the film will be undercut by fragments of longings, emotions of grief and losses. If they are hidden in this film or evoked in me or both, I do not know.

Another example is Soumitra Chatterjee´s performance as Sushovan. One can feel both while watching the performance of this great actor who is almost something like a living legend: the professional virtuosity of an actor with more than 50 years acting experience but as well (and what his performance evokes in me), a heartbreaking embodiment of an old man at the end of his life who faces decay and loneliness. How Chatterjee felt playing a character of about his own age, I do not know.

Like phantom images behind the visible images presented in this film, a different film more rich and more moving arises as mysterious like the formation of organic life out of dead matter.

Mayurakshi the film title refers to a woman who was once (if I am not mistaken) a student of Sushovan. The history professor was very fond of her and dreamt of marrying her with his son Aryanil who refused this proposal. Sushovan´s wish to see her again urges Aryanil to look for her. When he finds a very close track to her whereabouts, he finally abandons his search and tells his father a macabre lie. Mayurakshi soon will disappear with Sushovan´s decay and inevitable death like this manifestation of a dear childhood memory embodied by the sled called Rosebud in Orson Welles´ Citizen Kane. This chapter of the film is almost as sad as when we see someone dying and there is nothing we can do about.

The film ends like it began, at the aiport, one of the most sober, impersonal and anonym places I can imagine. Of all the things, the strongest emotion displayed in this film takes place here: Suddenly while waiting for the return flight, Aryanil begins to cry, a sudden emotion where he has no control over it anymore. Another passenger asks him if he is alright but soon he goes back to his seat and again the whole airport is an anonymous place and Aryanil´s loneliness and forlornness seems even increasing.
Through the windows of the plane we see a beautiful light which breaks its way through heavy clouds. Aryanil is now only a passenger amongst other and with him we leave the fictive world of this film.

The film has as well a very unique soundtrack. Sounds (like the obligatory street sound from an Indian big city) and the music are subdued and restraint like the very economic display of emotion and drama. Prasenjit Chatterjee, Indrani Haldar and most of the other actors remind me in their acting rather in the more minimalistic performances in the films by Ozu, Dreyer of Hou Hsiao Hsien.
But when I watched the film a second time, it was of all things especially this suppression of emotion and drama that evoked so much melancholy in me.

At the end, Aryanil does after the events of his short but intense journey the same what we do after just having watched an intense film which appears in my memory much less sober like at my first impressions. He reflects about his experiences in his native city which is not his home anymore and what they evoked in him. Like us he just begins to deal with the emotional impact this journey had on him, this film had on us.

Mayurakshi by Atanu Ghosh is not only another impressing example of the shamefully neglected world of Indian cinema outside of Bollywood, it proofs once more that India belongs to the most sophisticated film countries of our time.
My journey with Indian contemporary cinema began 14 years ago when I discovered for myself the wonderful films by Aparna Sen and there is no end of this journey in sight. Mayurakshi is as well another example how much we can learn from Indian cinema about the meaning of cinema but as well why a future without cinema is impossible.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Notes on Kia and Cosmos, by Sudipto Roy, India: 2018


It became for me a little tradition each year to watch a film at this strangely named “Indo-German” Film festival in Berlin. It began with Konkona Sensharma´s highly praised first long film A Death in the Gunj and one year later I saw Anup Singh´s The Song of Scorpions, films which are difficult to find on the big screen of my city. This year it was Sudipto Roy´s first long film Kia and Cosmos.

The title suggest a double meaning, first it is about the 15 years old autistic girl Kia who investigates the murder of a pregnant cat from her neighbourhood but it is also about Kia and her cosmos. Her cosmos that is the concrete city landscape of her neighbourhood in Kolkata but also her imagination, her passion for mathematics, writing stories or reading the detective novels about Feluda and Byomkesh, these two most popular detective characters among Bengali readers.
Her social cosmos is her single mother (separated from her husband), her teacher Souvik and the young rickshaw driver Rabi. Rabi picks her up every day for school and backwards. Her every day life follows always recurrent routines, like school or the quarrels with her always stressed mother Dia. But part of her cosmos are as well the streets and small alleys of her environment which we see often through her eyes. These alleys, streets or backyards are more colorful than in my memory. Under the influence of the street lightning it appears as a mystic place of dreamlike beauty, the ideal background for the murder mystery novels Kia loves so much.

Roy sometimes uses subjective shots in which we follow Kia´s movements, moments in which we see how Kia sees the world. In other moments the subjective perspective is replaced by long, hardly moved shots when she is alone in her room, with her teacher or her mother. Especially the shots when she is quarrelling with her mother, who is often overstrained, are very long, very intense and they often leave the bitter aftertaste of alienation and the lack of communication which reminds me in the films by John Cassavetes. That is sometimes emphasized through the spatial distance between the characters through the mighty cinema scope format.

These moments of a sober naturalism which puts the confidence in the precise and seismographic ability of the cinematic apparatus is contrasted by these moments of imagination when for example Kia is making with Rabi a forbidden excursion through the nightly city. These are dreamy moments which strangely evoke in me the imagined city landscapes in the animation films by Hayao Miyazaki which are inspired by real architecture but recreated into a mystic dreamlike landscape.

The relationship between the subjective moved shots and the long almost static ones from a rather objective point of view reveal the movement between Kia´s difficulty to communicate with her social environment or define her place in the world – or if we want- in her “cosmos”. But it also reveals the energy she needs for managing her life and the imagination that gives her the strength to live.
The film does not even comes near any conventional sentimentality or pity-provoking dramas about handicapped people. Roy´s playful and versatile visual style makes both equally present: Kia´s suffering but as well her strength to live.

In all its playfulness poetry and dreaminess, the cinematic richness this film is offering, bases as well on hard and very grounded work. One of these foundation from which the film unfolds its glory, is the performance of Ritwika Pal, which reveals all colors of human feelings and moods like a kaleidoscope.
The body language, the lack of a proper verbal or non-verbal communication the hyperactivity and even slight primary troubles must have been accurately researched. Even Kia´s obsessive behaviour in her every day actions look of amazing authenticity. It is one of these indescribable moments when it is hard to distinguish the poetry and imagination an actor evokes and the sense for the physical work of acting which causes this. traces of exhaustion in Pal´s face which could be the exhaustion of the character´s or the actress herself. Her performance reminds me in some glorious performances by Konkona Sensharma or Kalki Koechlins acting in Margarita with a Straw by Shonali Bose – and sometimes as well in the young Robert de Niro.

Finally, Kia leaves her “cosmos” for a while. With the stolen credit card of her mother she makes the long journey to the far distant city Kalimpong to look for her father. Her father, a dreamer and activist of a movement (which is only vaguely described) has left her mother. Kia finds out the reasons why her parents had separated themselves from each other. From a murder mystery and Coming of Age-drama, the film reveals now a family drama. On her journey by train, the young girl occurs as lost and vulnerable but as well admirable for her courage to confront herself with the truth about her dysfunctional family. She describes the encounter with her father “as a journey to a far distant star “and the mother “as the power which will bring her back to earth”. That sounds as well like a beautiful description of the two big movements of the film which complement each other. .When she looks down to the panorama of the city Kalimpong, the lights look like a cluster of stars in space. Kia explores the unknown parts of her cosmos. Like most of all great films with a strong “Coming of Age”-element, Kia and Cosmos ends with a question. Kia has to choose how she continues with her life how to go on with the search for her place in the world.

In a perfect world, this film would run in the good old repertoire,- or art house cinemas (as far as they are still in existence in India and elsewhere else). In India and some other countries (USA or Germany not yet included) Kia and Cosmos is available at Netflix. Now, I really understand how lucky I was to have watched Sudipto Roy´s wonderful film on the big screen where it belongs. My persistent effort to explore Indian cinema outside the merciless commercial Indian film industry was rewarded once again with another hidden gem.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Notes on Ahaa Re (The Two Lovers) by Ranjan Ghosh, India: 2019

At the beginning, a boat is floating on a mighty river. Except a young couple, no one else is visible. It is the head chief Raja and his fiancée Shahida. They argue about how to coordinate their professional with their love life. Shahida went to Paris for professional reasons, Raja will now go to Kolkata for working in a restaurant. Both are from Bangladesh. It seems the spectator is on this boat on a sightseeing tour but suddenly distracted by this arguing couple. This is not only an introduction in the film´s story but as well into an idea about cinema. The boat and the couple is embedded in this mighty river landscape like this piece of fiction is embedded in the reality far beyond the film. From the first moment on, Ahaa Re is not only a film about relationships between family members, lovers or colleagues, it is as well a film about the relationship between the framed fictionalized piece of world and an idea of an equally present reality beyond it, outside of the frame and outside of fiction. If each shot is decision, it is here as well in contact with the whole world.

At the first sight, Ahaa Ree appears as a soft comedy about family and love relations and about the art of cooking, the sensual pleasure of food. But behind the more obvious themes, the film also reflects always about work. In this case it is not only about preparing dishes but picking up fresh ingredients from the market and always checking out new nuances of taste. And the work of cooking appears to me as well as a metaphor for film making. As the film often reveals working hands which select and compose it gives also a hint about the film as a result of searching and selecting itself. The film is not only about food but as well about very different kinds of persons and how they define their place in the world, their attitude about the world and from very different perspectives. It is also for example about perceptions of the world of a Muslim from Bangladesh and a Hindu widow from Kolkata.

As the story begins to be more branched, Raja meets Basundhara, a Hindu widow who runs the catering service of her father in law. Raja who begins to be interested in her makes friends with her brother and father in law. Basundhara does not talk much in this film. For a long time, all tries of Raja to propose her remain unanswered by her. Even though all other persons talk a lot about themselves, the film remains very economic with expressed emotions and therefore emotions are rather optional than directly revealed for most of the time.

Another example for Ranjan Ghosh´s dealing with fiction and reality are the moments when Raja alone, with Basundhara or with her father in law visits the market places for picking up fresh ingredients for his kitchen. It is like in the opening scene when the narrative and stylistic decisions visible in the frame stand in a context to a reality which is nearly untouched by the film´s fiction. It is like an open door where one can walk between these two dimensions, the things the film is focusing on and the perceptible world outside the frame. This enriches the film by a fresh breeze, a seeming lightness which reminds me in the films by Eric Rohmer, Yasujiro Ozu or Rudolf Thome.

Bashundara´s father in law watches the night sky and is rambling about the birth and the dead of the stars. It is again one of these moments, when the narration of the film pauses for a moment with a rather reflective moment and not only the characters but also the film seems to reflect about itself.

Rituparna Sengupta´s Basundhara is another example for the versatile options the film is offering. For a long time she hides her emotions behind a facial expression between fathomless melancholy and stoicism. For most of the time Sengupta acts restrained a bit like Shefali Shah in Kanwal Sethi´s Once again. But nearly the end of the film when her tragic story is revealed she has a fierce and unexpected emotional release. It is like a meteor strike on the quiet and sorted suface of this film. It also evokes in me memories in the incredible scenes of regrets and sadness of Setsuko Hara in Ozu´s Tokyo Monogatari and Supriya Choudhury in Ghatak´s Meghe Dhaka Tara.

There is a moment when Raja is watching at the window in his fancy apartment. At first the window emphasizes the natural limitation of cinema by the frame of the image. Later the whole screen shows the greyish clouded sky over Kolkata. And again the film has opened it´s door from it´s fiction to the universe of what it is a part of.
In another moment the house of Basundhara´s father in law is ridden by a heavy thunderstorm. The windows are still open and the house is totally exposed to this force of nature. For this short moment, human culture often evident in this film by apartments and living rooms becomes vulnerable.

The nearest thing which comes to my mind to describe the impact the film has on me, is a strolling through the paths, the rooms and places, the human landscapes the film reveals or through the versatile cinematic ideas, the film is offering.
The paths in the films are fixed but we are free to move and it is on us how we look around or how we explore the cinematic options the film has offered.
Ahaa Re by Ranjan Ghosh is another example for the vibrancy of contemporary Indian cinema outside the more and more commercialized film industry and which deserves much more attention by the international film community than it gets these days. And despite the future of cinema is threatened as an art form, there are especially some young filmmaker from India who gave me in very different ways confidence in the future of cinema, people like Rima Das, Pushpendra Singh, Konkona Sensharma, Kanwal Sethi or Anamika Bandopadhyay and there are probably even more to discover. And for sure, Ranjan Ghosh is one of them.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Friday, May 24, 2019

Notes on Abhaas (Prologue) by Bijaya Jena, India: 1997

"Nature is not on the surface, it is deep inside. The colors are the expression of this depth on the surface. They raise up from the roots of the world. They are their life. The life of ideas."
 (Paul Cézanne)

Sometimes, writing on films feels like writing against the amnesia in the film history. There is probably no cinematic heritage among the great film nations which is more endangered than the very complex and versatile cinema of India.
Abhaas is the second long feature film my Mrs. Bijaya Jena, an actress and filmmaker from the Indian state Orissa. This film from 1997 was recently restored for film-festivals and reprises. But restoring means as well to safe a film not only against being forgotten but also to safe it against the physical decay of its print source.

And from the first sight the film won me over as an incredible beautiful color film which evokes in me memories of such extraordinary examples in the use of color for films like Jean Renoir´s mesmerizing The River, John Ford´s daring use of color in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ophüls´ Lola Montez or Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon. But Abhaas is also a film which goes through several metamorphoses and it has a long echo weeks or months after I have seen it. There is still the echo on my retina from this purples, violet, red and green tones. I do not feel much less intoxicated like the Astronaut Dave Bowman in the psychedelic star gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film begins with a family meeting where all the characters are introduced: the rich landlord Ray who gave shelter for the young poet Chandra and the young widow Kukila. Ray´s daughter has visited the landlord with her little boy Rabi. The story the film will tell, the persons´s stories it will select originate from the microcosm of a family. At the beginning there is a fascinating dynamic between a quiet pace and the awesome visual beauty of the colors. The tragedy is yet hard to trace but one can have a slight idea of tectonic movements under the surface. In the first 30 minutes, the film flows in its episodic structure and the more the film proceeds, the more we recall the beginning, and in retrospect each moments occurs as precious. One of these small ruptures under the beautiful though decaying beauty of Ray´s country estate there is a moment during a religious ceremony when the priest protests against the widow Kukila´s participation.

Chandra, Kukila and the little Rabi make excursions to a fair and later to a little waterfall. Chandra recites poems for Kukila, the child is bored. But this little jaunts are of mesmerizing and of almost dreamlike beauty. These three characters seem to live in their own world – and just alone these contemplative moments alone are traces of an unforgettable cinematic paradise. They will remain in my memory when the film changes into darker moods. Watching the film correspondents always with recalling earlier moments of this film.

When Chandra and Kukila begin to fall in love for each other, Chandra learns that Ray secretly seduces the young widow. And as soon as the family learns that the young people have feeling for each other they try driven by class conceit to remarry Kukila as soon as possible. The comparatively liberal Ray (the film takes place in the 1950s) appears now as proprietorial, the young people adopted into this family are reduced to human property. There is a last desperate try of Kukila to persuade Chandra to escape with with him. They do not live anymore in their own world, the are part of Ray´s human property in a world dominated by worldly power.But this is only a short rebellion against the fate. Kukila learns that she is pregnant. To avoid a scandal, Ray organize in the village an abortion. The abortion fails and Kukila dies.
The episodic narration leads now to a pointed tragedy. When the police is alarmed and the incorrupt physician reports the death case to the police, Ray blames Chandra for both, Kukila´s pregnancy and her death. Chandra has to go to prison for some years and he does it without protest and without the least try to declare his innocence.
After this fierce dramatic development, the film calms down in a mysterious way.
The paradisiac beginning and the tragic end of a love story have gone and the film moves to its third movement. In his prison cell, Chandra writes poems, most of them are an echo of his lost love. This is as well a metaphor of this film which deals in its third part with reflections, memories, inversions and with the past beauty and tragedy of the previous two parts.
In between Ray is hunted by his guilt and literally by Kukila´s ghost which leads him to illness and death.
Abhaas reminds me sometimes that I see films often like I hear my favorite music. Cinema which is almost connected with all other arts, moves often between its concrete graphic nature and an abstract aspect. But I also think it is a film about the work of our memory in the sense Chris Marker reflected in his Sans Soleil on Hitchcock´s masterpiece Vertigo.

The fiction of a film is always lending the real things, buildings landscapes and beings of this world and at the end everything has to be given back.
Chandra, the poet inherited a piece of land Ray wanted to give him before he passed away. The landlord driven by his bad conscience has even published Chandra´s poem. But at the end, when Chandra´s innocence is proven, the poet does exactly what the audience has to do: to let all things go. Chandra, the Sufi poet vanishes into the infinity of the world. A deserted riverbank at the end, almost cleaned by traces of the film´s fiction which has inspired, mesmerized and us and which made us reflecting about it a very long time.
When in he end credits small frames with fragments of the film appear, than the whole film fixed by this chemical and mechanic process appears almost like a memory based on the organic process of the human brain. And it is hard to believe that human lives are condensed to less than 2 hours film.

In the middle of 1990s when the film public out of India, especially most of the big film festivals abandoned India cinema. Abhaas is an almost forgotten masterpiece. With the restoration of this film, a piece of cinematic memory is saved. With Satyajit Ray´s wonderful last film Agantuk, Shaji N. Karun´s Malick-like masterpiece Swaham and Aparna Sen´s grim and disturbing Yugant, Bijaya Jena´s Abhaas, probably my cinematic rediscovery of this year is for me another enlightenment of Indian cinema of the 1990s.

Rüdiger Tomczak