In trying to explain my doubts about the latest installment in the “Hunger Games” series to a fellow leftist who adores the film, I stated that there is no radical art coming out of Hollywood. There is nothing like, for example, the movies I will be reviewing for the 2013 South Asian Film Festival in New York (https://www.saiff.org/) that opens today.
Over the past couple of days I have had the chance to see three of the films being shown there and am happy to have had my beliefs confirmed. As both art and as a political statement, “Good Morning, Karachi”, “Siddhartha”, and “The Good Road” are reminders that in a deeply divided class society like India, there are filmmakers rising to the occasion. It is unfortunate that America has so few willing to make such films outside the documentary genre. With “independent” film in the U.S. having become the province of the Sundance Film Festival and the “boutique” divisions of Hollywood powerhouses, there are two strikes against the radical filmmaker who has something to say. One only hopes that if any such person based in New York is reading this article, they will make an effort to attend as many films in this festival as possible since South Asia is leading the way.
As the title would indicate, “Good Morning, Karachi” (Friday, December 6th, 7:30pm) is a Pakistani film. The title refers to a radio personality who starts his show each day in the same fashion as the deejay character Robin Williams plays in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. While there is no open warfare in Pakistan, the film depicts a low-intensity version that is ripped from the newspaper headlines as the cliché puts it. Set in 1996, the year of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, the film begins with a scene of Islamic fundamentalists protesting a billboard advertisement of a skimpily dressed model. They chant, “American whore—out, out!”
Rafina is a tall and beautiful young woman who feels chafed by her mother and fiancé’s expectations that she will become a traditional housewife. Her main ambition is to get a job and be economically independent. Although she would never admit this to her fiancé, she also dreams of having her own apartment.
Arif, the fiancé, would have little use for the Islamists since he is an activist in the Pakistan People’s Party, the Bhutto electoral machine widely viewed as secular but corrupt. He is the son of Rosie, Rafina’s neighbor, who works as a body wax beautician not so much because she wants economic independence but because her husband has died and left her without any income.
Rosie works at Radiance, a Pakistani advertising agency that is responsible for the kind of ads that the Islamists were protesting in the opening scene. Rafina tags along as an intern to learn the waxing trade but barely tolerated by the bosses who never invited her there. Like a scene out of “42nd Street”, Rafina is asked to substitute for a model who has no arrived for a shoot. And like “42nd Street”, Rafina becomes an instant modeling star with a billboard showing up at the same exact spot as that in the opening scene.
The film is about as old-fashioned as it comes, hearkening back not only to the 1933 “42nd Street”, but also to “The Jazz Singer”, a film that preceded it by six years. Like the character Al Jolson played, Rafina is forced to choose between family ties and a career she loves.
Director Sabiha Sumar combined filmmaking and political science majors at Sarah Lawrence College from 1980–83 and then studied history and political thought at Cambridge University so she is clearly the right kind of person to make such a film that combines politics and human drama. The film is a perfect companion piece to “Wadjda”, the stunning Saudi film about a young girl’s struggle against gender oppression that premiered this year. Sumar’s first film, the 1988 documentary “Who Will Cast the First Stone”, led to the overturn of death-by-stoning sentence for Shahida Parveen, who was accused of adultery. This is just another example of filmmakers constituting an informal worldwide vanguard.
“Siddharth”, that plays immediately after “Good Morning, Karachi” on Friday at 10pm in the same location, is spare but deeply moving neorealist fare about the human costs of poverty in today’s India.
Mahendra fixes broken zippers on the street on the streets of Delhi, another member of India’s vast informal economy who is barely eking out an existence. When circumstances become even more difficult than usual, he allows his twelve-year-old son Siddharth to leave school and sends him to work illegally in a far-away factory.
When Siddharth fails to return home on the expected date, Mahendra files a missing persons report with an indifferent police department that regards the case as it would a purse snatching it would seem. They assure him that Siddharth will return home on his own accord and that he should not worry. This leads him to borrow money from fellow “chain-wallahs” and go on a trek to find his son, who his roommate at the factory suspects has been kidnapped and forced to beg on the streets. In some cases, the child has his or her eyes plucked out to generate more sympathy and more alms.
Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” might seem outdated when considering the streets of London in 2013 but “Siddharth” corresponds unfortunately to a Victorian-era social problem that still exists in India. The National reports:
About $3.6 million is the annual amount collected by beggars in Mumbai, according to the Maharashtra state government. In Delhi, where an estimated 30,000 child beggars roam the streets, the figure is even higher, approaching $7m annually, according to researchers. Adults are also kidnapped and forced into begging. Often, to entice empathy among potential contributors, their limbs are amputated or they are disfigured with acid. Sometimes blood vessels are stitched to block blood supply to parts of the body, bringing about gangrene.
Director Richie Mehta is a Canadian who was interviewed by a N.Y. Times blogger on September 20, 2013. He was asked about the inspiration for the film. He answered:
I was stuck in New Delhi for five weeks because of the volcano in Iceland. I was staying in East of Kailash, and wanted to meet my friend Rajesh Tailang in Khan Market. I had worked with Rajesh on my first film “Amal”; he did the translations, and was [lead actor] Rupinder Nagra’s dialect coach.
I ended up taking an auto-rickshaw, and there was this old Muslim man driving it. I got in and asked him how long it would take me to get to Khan Market. He said, “10 minutes.” Then he asked me if I am from Punjab. No, I said, my father is from Punjab. He asked me if I knew where Dongri was. I said no, what is it? Is it a neighborhood? And he said, “I don’t know but I think that’s where I lost my son.”
I asked what his son’s name was. He told me it was Rehemat Ali, but he didn’t know how to spell it. He didn’t have a photograph of his son. I asked him if he had filed a police report, but he didn’t know how. I asked when this happened, and he said a year had passed. For a year, he’d been driving his rickshaw asking passengers for help. It was all he could do because he couldn’t take a day off of work. He had a wife and another child. I asked for his phone number. He didn’t have one, and gave me his neighbor’s phone number.
This is pretty much the plot of “Siddharth”, a testimony once again to Indian filmmakers’ commitment to combining art and politics.
Finally, there is “The Good Road”, the final film in the festival that can be seen on Sunday at 7:30pm. What a perfect way to end the festival since this film, also about missing children, not only makes important political points about Indian society but is stunning as a work of art. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The film bears some resemblance to the “coincidence” genre that includes works such as “Amores Perros”, “Babel”, and “Crash”. In such films, people with not much in common find their paths being crossed in plots that often defy logic. “The Good Road” is not one of them. It breathes new life into the genre and does so by making the coincidences not only plausible but also deeply emblematic of Indian social reality.
The film begins with a husband and wife driving along a desolate stretch of road in Gujarat in their SUV, with a bored 7-year-old Aidtya in the back seat. They are out on a vacation that appears to be the Indian version of a “rough guide” vacation.
At a road stop diner (nothing like the American, to say the least!) Aditya wanders off to play with a puppy and is left behind by his parents. Eventually he becomes the passenger of truck-driver Pappu and his assistant Shaukat, who are involved with some kind of shady deal. Since they are taking risks to start with, Shaukat urges that they leave Aditya by the side of the road. But Pappu, who is reminded of his niece of the same age, refuses. The interaction between the two men and the child will remind you of any number of films in which gruff and criminal adults find themselves accidentally in the care of a child, such as “Tsotsi”, a South African film based on an Athol Fugard novel.
Another child figures prominently in the film. Poonam is a 9-year-old girl out on the road trying to find a ride to relatives in a nearby city. When she ends up unwittingly in a brother catering to men exactly like the truck drivers looking after Aditya, she becomes the ward of a protective young prostitute. In the climax of the film, she and they literally bump into each other.
“The Good Road” has been nominated by India as the best film of 2013 for the Academy Awards. It will certainly be my choice for best “foreign” film at the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting next Sunday. I put “foreign” in scare quotes since movies like “Zero Dark Thirty”, a past NYFCO winner, seems much more foreign to me in terms of the word denoting strange or outlandish.