Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 4, 2014

Indian Film Festival 2014: four narrative films

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-04 at 5.40.43 PM

Starting tomorrow, New Yorkers will be able to see some of the finest new films in the world courtesy of the annual Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th through the 9th. I had an opportunity to preview four narrative films as well as the documentaries that I reported on in the latest Counterpunch. All are exceptional and one in particular is a work of genius. Titled “Sniffer”, it is the story of a private eye who has more in common with a Truffaut character than Dick Tracy. Watching the film, it dawned on me that the New Wave is still going strong in India even if that great generation celebrated in Cahiers du Cinéma is long gone.

In a conversation with the festival’s executive director Aroon Shivdasani a couple of weeks ago at an opening ceremony party she hosted, she stressed the social and political agenda that many of the films share. Ignoring the typical Bollywood film, not without their insouciant charm, the curators select uncompromising independent films that are geared to the art house market and leading edge film festivals. Since I am the ideal viewer for such films (I told Ms. Shivdasani that I live for films such as these), my assumption is that my regular readers will drive, take trains, fly, run or crawl to the theaters that are part of the festival venue.

I will start with the film that left the greatest impression on me, a jewel among jewels.

1. SNIFFER

Mohammad Anwar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is paid to track down missing people and cheating spouses. As such, his primary tool is a digital camera rather than a pistol. Unlike his boss, who keeps reminding him to keep a cool professional distance from his clients and from the men or women he is tracking, Anwar cannot help but get involved. If sniffer is slang for detective, it also just as easily can refer to someone who can’t mind his own business. In one case, he has been paid to learn why a middle-aged married man has killed himself, a mystery to his wife and daughter. They told him that he was so happy. When he breaks the news that he was a gay man who had reached an impasse with his long-time lover in another city, they refuse to believe him. Instead of shrugging his shoulders and moving on, Anwar asks the daughter to understand and accept his father as the decent and loving man no matter his sexuality as she is practically throwing him out the front door.

I could not help but think of Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” as I watched this powerful work. West’s novel tells the story of a newspaper columnist haunted by the grief-stricken letters he gets from strangers seeking his advice. Although his cynical editor laughs at the letters, the columnist can’t shake them out of his mind. In the evenings he guzzles whiskey to help him forget their sad tales.

Like Miss Lonelyhearts, Anwar takes solace in booze—his favorite drink being rum and coke, the same enjoyed by his sole companion, a golden Labrador Retriever named Lalo. His predilection for alcohol and his keeping a pet dog has provoked his landlord—a pious Muslim—into evicting him. Once Anwar and Lalo end up on the street, they begin sniffing for the ultimate prey: Anwar’s existential being.

Toward the end of the film, when Anwar is in the midst of his vision quest, there’s a scene that will stick with me forever. It encapsulates the power of cinema and is testimony to the screenwriter and director’s ability to convey in images what can never be conveyed in words. We see a path leading down a hill from a distance upon which itinerant peddlers are walking. Their wares born aloft on sticks appear like religious relics from a distance. We can’t help but be mesmerized by the steady but inexplicable procession. Finally Anwar and Lalo appear at the top of the hill and everything falls into place. The art that surpasseth all understanding.

“Sniffer” was written and directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a 70-year-old man who was trained as an economist. In 1976 after growing disillusioned by economic theory’s inability to capture Indian reality he taught, he began a new career as a filmmaker. Wikipedia states that he belonged to the Calcutta Film Society, “where he first started going in his senior high school along with his uncle, exposed him to the works of directors like Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This, in turn, inspired him take film making as a mode of expression.”

No wonder I love his work.

(“Sniffer” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)

2. WITH YOU, WITHOUT YOU

Although the festival mostly features Indian films, there are works from other South Asian countries, including this one from Sri Lanka. Directed by the 52-year-old Prasanna Vithanage, this is a love story rooted in the tragic realities of the bloody, decades-long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.

Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando) is a 45-year-old pawnbroker who lives alone in an apartment above his tiny shop. Except for his housekeeper and the clients who pawn their gold baubles to help overcome one financial emergency or another, he has no human contact. With his expressionless face and his willingness to take the last ounce of flesh metaphorically speaking out of his customers, he is not a likeable character.

One day a young and beautiful woman comes into his shop to pawn some gold earrings. He shows no emotion but is obviously smitten at first sight. After she returns several more times, he begins to show uncharacteristic generosity toward her that she rebuffs. Undaunted, he persists until her own dire condition persuades her to drop her defenses.

As a Tamil, Selvi (Anjali Patil) has plenty to be defensive about. When Sarathsiri finally proposes marriage to her in his own phlegmatic fashion, she accepts largely as a way of escaping poverty and neglect. But within weeks, she sees his passionate side and begins to return his love, even if she remains trouble by his Shylock tendencies. What she was not prepared for, however, was his secret past as a Sinhalese soldier—thus the underlying dramatic tension that ratchets up inexorably as the film’s tragic dimensions take shape. This is both a tale of star-crossed lovers as well as that of a nation’s social tragedy done with great sensitivity and intelligence.

The film is based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” that has been adapted numerous times, including by the legendary Robert Bresson. I am not sure about the availability of Bresson’s film but my advice is to catch “With You, Without You”, a reminder that the grand tradition of French filmmaking continues in Sri Lanka.

(“With You, Without You” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)

3. FANDRY

Fandry is the Marathi slang word (the language of the state of Maharashtra that is used in the film) for wild pig. It is also the word that the upper caste residents of a small town hurl at members of a Dalit family that is paid to drive the animals from the village from time to time. Such animals are anathema to the upper caste residents, but perhaps no more so than the Dalit family they pay to corral them.

The film is centered on the struggle of a teenaged boy named Jabya (Somnath Awghade) to transcend his Dalit status. This consists in part with him trying to work up the courage to tell an upper caste girl he admires from afar about his feelings. It also consists of him trying to do well in school against all odds. He studies by candlelight in his miserable hut while his mother and father insist that he not waste his time with homework. His father is particularly mean to Jabya, insisting that he spend his days doing manual labor instead of going to school. One is reminded of the documentary “Gulabi Gang” I reviewed for Counterpunch that details the cruelty with which Dalit husbands and fathers mete out to their family. Being oppressed by caste and by class does not necessarily make you more sensitive to those under your power.

The climax of the film is an intense collision of wild pigs, the Dalit family and the upper caste denizens of the village. The film is both intensely dramatic and a good introduction to a social system that should have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago, just like Jim Crow. It is quite an indictment of Indian democracy that such a feudal social relationship still exists.

In an interview with Sify.com, director Nagraj Manjule describes his concerns with Dalit oppression.

The village where I grew up, there were two castes who used to eat pigs. Obviously, there were no toilets in villages, and the pigs grow up on this garbage dump. When you eat pig meat, of course, your izzat (dignity) isn’t rated too highly. And caste is such a pertinent issue everywhere – the perception that Brahmins are superior, and there are certain castes in the middle, and then, at the bottom of the pecking order, there are Dalits. The stigma is a very relevant one.

I don’t think caste is something that will ever stop being important to the Indian psyche. You think once someone is educated, it won’t matter so much, but then I’m not convinced. You see it all the time, even when people ask you your name. They want your surname too, so that they can guess your caste. In fact, there are people I know who use initials instead of their surnames, so that people won’t know they’re Dalits. It happened with one of my own crew members. He told me suddenly, while working on the post-production, that he really liked my film, and could relate to it, as a Dalit, and that he felt for the first time that he was represented in a film. That’s when I knew he was Dalit.

(“Fandry” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)

4. LIAR’S DICE

This, like most films being shown in the festival, is engaged with Indian social and political realities. As a debut film by female director Gayathri Mohandas that was shown at Sundance, “Liar’s Dice” hews closely to neorealist traditions. Filmed in the ruggedly beautiful mountainous border between India and Tibet, it tells the story of a mother and her young daughter in search of her husband who has left their impoverished village in search of work in a distant city. After failing to reach him by his cell phone, she has grown worried. In other words, it like “Fandry” gets to the heart of Indian socio-economic conditions but like that film tells it dramatically and additionally with a real flair for India’s staggeringly beautiful backcountry.

With precious little money to sustain them, mother and daughter accompanied by the daughters pet goat board a bus in search of the missing husband. Along the way they run into a Pakistani man who has deserted from the military. Initially attracted to her on the basis that she can pay him for his protection in the big city, he grows fond of the threesome even though he has trouble showing his feelings.

This is essentially a road movie that has become a virtual genre. As with a number of other films from the semi-periphery, including the Brazilian “Central Station”, it throws together clashing personalities and allows them to interact against a landscape made up of highways, road stops and bus stations. At its best, the genre gives you a sense of the vulnerability of marginal characters fending for themselves in difficult circumstances.

My only criticism of the film is that the authenticity of the characters sometimes undercuts the larger aim of character development. As a gruff and sometimes abusive deserter, the male lead is thrust into conflicts with a woman who only sees him as a kind of male protector. The dialog, while realistic, does not take flight. That, of course, is the challenge that all screenwriter/directors working in the neorealist tradition have to meet.

(“Liar’s Dice” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)

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