Monthly Archives: January 2010

Ushpizin (Israel 2004)

Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) and (Moshe (Shuli Rand) admire the 'perfect citron', an essential part of the Sukkoth celebrations in 'Ushpizin'

What do we expect from Israeli Cinema? The 10 or so films produced each year in Israel all tend to benefit from ‘soft money’ – funding from public sector organisations in Israel or for European co-producers. Many of the films tend to be ‘internationalist’ in outlook so that they are accessible to film festivals and arthouse distributors around the world. These tendencies have been criticised as leading to a ‘formula’ in terms of style and to a focus on what are seen as ‘peripheral’ subjects – meaning not that the subjects are unimportant, but that the stories are about Israeli Arabs, contact with Palestinians, ‘marginal’ figures in Israeli society etc. I’ve seen Ushpizin described as belonging to this group, even though, for those outside Israel, it looks on the surface as if it is offering a glimpse of a specifically Israeli community. In fact (like many films) it is both ‘local’ and ‘universal’ and the characters it depicts are both ‘marginal’ and ‘only human’.

‘Ushpizin’ refers to ‘visitors’ who should be welcomed in during the Orthodox Jewish festival of Sukkot which commemorates the period spent in the wilderness by the Jews after the Exodus from Egypt. Families erect temporary huts in outside yards where meals are taken and families will sleep for a week. Visits to the synagogue must be made with the men carrying four items (‘four species’) symbolising the resources available in the wilderness – myrtle, palm, willow and citron. There is much symbolism in all of this, explained in detail on various Wikipedia pages.

The film focuses on a couple living in a Hassidic community in Jerusalem (references are made to ‘Breslau’, which my research suggests actually refers to a town in Ukraine, not the German/Polish city, as the origin of the particular style of the rituals in the film). The couple have run out of funds, since as tradition demands, the man is studying and the woman is not allowed to work outside the home. They fear that they won’t be able to celebrate Sukkot and that their prayers for a child will not be answered. However, two pieces of good fortune provide both a temporary dwelling for Sukkot and the funds to buy food and the ‘four species’. They also receive an unexpected visit from two men, only one of whom is known to the husband. This visit proves the catalyst for a series of events which will transform the couple’s life together.

Once I got past the details of the Orthodox life-style – which wasn’t as unfamiliar as I expected – I realised that this was actually a well-known narrative premise. I was reminded of the Jewish stories that have come out of Eastern Europe and seeped into Anglo-American literary culture. The focus on the citron (devout Jews are supposed to buy the most ‘perfect’ specimen they can find within their means) seems to fit many such stories. The ‘visitors’ are characters from many plays and films – seemingly sent to the couple as a ‘test’ of their beliefs and integrity and their self-knowledge. The same story could have taken place in many communities. The ‘authenticity’ of this particular representation lies partly in the fact that the couple are played by a real-life couple who like the characters in the film are relatively recent converts to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Shuli Rand who plays Moshe, the husband, retired from his acting career when he converted and presumably returned for this role (he also wrote the script) because he believed it would promote understanding. The director, Giddi Dar, is, I think, a secular Jew according to the reviews.

I enjoyed the film and it certainly kept my interest as an unusual drama with touches of social comedy. I was also intrigued by the various reviews I found. Mainstream critics and reviewers tended, I think, to be a little condescending to the film, giving it quite high ratings but not really attempting to explore what it meant. Jewish audiences seemed very grateful that somebody had put such a story on the screen. I’m not sure what I think about it as an Israeli film. It is set in Jerusalem (which was the pilgrim city for the original celebrations) and Orthodox communities are gradually moving into the city with the possible outcome that there will be clashes with other communities, especially in the old city. But there are relatively few references to the details of Israeli life today, except for mention of one location in the city as being ‘where the Iraqis are’. Moshe is said to come from Eilat which is down on the Red Sea. I find these little sociological details fascinating, but I guess it is wrong of me to want more of a sense of what other, secular, Israelis make of communities like this – and how different or similar they are to Orthodox communities in the UK and North America.

Romcoms, Clooney and Streep, Audiences and Critics

George Clooney and Vera Famiga in Up in the Air

A strange couple of days returning to mainstream Hollywood Cinema (though one of the films is probably thought of as ‘independent’). I’m struck by the fact I have spent four generally pleasurable hours in a cinema only to come out and read some rather odd reviews. Is it me or are reviewers particularly dense these days?

First up is Up in the Air in which George Clooney leads Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Juno. I was grabbed immediately by the credit sequence which offers a delirious montage of aerial shots of the US cut to a very distinctive take on Woody Guthrie’s alternative national anthem This Land is Your Land by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. There are many signs that this is a movie from the director of Juno; the fast-cutting montage of procedures; the acoustic folk songs and the appearance of J. K. Simmons and Jason Bateman (very fetching with a beard and reminding me of Xabi Alonso – no higher praise from a forlorn Liverpool fan). And then there is a perky, irritating (until made human) young woman. The big difference, of course is Clooney in Cary Grant mode and, most of all Vera Famiga. Famiga offers one of the most erotic performances I’ve seen in a long time. Why isn’t she in more such roles? I still remember Scorsese’s disappointing The Departed in which she was anything but disappointing. The film also reminded me of Clooney’s previous erotic highlight – with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight – a film which shares a similar mise en scène of hotel bars and bedrooms with the sexy clink of whisky tumblers and the clunk of the hotel room door.

Up in the Air is clever, witty and polished and works like a dream for the first two-thirds of the narrative. Clooney is Ryan, the urbane corporate executioner who flies around the US clocking up airmiles and trying to avoid coming ‘home’ to his rented room. He prefers the anonymity of relatively upmarket hotels. The ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden appearance of young Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a psychologist with a plan to fire execs via iChat or its equivalent. Ryan is compensated for this threat to his livelihood by meeting the perfect ‘woman on the road’, Alex (Famiga). So, we have three narrative lines. Will Clooney/Ryan successfully educate/humanise Natalie, can he maintain his solitary lifestyle and will his relationship with Alex develop further than just an occasional night together? Of course, these are inter-related in interesting ways. If Ryan can convince Natalie that firing someone needs a human touch (he is obliged to take her with him on a trip around several clients) he will inevitably challenge his own previously impermeable sense of distance from what he does. And this may in turn make him weaker in the face of the desire he feels for the delicious Alex. In this respect, the script carefully tempts Ryan into a return to his childhood home to attend the wedding of his younger sister, taking a surprised Alex with him. Presumably, Ryan is so dense in terms of social knowledge that he just doesn’t realise that weddings (like funerals) are deadly affairs where all kinds of family skeletons and dangerous social relationships are routinely given an airing.

When I glanced at reviews, I wasn’t surprised by the large majority of glowing, nay gushing, reviews, but I was slightly taken aback by the isolated very ‘anti’ reviews. I do understand the argument that says the film ultimately becomes a conservative commentary on marriage and family life. I did feel that the ending was somehow not satisfactory, but I’m not sure why. In many ways the film is like Juno in that it can be read in different ways. Whereas the dilemma in Juno was about abortion, here it is about remaining childless by choice and not succumbing to the peer pressure to conform to bourgeois family life. This speaks to me much more than the pregnancy question and I’m not sure the last third of the film is as ‘conservative’ as some critics claim. Perhaps it’s just a problem in the script that will take two or three viewings to sort out. I certainly won’t mind watching it again. The other point in the film’s favour is that it does inhabit a real world of ‘downsizing’. So it’s a grown-up comedy with a slight satirical edge and three great performances plus some neat technical work and assured direction.

Up in the Air is perhaps a ‘smart cinema’ comedy – although that term is now possibly out of date. The film has a coldness and a cynicism which is ‘smart’, but it also has scenes of real human warmth. This makes it, in the crass terms of modern Hollywood, too clever to be mainstream. What then of It’s Complicated by the woman who a large segment of American critical opinion seems to hate, Nancy Meyers?

Meryl Streep and girlfriends in the 'old kitchen' in It's Complicated

I didn’t see Something’s Gotta Give, probably because of Jack Nicholson’s gurning and I avoided The Holiday because of similar misgivings about Jude Law and Cameron Diaz. (The truth is their personas are too young for me.) Having said that, I quite enjoyed What Women Want despite Mel Gibson. It’s Complicated teams Meryl Streep with Alex Baldwin and Steve Martin in a comedy with a plot that could easily have figured in a 1930s Hollywood studio picture. All three play well and though there is nothing particularly exciting about the aesthetics of the film, I found it to be perfectly acceptable Saturday night entertainment – especially for us aged people who can be quite entertained by middle-aged sexual dalliances.

The plot sees Jane (Streep) as a (very) successful artisan baker in Santa Barbara who after ten years divorced from Jake (Baldwin) stumbles back into a relationship with him during the graduation weekend celebrations for their son. Jake has re-married a younger woman who is now sending him to the fertility clinic in the hope he can father another child. Meanwhile, Adam (Martin) is designing Jane an extension for her (already extensive) house. Adam has divorced more recently and is seeking a woman near his own age.

When I turn to the reviews listed on IMDB, I find first of all that most of them are by male reviewers who don’t take kindly to Ms Meyers – a veteran of what might be called ‘family comedies’. This is unfortunate, but at least fits the stereotype of male reviewers. More surprising, the couple of women whose reviews I read were completely dismissive of the film. They complained about the grown-up children and I would concur with this to the extent that the three of them didn’t look old enough to have been to university and they were particularly wimpish (apart from the excellent John Krasinski as the putative son-in-law). But they aren’t particularly important to the plot. No, the real reason to despise the film is either because it is ‘kitchen porn’ or because it doesn’t deal realistically with the sexual desires of 60 year-old women. A good example of this is MaryAnn Johansen at ‘flickfilosopher’. She manages to combine these two critiques in this way:

“Perhaps the most distasteful thing about Meyers’ films, which include the recent Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, is that we’re simultaneously meant to rejoice and be thankful that Meyers is condescending to give in to the outrageous reveries of women who have nothing but fantasy left — or so we’re meant to accept is the case — while she also underlines how ridiculously impossible those fantasies are. It’s like with that amazing kitchen. That’s the “before” kitchen, the one not good enough for Jane, the one she needs to clear away to make room for the “real” kitchen she has always desired. That’s how awesomely awesome Jane is, and how pathetic you the viewer are: the kitchen you’re swooning over is the one she can’t wait to get rid of.”

Now, perhaps I don’t understand this, but I think that Ms Johanson is suggesting first that Nancy Meyers, one of the few women to consistently write and direct films in mainstream Hollywood over a long period (I guess that Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall are the others concerned with comedies) is condescending to audiences by offering them enjoyable fantasies. Her crime is that the fantasies aren’t realistic? This is Hollywood we are talking about. Since when has a mainstream audience worried that a Hollywood comedy is not realistic? And as for kitchen porn, what is fundamentally wrong with drooling over expensive kitchens. Alright, the ostentatious wealth on display is something that bores me in Hollywood movies – but it has always been there. As one of the astute commentators on Johanson’s site points out, we don’t object that Katherine Hepburn is a wealthy socialite in Bringing Up Baby or that Myrna Loy and William Powell inhabit a world of wealth in the Thin Man series. That’s Hollywood.

The real question is what older women in the audience make of the film and how they identify with Jane’s dilemma (choosing between Jake and Adam or remaining celibate). Of course, I don’t know, but given Meryl Streep’s current fanbase post Mama Mia and the fact that in It‘s Complicated, she looks great without being lifted or filled in (there is a nice joke about this) and generally amuses, I’d be surprised if the film ‘missed’ with that particular demographic.

There is what I assume is an in-joke in the movie when Jane and Jake sit down with their children to watch a DVD for the first time since the marriage ended and the film Jake chooses is The Graduate. There are quite a few connotations/referents here. The Graduate involves a young man (Dustin Hoffman) sleeping with an ‘older woman’ – his fiancée’s mother (played by Anne Bancroft). In It’s Complicated, John Krasinki’s character is in the same familial relationship with Jane/Streep and he does have an interesting role in the narrative. At the time of The Graduate, Anne Bancroft was just 36. Hoffman was 30 and Katherine Ross, playing Mrs Robinson’s daughter was 27. So here was a highly-rated film in which a female star was ‘old’ enough to play the mother of an actor just nine years younger than she was. At least we have progressed now to the point where Meryl Streep at 60 can play a character who is described in the press notes as ‘fifty-something’. Finally, when Jane watches Hoffman in The Graduate, there is the further irony that Hoffman and Streep played a divorced couple in Kramer v. Kramer in 1979 (in which the divorced father attempts to bring up the child of the marriage – a question raised about Jake and his new wife and small boy). I’m sure Meyers was very conscious of these points when (I assume) she chose the movie extract.

I’ve not always been a Streep fan, but she’s turned into what once was called a ‘real trouper’, so good luck to her.

Global cinema news and comment

2009 seems to have come to a rousing end in terms of cinema box offices around the world. We commented on 3 Idiots and broken records in Hindi Cinema in the last post and most of the world knows that Avatar has given James Cameron the the No2 box office film of all time already. With $1.33 billion worldwide and counting there is now an outside possibility that Avatar will catch Titanic.

Here are some other news stories that you might have missed in all the Hollywood fanfares:

China has had an amazing year at the cinema with an increase in box-office revenues of 44%. This came after 600 new screens were added last year, bringing the country’s total to 4,700. Out of the total, 1,800 are digital and nearly 800 are 3-D screens. The revenue increases came partly from higher prices in new multiplexes appearing in shopping malls. There is still a restriction on Hollywood titles that are allowed an import certificate, but 5 blockbuster US titles were in the Chinese Top 10 for 2009 – no wonder the studios are eager for more entry opportunities and co-productions.

In France, admissions are up to over 200 million making 2009 the best year since 1982 and securing No3 slot for the French cinema market after India and the US. Hollywood still managed 49.8% and French producers bagged a very creditable 37.1% leaving 13.1% for the ‘Rest of the World’.

In both the UK and France, the video industry has bounced back in 2009. In the UK, the increase in Blu-Ray disc transactions has compensated for the decline in the traditional DVD market and the sector’s overall performance expected to improve during 2010 driven by HD TV sales. In France action against pirates and a reduction in the cinema release window (i.e. DVDs released after a shorter period following the cinema release) has seen the volume of transactions rise by 30% and value by 7%.

The value of the Spanish box office also broke records and Spanish producers took 15% of their own market. Polish admissions rose to 38 million (an increase of 4 million) with 29 Polish productions generating over 8 million admissions. Three Hollywood animated films topped the box office chart. In the Netherlands, admissions were up as well with a big increase in the value of the market. Hollywood took 70% of the Dutch market. In Italy, admissions were flat but value rose – attributed to higher prices for 3-D screenings, something that has been mentioned in several territories as a cause for optimism in the industry. Anyone want to comment on that – I haven’t been to a 3-D screening yet.

(Most of this info comes from the excellent Cineuropa site – see the headlines in the left sidebar.)

Global Bollywood? 3 Idiots (India 2009)

Raju (Sharman Joshi), Rancho (Aamir Khan) and Farhan (Madhavan) as the '3 Idiots'

It is already the the most successful Hindi Cinema release worldwide. Statistics for the Indian Box Office are notoriously difficult to verify so I’m simply quoting Screen International which places 3 Idiots at No 6 in the ‘Global Box Office’ with $35 million after just 10 days on release in 18 territories, including $4.7 million in the US and $1.8 million in the UK. The UK success prompted a Guardian piece on January 8 by Nirpal Dhaliwal. I found one of his earlier pieces on Slumdog Millionaire to be simply provocative but this piece seemed quite sensible as he tried to argue why the film’s success would not lead to a ‘crossover’ into the British mainstream. I was also intrigued by the success of 3 Idiots when I realised that it was an adaptation of some kind of Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone and that it starred two of  my favourite actors, Aamir Khan and Madhavan.

The story outline sees three students arriving as freshers at the prestigious ‘Imperial College of Engineering’ (which at one point uses location shots of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore). This trio turn out to be  something of a disruptive influence in the normally controlled atmosphere of such a high-class ‘grades factory’. The narrative is driven by two separate but related conflicts between the leader of the trio, ‘Rancho’ (Aamir Khan) and both the college Principal and the top student of the year-group, Chatur. The narrative structure, however, employs a long flashback so that the film begins and ends in the present when Chatur has summoned the trio to return to the college they left ten years previously in order to prove who has become the most successful in their subsequent careers.

The first comment I should make about the film is that it is well-made and certainly entertaining. It lasts 170 minutes and I wasn’t bored for a moment. The performances are all excellent and it’s easy to see why Aamir Khan is a major star (his 2008 film, Ghajini, was also the biggest Bollywood film of the year). I laughed aloud on several occasions and the film prompted the kind of emotional response that I often get, against my will, with the best Hollywood features. But I have several lingering doubts about the film – mainly, I think, because of the original book and also because the film prompts consideration of one of the strongest trends in recent Indian Cinema – the attempts by Bollywood producers to find new themes to engage the emerging Indian middle classes and to bridge the NRI and domestic markets in appeal.

Chetan Bhagat’s book has been a huge success in India. The paperback I bought in India announces itself as the ‘138th impression’ (since 2004). I don’t know much about Indian publishing, but I think that suggests a hit. In the bookshop in Kolkata, Bhagat’s novels held the top three slots on the bestseller list. His first title to be adapted for a film was One Night in a Call Centre. I haven’t seen the film but I enjoyed the book (which was also published in the UK). The New York Times has announced that Bhagat is the “biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history”. This is quite an important point. Bhagat represents a new kind of literary fiction in India targeting younger middle-class readers with experience of the university rat-race and the NRI opportunities. His books don’t get nominated for literary prizes such as the Booker – like Aravind Adiga or previously Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth – but he speaks directly to the new generation. In some ways, his books occupy the same market sector as Vikas Swarup and it is interesting to compare how Swarup’s Q & A and Bhagat’s Five Point Someone were adapted to become Slumdog Millionaire and 3 Idiots respectively.

In the case of Slumdog, Simon Beaufoy took a rather rambling narrative with lots of subplots and streamlined it into an Oscar-winning film script. Almost the opposite happened to Bhagat’s book, a rather slight comic novel which was transformed into a Bollywood blockbuster with far more plot and some extra characters plus the usual choreographed set pieces. I’m not suggesting that either adaptation was more or less successful or that books are better than films – simply that the adaptation process is different because a British film and a Bollywood film are quite different in their address to audiences. Nirpal Dhaliwal’s point is that 3 Idiots will never achieve the global success that Slumdog managed. I think that he is probably correct, but on the other hand, I think that a different adaptation of Bhagat’s novel could produce a film that would attract audiences in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and many other places where the education system creates enormous pressures. What would Simon Beaufoy have done with it?

So, what is the difference between book and film? I don’t want to introduce spoilers so I’ll stick to broad differences. Screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and director Rajkumar Hirani first of all changed the lead character of the novel. The novel is written in the first person by Hari, the least ‘dramatic’ of the trio of characters, and the mysterious ‘leader’ of the group is Ryan. Hari becomes Farhan (Madhavan) in the film and Ryan becomes Rancho. The third character Alok becomes Raju (Sharman Joshi) and he is not really changed. The switch involving Hari/Farhan and Ryan/Rancho is essential for Bollywood in making sure that the narrative drive comes from the role occupied by the main star. The novel is more subtle in that Ryan is the catalyst for action, but he is not in any way heroic. He remains mysterious and ambivalent. The second main difference is in the analysis of the education offered by the college. The film is clever and witty in pointing up the faults of the college’s pedagogy, but in the end it has to see its heroes ‘win’ in some way (especially Rancho). As the title of Bhagat’s novel suggests, his whole narrative involves the trio rejecting the tyranny of grading so that they can still be human beings even though they are in the ‘five point something’ section of the pass list. This is the crunch because both narratives, although comedies, do include the tragedy of suicide. But Bollywood still struggles with being too ‘down’ so it feels the necessity to include a screwball rom-com and two ‘marriage’ set pieces as well as lots of other devices that push the dark side into the background. There are other differences. Kareena Kapoor is in my view miscast as Neha/Pia, the Professor’s daughter who in the novel is Hari’s girlfriend, not Ryan’s and a naive 18 year-old, not a glamorous medical student. I also missed in the film the little touches that suggest that we are somewhere in real India, not the fantasy world of Bollywood. In the book these include visiting the ice-cream parlour and the cheap cafe where the trio eat paranthas. I’m not suggesting here that the novel is a realist account of going to college – it isn’t. But it does allow the real world to creep into the comedy and that may mean that it provokes a little more thought.

3 Idiots has been warmly received by reviewers in India and I’ve only found one very negative review so far, but it’s a persuasive one. Indian Auteur treats the film as following a trend in offering an apologia for the Indian middle classes and their contradictory attitudes towards current issues in Indian society. In a nutshell, these are films that seem to criticise the system which oppresses  the rising middle classes but in reality simply gives in and accepts the oppression. Indian Auteur’s reviewer, Anuj, has certainly seen many more Bollywood films than I have and he comes up with many good ideas about how to make an ideological analysis of trends. Here is an extract:

The Hindi cinema screen slowly becomes the medium through which the Indian middle class extracts its revenge over what over suppresses it in the modern day world – it mocks the bourgeois, exposes the hypocrisy of the richer class, and ridicules the concept of a hierarchy. The villains are now overtly stern college professors, autocratic bosses, corrupt politicians or when the film is brave enough to admit its audience’s greatest villain – the government itself. Most of these films feature innocuous heroes drenched in the uneventfulness of their own lives, the conduct of their own private ambitions, and the fulfilment of personal causes; until an event or their realisation of the fallacies of a system they are unwillingly, but not unconditionally a part of; jolts them from their slumber and propels them on a path of retribution so soaked in acknowledgement of its audience’s wishful fantasies, that the films usually refuse to question the validity of a popular opinion, instead letting it become the text for their images, and in a way, merely playing it out on the screen.

One film that does come up in discussion is Rang De Basanti (2006) which coincidentally features the ‘three idiots’ themselves in lead roles. I enjoyed that film but was a little worried about its ending in much the same way as Anuj – I can see that I need to see some more and come back to this analysis. Rang De Basanti reminds me of one other reason why films like 3 Idiots might struggle to cross over in the West. Aamir Khan plays a student in both films. In Rang De Basanti, I think the plot does suggest some reasons why he might still be a student (the actor was then 41). In 3 Idiots, Khan is 44 – just five years younger than the actor who plays the Professor. Khan is a great actor and much of the time he could actually be a 21 year-old. Even so, could you imagine a Hollywood comedy in which Brad Pitt played a freshman? (If 3 Idiots was a Hollywood film, it would be like a mix of American Pie and Dead Poet’s Society without sex, drugs and only a little bit of rock ‘n roll.)

The debate about 3 Idiots will develop. There have already been news stories about disputes between Chetan Bhagat and the producers. I hope there will be more discussion about the novel and the adaptation and the general direction of contemporary Indian Cinema.

Postscript

Thanks to Nick for pointing out that the UK literary critic Robert McCrum has used his column in the Observer Review to explain the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon and by implication to expose the Indian literary critics who denounce/ignore him.

Pratidwandi (The Adversary, India 1970)

Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee, second from right) receives his queuing slip as one of the many candidates for an interview.

This may be the Satyajit Ray film that speaks most directly to me – possibly because I first saw it when I was roughly the age of the protagonist and I can still relate directly to how he might be feeling.

The Adversary is usually quoted as the first film in Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ but I would place it as the second of the four contemporary Calcutta films (I notice that Ray’s biographer Marie Seton does this as well) or even the third of the more modernist films dealing with contemporary Bengali urban life beginning with Nayak, (The Hero) in 1966.

The Adversary begins with a negative sequence showing a funeral. Then we meet Siddhartha, a young man of 25 who is seeking work in an endless round of interviews. His father’s death led to the abandonment of his medical training after two years. Siddhartha’s younger brother Tunu is still a student but has now become a supporter of the Naxalites (the Marxist revolutionaries in West Bengal who are beginning to disrupt everyday life in Calcutta). The only breadwinner in the family is Sutapa, Siddhartha’s sister. She is a successful secretary angling to become the PA of the boss. Siddhartha ‘fails’ an interview because, in an often-quoted scene, he gives the ‘wrong’ answer to a question about the most significant event of the last few years when he suggests the courage of the ordinary people in the Vietnam War rather than the moon-landing. He then finds himself moping about the streets of Calcutta and sponging off his friends who are happier sampling the fleshpots of the city. The only opening appears to be via an old contact from his time in student politics.

At home, Siddhartha also faces the responsibilities of being the eldest male in the household and he feels that he must put pressure on his sister to give up her job when gossip about her and her boss reaches their mother. At the same time he is torn between admiring his younger brother’s political convictions and feeling that he should advise him to take a more conventional path. All around him Calcutta is on edge but one night he meets a young neighbour, Keya, and begins a relationship. Of course, she has her problems as well. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film, but I found it satisfying in one sense at least. Much as though I would have liked to be Tunu, I know that I couldn’t be. On the other hand Siddhartha is more or less exactly how I was at that age (including giving ‘wrong’ answers at interviews).

Why is it that I want to give a good kick up the backside to most of Ray’s middle class young men, but not Siddhartha? (I’m quite sympathetic to the young man in The Middleman, but he is rather naive and easily led.) Partly, I think it is the playing/direction, but also the location in a clearly adumbrated family situation and the portrayal of a recognisable urban milieu. It struck me that Ray captures something about Calcutta in 1970 that echoes Paris, London and North American cities – this film seems both the most rooted of Ray’s films in the modern India and the most universal (i.e. applicable to all great urban centres). If this sounds odd, remember that over a period of four or five years from 1968 to 1973, UK cities experienced mass demonstrations, strikes and power cuts, bombs planted by the IRA etc. Siddhartha is struggling to work out what to do with his life with everything around him disintegrating. He doesn’t just turn away from it, but tries to do something – to find a moral code to live by. Satyajit Ray himself gives the clue to his own motivation in making the film:

“There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions. The film is not ambiguous about that. As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. as a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause. That makes him part of a total attitude and makes him unimportant. The Naxalite movement takes over. He, as a person, becomes insignificant.” (from an interview in Cineaste Vol 13 and reprinted in Art, Politics Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, Dan Georgakas & Lenny Rubenstein (1985) London: Pluto Press)

Here, I think is Ray’s stance in one neat statement.He goes on to say that you could make an ‘Eisensteinian’ film about the Naxalites, but to do so you’d have to focus on the leaders – the people who make the decisions. This is where I disagree with Ray – or at least I would hope that he is wrong as I respect his view of what is possible for a filmmaker. Why isn’t he interested in what motivates Tunu as well as Siddhartha? I haven’t seen his post 1975 films, so perhaps he does attempt to find out what happened to the revolutionaries later on? He’s right that Siddhartha is an interesting character and he does use his story to raise what is happening in the social/political world, but his refusal to deal with the reality of people with even harder decisions to make is disappointing.

The feel of the film is also down to the adoption of several devices used to explore the inside of Siddhartha’s head as well as the tensions in the environment. So, as well as the opening sequence, the film also moves into negative on a couple of other occasions and there are several dream sequences with expressionist imagery (Siddhartha sees his sister ‘exposing herself’ to the cameras of fashion photographers and his brother facing a firing squad), sudden flashbacks to a childhood with rural sequences and also to lectures that the young medical student would have attended. These latter come when Siddhartha is looking at a variety of women and add a comic tone to the otherwise grim round of despondency. (These inserts are similar to those in Dusan Makaveyev’s glorious satire Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1969)). Noticeable too are the backdrops to scenes. In one, huge and noisy crowds spill across the Maidan as Siddhartha and Keya meet on the roof of a new office block on Chowringhee.

I’ve seen these devices referred to as inspired by the French New Wave, but the dreams follow much older conventions and negative sequences were there in German Expressionist films of the 1920s. It’s more I think that the mix of stylistic devices is translated through the editing style – the transitions to flashbacks are quite abrupt – to create a disturbed and disorientated sense of time and place, compounded by the explosions and crowds on the street. Many of the scenes also take place at night and with the power cuts and failing lights the image is decidedly noirish. Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD distributed by Mr. Bongo and it isn’t very good. It looks like a poor copy of an American print with barely readable subs, a juddery image in the action scenes and very little tonal range overall.

In any consideration of Ray’s treatment of the characters and setting we should also remember that this is another adaptation, following Days and Nights in the Forest, from a Sunil Ganguly novel. Much of the novel is available in English via Google Books. Scanning through a few pages, it looks as if Ray has changed the structure and streamlined the cast of characters, but the tone seems closer to the novel than in the case of Days and Nights.

On a final personal note, I’m amazed to recall that during my first teaching job in 1976 I hired this film on 16mm (VHS cassettes were still to be introduced) and played it to several classes of 17 year-olds during a week. These were not film students but vocational students (e.g. science technicians, telecomms workers etc.) coming to me for General Studies. I don’t remember an uproar and they weren’t all asleep. Similar students watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and some of Joris Ivens’ documentaries made in China. Nowadays I know some university teachers who would hesitate to show a film like The Adversary to undergraduates. Is it teachers who have changed – or students or film culture?

Tulpan (Kazakh/Ger/Pol/Switz/Russia 2008)

Askat Kuchinchirekov is Asa the sailor turned herdsman in Tulpan.

This is an interesting and slightly startling film. I’m not sure that it is quite the the film suggested by Roger Ebert (“I swear to you that if you live in a place where this film is playing, it is the best film in town”) but it is certainly worth catching in the cinema or at least on a home cinema system with decent sound. (Various festivals around the world have agreed with Ebert and the film has won many prizes.)

‘Tulpan’ (‘Tulip’) is a young woman living on the desolate steppes of Southern Kazakhstan (the evocatively-named Betpak Dala or Hunger Steppe), 500 kilometres from anywhere. But we never see her – she exists only as the unattainable object of a young man’s dreams. Asa has been discharged from the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet and he is now back home on the steppe living uncomfortably with his sister and her family in a yurt and trying to work as a herdsman with his less than impressed brother-in-law Ondas. His only chance of advancement is to become a herdsman with his own flock, but this is impossible if he isn’t married. As the local sheep boss informs him “without a woman to wash and cook for you, you wouldn’t last a week”. Welcome to equal opportunities on the steppe!

This outline suggests a classic neo-realist narrative, but actually it’s rather different. The (co-)writer and director Sergei Dvortsevoy is an experienced documentarist born in Kazakhstan in 1962 (in the nearest city to the film’s location). He had access to a €2.15 million budget and was able to shoot over a period of 40 weeks in the harsh local conditions. The cast are not ‘non-professionals’ but seasoned Kazakh performers (according to the very useful article on the film on the World Socialist Website) and unlike most neo-realist films, the simple premise doesn’t led us into an engaging social narrative. To be frank, not a lot happens out on the steppe but the minutaie of daily life certainly holds your attention and some of it contains real humour. The WSW seems to think that €2.15 million isn’t much of a budget, but it’s more than the budget of many UK films. It means that the Polish cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska (on this evidence one of the foremost women in cinematography and incidentally a professor at Lodz Film School), the (American? or Brit?) production designer Roger Martin and the (French?) sound designer Williams Schmit could fashion a very good looking and good sounding film. The sound is extraordinary from the dust storms of terrifying intensity through the very strange noises emanating from distressed camels and the singing from a young girl with a mighty pair of lungs.

Dvortsevoy is clearly a highly-skilled observational documentarist and he creates a fiction from ‘real’ experiences. When you watch the film, there are various riveting scenes that you might think use special effects but the Press Kit suggests that they were all performed for real. We looked despairingly in the credits for “no animals were harmed during the making of this film”. I don’t think any animals suffered actual harm but there were some risks. The worry is that the film simply comes across as ‘exotic’ rather than a careful presentation of what is a real human story. I think it is the latter and I’m grateful for the WSW review which points to a couple of subtle asides which remind us that Kazakhstan is an ex-Soviet Republic awash in oil money but with a significant minority of the population who haven’t yet benefited from the new wealth. On the other hand, the US distributor describes the film like this: “Tulpan is a gorgeous mix of tender comedy, ethnographic drama and wildlife extravaganza set on the steppes of Kazakhstan”. It’s better than that.

Like the earlier (and very different) Kazakh film we reviewed, Tulpan is a co-production with Swiss and German TV money and Polish and Russian facilities. Kazakhstan has a relationship with the European Audio-Visual agencies and this helps funding.

Here is the film’s trailer:

Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, India 1969)

The four young men from Calcutta (from the left: Hari, Ashim, Sanjoy and Shekhar)

In any reappraisal of Satyajit Ray, this should be a crucial film. It is one of the best-known of Ray’s films in the West and often quoted as his ‘masterpiece’. I’m not sure that this is the case in India. Its Western success isn’t difficult to understand as it mirrors similar European and American films which place a small group of middle-class city dwellers in an alien landscape, exploring their interaction with ‘local’ people and, of course, falling out with each other. The film most often quoted is Renoir’s blissful Une partie de campagne (1936), partly because of Ray’s relationship with Renoir during the shooting of The River in 1950. However, there are other similar films and the fact that the four young men share a common background also links to the structure of Hollywood films that came later such as the Big Chill (1983) and Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Either way, the film clearly distinguishes itself from much of Indian Cinema in terms of its narrative strategies.

In the West the film is usually seen as a comedy – one in which some of the young men have their ideas challenged and learn something about themselves. Though I do find several scenes amusing, much of the time I also find myself getting angry at the behaviour of the young men and I think I prefer the readings that place the film in relation to Ray’s changing perspective at this time. It seems to me quite a critical film, preparing the way for the early 1970s films.

The outline is straightforward. The four young men drive out from Calcutta over the West Bengal border into Bihar state, heading for the forests of the Palamau region. The area is now in Jharkhand the state created out of part of Southern Bihar in 2000. The group get lost and decide on a whim to look for somewhere to stay. They reach a village and learn that there is a forest bungalow nearby. These bungalows are owned by the Forestry Service and can be booked in advance through the local ‘Conservator’ – as a sign clearly says. They are not for casual use. The men ignore this and bribe the caretaker to accommodate them. Over the next few days they visit the village to drink and also meet another middle-class family group who own a summer house nearby. This family comprises an older man with his unmarried daughter, his widowed daughter-in-law and her small boy.

The four men are identified by various characteristcs. Ashim is the wealthiest and most confident, Sanjoy is the most studious and reserved, Hari is a rather stupid sportsman and Shekhar is the butt of the other’s jokes. He is short and round and eager to impress – he also has to borrow money and razors etc. The men misbehave in several ways, abusing the caretaker, whose wife is sick, and a local man they hire as a servant. They get drunk and fail to turn up for a breakfast invitation.

The local people whom they offend and treat badly are Santals – a so-called tribal people who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different. These people do not have a caste system, but they are treated as ‘low caste’ by the young Brahmins and the young Santal women in particular attract the men. The attitude of the Calcutta men is similar to the attitude of the British during the Raj – something flagged up by the references towards Western culture made by the young men.

The men also ‘fail’ in their attempts to build relationships with the young widow and her sister-in-law. In both cases, the women prove more mature and socially adept. Ironically, of the four young men, Shekhar who is the most ‘vulgar’ of the four is also in some ways the most honest of them. He is most open about what he does and although he treats the local women as creatures who can be ‘bought’, he does at least attempt to pay them and treat them fairly. There is  clear class commentary here as Ashim and Sanjoy effect a superiority of status and intellect over Shekhar. I found Hari to be without any redeeming features and Ashim and Sanjoy to be both weak and indecisive. (I realise that I’m probably applying my general aversion to boorish behaviour by rich kids in a UK or US context to a different setting.) Perhaps I’m being too harsh but the genius of Ray is in presenting these characters in ways that expose their attitudes but then seduce us back into following the narrative in an almost seamless fashion.

In the introduction to the film when it was shown on Channel 4, Sharmila Tagore who plays Aparna, the unmarried young woman who attracts Ashim, comments on what she felt was the strong characterisation of the women in the film:

“In Ray’s films the women are of superior moral sensibilities and the men are like helpless children. The women understand the men better and the men are still trying to find themselves.”

This certainly seems to be the case in this film. There are actually four young women in the film and they all to some extent have the upper hand in one way or another. (The fourth is the tiny role offered to Aparna Sen who appears in a flashback as the young woman who ditches Hari in Calcutta and thus perhaps sets up his behaviour on the trip.) My slight concern here is that Ray’s concern might be simply to use the women in order to explore the alienation and unease felt by the men in the changing cultural and political climate of Calcutta. As Sharmila Tagore points out, Ray is the urban Calcutta man using this trip to the country to explore issues in Calcutta. The most famous scene in the film is a picnic during which the the six young middle class Calcutta urbanites play a high culture party game requiring both memory skills and a play on literary and political/cultural knowledge. Aparna lets Ashim win the game almost to underline the narrative’s gender strategies.

It will be interesting to compare how I feel about these scenes in comparison with Ray’s other narrative about Calcutta types on holiday in Kanchenjunga (thanks to Omar’s discovery of the film on YouTube), but I’m already struck by the differences in the forest bungalow scene depicted in Aparna Sen’s own film, Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001). Here the Bengali man is well-adjusted and in control and ‘Mrs Iyer’ is the character who must learn to adapt to her situation.

The other interesting aspect of Days and Nights In the Forest is its relationship to Bengali literary culture. The film is based on a novel by Sunil Ganguly (aka Gangopadhyay) the celebrated novelist and poet who also provided the source novel for Satyajit Ray’s next film The Adversary (1970). According to Andrew Robinson in his biography of Ray, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye (new edition 2003), the major literary reference in the film is to an account of Palamau written by Sanjiv Chatterjee in the late 19th century and described by Robinson as an important cultural document for Bengalis – representing a cultural experience akin to that of East Coast Americans in the 19th century and the romantic lure of the ‘Wild West’. Sanjoy reads aloud from this account as the car heads for Palamau at the beginning of the film, focusing on the attraction of the Santhal women. Robinson goes on to point out that Ray adapted Ganguly’s novel but retained only the outline narrative structure and importantly changed the four Calcutta men from unemployed youths making a train trip to the alienated urban middle class. The Palamau references don’t appear in Ganguly’s novel. Robinson suggests that some of the actors involved in the film (Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashim) and in The Adversary (Dhritiman Chatterjee who plays the lead) were uncomfortable with the middle class characters created by Ray and thought that Ganguly’s characters, though cruder were more complex. Though admiring of Ray’s skill in creating his narrative, the actors perhaps thought the characters were ‘letting down’ the true Bengali culture. Here then is Robinson’s exploration of the Bengali/Western divide over how the film works. I’m intrigued now by Ganguly’s work and I am tempted to see this as an example of Ray’s skill in taking a narrative outline that works and using it for his own purposes. There is a suggestion that Ray is mostly interested in characters and not narrative as such and that he succeeds when someone else provides the outline.

I’m going to save discussion of the camera style of the film until later, only remarking here that it serves the narrative’s purpose very well and effectively represents the environment. I was also struck by the number of low angle medium long shots of characters entering the frame.

I think my conclusion is that the praise by Western critics for this seeming comedy of middle class mores rather misses the point (all those references to Renoir and Chekhov). Ray thought that this was “the most contemporary of my films in feeling” (Seton, revised ed. 2003: 283) and it strikes me that the film is indeed primarily about Bengali society in 1969. I enjoyed the film and I confess to a frisson of nostalgia in the scene when Ashim leafs through the LP covers in Aparna’s room and the Beatles LP ‘Rubber Soul’ pops up between Mozart and Segovia, ‘Indo-Jazz’ and traditional Bengali music. I was mentally calculating the time-lag from changing UK middle class musical choices to those in Calcutta in 1969 – contemporary indeed.