Daily Archives: August 14, 2008

Buddha Who Collapsed Out of Shame (Iran 2007)

Abbas and Baktey

Abbas and Baktay

Has the mainstream finally lost interest in the wonderful world of the Makhmalbaf Film House? The latest offering by the Makhmalbafs is Buddha Who Collapsed Out of Shame, directed by 19 year-old Hana, produced by her older brother and written by her stepmother Marziyeh. When I checked on IMDB after a local screening, I was shocked to find only a handful of reviews and the normally authoratative Variety review was frankly pretty shoddy.

The simple story follows six year-old Baktay as she tries to find a school which will teach her the funny story that her next door neighbour Abbas has in his schoolbook. The quest takes all day in the small Afghani community of Bamian, housed in and around the cliffs where the Taliban shocked the world by blowing up a giant carving of Buddha.

Baktay faces all kinds of obstacles in her quest, not least the struggle to find 20 rupees to buy a schoolbook, pencil and rubber (eraser). The overall aim is to present the story as a metaphor for the struggle against the legacy of the Taliban – or rather the history of struggle against the Russians, the Taliban and now the Americans. In one sense, this is a typical Makhmalbaf production with a neorealist approach based on finding non-actors who can act out a simple story. Marziyeh Meshkini provides a script with several surrealist touches, but Hana makes it distinctive with her camerawork. As far as I could make out, the footage was shot on relatively low resolution DV and printed to 35mm film – so it looks rather ‘soft’ and sometimes a little pixellated. The most distinctive feature is the consistent use of big close-ups, especially of Baktay. I was surprised at how well the child was able to hold my attention and I became engaged in her quest, almost despite myself. At one point I could hardly watch her progress as she clutches four eggs in her tiny hands, offering them for sale at 5 rupees each. I was so fearful that she would drop them or that they would be stolen.

The strength of the simple story is that the audience is given time and space to decide what is important. Clearly, most will recognise the critique of the Taliban etc., but the film is not didactic. There is a discourse about what children learn from seeing violence for real (as Hana argues on www.makhmalbaf.com) but also a suggestion that children need to play and to explore the world around them. You can probably discern that Hana doesn’t think too much of teachers in a formal school system (she herself has mostly been educated at home). Baktay is likely to have learned more from her experiences than from the rote learning offered by the teacher. Interestingly, the most helpful to Baktay are Abbas – remarkably calm in the face of provocation – and the old man who promises to buy bread from her and does so.

I was most intrigued by two aspects of the film. The surrealist touches I assume came from Marziyeh and this film would make an interesting double bill with Marziyeh’s film The Day I Became a Woman (both are under 80 mins). I enjoyed the empty chairs and blackboard in the deserted field that served as a classroom and the wooden ducks in the river. I’ve no idea what they meant, but the images were striking. I also enjoyed the ‘violent’ kite seemingly attacking the community. And on an ethnographic note, I was intrigued by the range of facial features and hair colours amongst the children. One boy was seemingly of Russian parentage, several seemed to be from Central Asia and there were plenty of freckles and red-blonde fringes (emphasised by lipstick on young faces – and nail polish!). This presumably happy coincidence in the choice of non-actors worked well in Hana’s overall strategy.

I see no reason to abandon the Makhmalbafs – I’m sure they will keep astounding us for some time to come.

Kannathil Muthamittal (India 2002)

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

The summer is a chance to watch some of my archive of videotapes and transfer those worth using to DVD. Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is one of two films made back in Tamil Nadu by Mani Ratnam after his Hindi experience with Dil Se. The other was Alai Payuthey (2000), one of my favourite films that I have watched several times. Although my experience of Mani Ratnam’s work is limited, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that his films shot in the South are better than those made elsewhere in India. When I watch the Tamil films, I really do wonder why anyone bothers to watch the majority of Bollywood films. The cliché is that Bollywood represents a fantasy India constructed just for the vicarious entertainment of the cinema audience. By contrast, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films deal with real social issues set in ‘real’ environments. I use the scare quotes to emphasise that Ratnam’s world is not a simple reflection of reality (which we all know is impossible on film) but that his construction of reality does draw on the experiences of families living in a recognisable world.

Kannathil Muthamittal tells the story of a child born in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in India and subsequently adopted by an engineer/writer who marries the girl next door in order to qualify as an adoptive father. The couple then decide to tell the child about the adoption on her ninth birthday. Mani Ratnam reportedly based the story on the experience of American parents taking their adopted daughter back to the Philippines to meet her mother. The trip from Chennai to Northern Sri Lanka is much shorter, but much more dangerous. The combination of an emotional struggle within a family and an attempted reunion literally in the midst of guerilla war is potentially overwhelming. But Mani Ratnam knows how to handle it, as he had already demonstrated with Bombay (1995), set amidst communal violence.

How does he do it? First, it is important to recognise that he has a conventional popular narrative approach. The adoptive couple are middle class with the resources to do things. Father is a production line engineer who conveniently has plenty of spare time to write short stories (using his wife’s name, ‘Indira’, as a pseudonym). But his wife is no stay at home housewife. She is a morning newscaster on a Chennai TV station. So far, so glamorous and the father is played by Madhavan, Mani Ratnam’s discovery from TV who has become both a Tamil and Hindi star. Madhavan is a likable presence and I think he plays the role well. Mother is played by Simran, who I haven’t seen before, but who I thought very impressive. The trick is to have this middle class couple played by attractive stars, but to create a mise en scène which doesn’t turn them into fantasy creatures. They have children who wet the bed and squabble, a grandfather and in-laws who behave normally and they live in a recognisable community. In many ways, Ratnam achieves what the best Hollywood directors often managed in the studio period – the creation of heroic characters who were in one sense ‘just like us’ and in another ‘able to do impossible things’.

But for this story to work, the child actor playing the child Amudha has to be perfect and Keerthana is. In the brief intro to the film as screened on Channel 4, Mani Ratnam described how he looked at many girls but chose Keerthana even though she had no experience (but her parents did). She then quite naturally became a high profile character on the shoot. Her performance is extraordinary. I’m sure some of it must come from sensitive direction, but the institutional apparatus of casting and preparing children for auditions must be important too. I strongly believe that this is something Hollywood could learn from the approach here, in Japan and often in the UK (at least for social realist films). Most of the time, I can’t bear to watch Hollywood children, who seem like tiny aliens. Keerthana as Amudha is sparky, sulky, excited, intelligent, vulnerable and assertive – a real, live girl with believable behaviour and emotions.

My main prompt to watch the film was the appearance of Nandita Das (who strikes me as a younger version of Shabana Azmi). She plays the birth mother, Shyama, in the prologue and again in the closing sequence – and she’s very good. Both Das and Simran are from outside Tamil Nadu. I mention this partly because Mani Ratnam’s script includes at least three references to skin tones. Indian film stars are generally light-skinned. Darker skin is a marker of both lower social class and also ethnic difference so that Southern Dravidians are generally darker. The subtitles inform us that Shyama means ‘black’, yet Nandita Das is noticeably ligher skinned than the other women. Back in Tamil Nadu the adoptive father’s sister wonders why he is adopting a ‘black baby’. The other use of language that I found intriguing was in the references to Chennai/Madras. At home everyone refers to Madras, but in Sri Lanka, father says that they have come from Chennai. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it exactly the same as the decision to use Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta?

The other reason why the film works so well is the combination of A. R. Rahman’s music and Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography. I thought Rahman’s music for Guru was disappointing, but here he is on top form. The cinematography is just wonderful. It helps to have locations as stunning as those in Tamil Nadu, but I particularly liked the shot selection and especially the use of long shots. Although a different cinematographer was on Alai Payuthey, I thought the overall use of sound and image was similar.

Kannathil Muthamittal is available on DVD in the UK from Ayngaran.