Daily Archives: October 19, 2011

Films From the South #15: Virgin Goat (Ladli Laila, India 2009)

Kalyan Singh (Raghubir Yadav) and his goat Laila

There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.

The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?

The political rally with Laila now a political symbol.

I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.

Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.

Films From the South #14: The Bengali Detective (UK/India/US 2011)

The team investigate a possible murder scenario by the railway tracks.

Part of the ‘Doc South’ strand of the festival, The Bengali Detective was perhaps the most enjoyable film that I watched during my festival visit, perhaps because it is set in Kolkata, a fascinating city that I visited in 2009. At its centre is the head of a ‘Detective Agency’, Rajesh Ji. British director Philip Cox had become aware of the rise of the private detective agency in India over the last few years and he saw this rise as a symptom of the widespread concerns by ordinary citizens about the ineffectiveness of local police forces. He met many other possible candidates for the central role of the detective in the film before settling on Rajesh and it is clear from the off that he chose well. Rajesh is massively engaging – enthusiastic, intelligent, well-organised, determined – and someone who seems to care both about doing a good job and looking after both his clients and his staff. But Rajesh also has his extravert side – leading his team in martial arts exercise classes and then entering them in a dance competition. He also has a difficult family situation because his wife is dangerously ill with diabetes and he fears for the future of his young son.

The documentary cuts between the home life of Rajesh, his time in the office as manager of the agency, his motivational work with his team and three investigations which the agency is following. We see raids on wholesalers and retailers dealing in counterfeit hair products, an investigation into the deaths of three young men, seemingly killed in a railway accident but claimed as a murder by a relative and finally a classic case of tailing a married man and the report of his extra-marital adventures to his wife. The three cases are well-chosen in that they represent the range of concerns of Kolkata’s residents. The middle-class wife is upset but needs to know the truth. Counterfeiting is a major problem in India. The relatively poor trader who is caught is perhaps more of a victim than a criminal but this kind of activity harms everyone and Rajesh needs the income from clients as important as the shampoo company. The murder investigation leads to a meeting with the police who listen to the careful presentation of the investigation carried out by the team but who clearly aren’t going to speed up their own painfully slow enquiries.

Philip Cox, like Pål Hollender in Finding Ali seen earlier in the Festival, is a European director who is clearly aware of what he is doing in representing South Asia. Unlike Hollander he doesn’t appear in his own film and he is supported by local filmmaker Sounak Chakravorty who he met via the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Kolkata. They were able to shoot with two cameras and this provided the kind of coverage of events that with tight editing gives a wonderful sense of street life in Kolkata. The film really bowls along seemingly at a frantic pace but I found it coherent and satisfying. Camerawork and music are both very effective. I’ve seen a criticism that the action cuts too quickly between the potential silliness of the dance sequences and the tragedy developing at home, but I don’t agree. I think Cox maintains a close observation that isn’t judgemental and is respectful of Rajesh who certainly seems sincere whatever he is doing.

The film has been very well received at various festivals including Sundance and in an unusual twist, the ‘rights’ have been bought by 20th Century Fox in order to produce a fictional ‘remake’. I’m sure that this must have happened before but it seems an odd development to me. I can’t imagine how a fictional detective’s story could quite top this documentary. The sales agent is eOne and Channel 4 have some money in the production, I think, so it should get a wide distribution and I imagine it will appear on TV in most territories – but I’d recommend it on a cinema screen. The print we saw was projected from HDCam and looked very good.

Official website

There is an interesting ‘Director’s statement’ on this site: Native Films (Production Company) Website


Films From the South #13: Interview with Eric Khoo

I met Eric Khoo the morning after the screening of Be With Me and Tatsumi. He proved to be an engaging character and generous with his time. Rather than a formal interview, we had a discussion based around a few prompts I made. He said that he was familiar with Japanese Cinema in the late 1940s (e.g. Kurosawa and Ozu) and that he was aware of how similar some of the scenes from Tatsumi’s manga were to scenes from the films of that period – in fact it was the cinematic quality of Tatsumi’s work which was one of the attractions for a filmmaker. When we discussed anime, Mr Khoo said that he wasn’t that impressed by most anime, even those from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, except for perhaps Princess Mononoke and Ponyo because they at least seemed to have some real drama. When I pressed him he agreed that there was certainly something to be said for Graveyard of the Fireflies (Takahata Isao, 1988, Studio Ghibli) in which we see the terrible impact of the fire-bombing of Kobe by the Americans towards the end of the war. Not surprisingly the boy in this film is shown in similar ways to Tatsumi as a young teenager only a few years later.

I suggested that Be With Me had been seen by some critics as reminiscent of the work of the Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsaio-hsien and we discussed how some elements of the film, such as the ‘presence’ of the dead wife, drew on aspects of Chinese culture that might not be easily accessible to Western audiences. I asked Mr Khoo if he felt like a filmmaker of the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and whether he felt connected to the industries in the Three Chinas. He answered this by saying that really he didn’t have that much connection with these industries. He recognised that the Taiwanese industry had revived a little recently but didn’t think that there were many opportunities yet and he said that he thought the Hong Kong industry was dead with all the main players moving towards mainland productions. Obviously the mainland industry is booming but he thought it was very difficult to break into Chinese distribution. He followed this up by commenting on the state of Japanese Cinema. He was quite pessimistic and suggested that only older people went to the cinema in Japan. On the whole he was more interested in what was happening in South Korea. Later he revealed that his wife was Korean and his daughter was fond of K-pop. I queried whether the hallyu (the Korean wave’ of media products sweeping across East Asia) wasn’t running out of steam. He assured me that it wasn’t and that the influence was everywhere.

At this point the conversation moved on to my second question: did he see himself as a ‘festival film’ producer or did he think that it was possible to move into commercial film distribution? I realised later, when I had done more research, that this was rather a naïve question since Eric Khoo is already established as both a festival name and a successful producer of films in Singapore, including genre pictures. He feels that currently in Singapore there is a real opportunity to build an industry. He referred back to the industry of the late 1940s–1960s in colonial Singapore and Malaya when the Shaw Brothers and later Cathay-Keris ran commercial studios that were Chinese-owned with Malay actors and Indian directors and technicians. Recently, changes in local tax regulations have encouraged Singapore-Malaysian co-productions (see my earlier posting on Chinese-Malaysian productions). There is now a strong production base in Singapore but with only a small population (5 million), commercial filmmaking is limited – but add in the growing Malaysian film market (within a country of 28 million) and commercial production looks viable. Eric Khoo’s production company Zhao Wei Films has just completed a ‘military horror’ film 2359 which Khoo has executive-produced. (Singapore has conscription for national military service and there are a number of local productions which reference this experience for all young males.) 2359 opens in Singapore and Malaya next month. Horror is one of the most popular genres in the region with both Thailand and Indonesia producing horror films, some of which are also shown in Malaysia. As well as acting as Executive Producer on commercial productions like this, Eric Khoo has also helped the other Singapore ‘name director’ on the festival circuit, Royston Tan, make his films through Zhao Wei. We reported on Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) by Boo Junfeng, another film exec-produced by Eric Khoo, from last year’s London Film Festival.

'My Magic', Eric Khoo's 2008 film features a Singapore Tamil character. It played later in the Films From the South Festival.

Singapore and Malaysia together constitute a film culture with three different language bases. Eric Khoo’s 2008 film My Magic features a central character from the Singapore Tamil community and it did receive a release of sorts in India – although it was difficult to organise. What seems clear though is that despite the enormous presence of India and China as major players, there is space for a regional industry in South East Asia and that it is possible to straddle the different worlds of the international festival circuit and the regional commercial market. It would be good though if filmmakers like Eric Khoo could get wider distribution deals for their festival films and via DVD and online were able to get local genre productions into more markets. Let’s hope that Tatsumi leads the way.