Daily Archives: April 14, 2013

BIFF 2013 #7: Kalpana (India 1948)

BIFF19logoKalpana is unique. There has never been a film like it since its release in 1948 and it is unlikely we will see anything similar in the future. The title means ‘Imagination’ in English and what goes into the film is staggering – direct political statements, all the dances and much of the music of India – and a story too. The film took several years of work by its creator Uday Shankar and acts as a form of autobiography for the artist-dancer. Uday Shankar was born in 1900 into a Bengali family. His father was a barrister who had studied at Oxford as well as Calcutta and Uday travelled with him to Europe in the 1920s where he met and worked with leading Russian and British dancers and where he studied art in London and Rome. Uday’s project came to be the incorporation of aspects of European dance as they appeared on the theatrical stage into the classical and folk dance forms of India. He toured Europe and North America as both a dancer and choreographer. (His younger brother, Ravi Shankar joined him on tour as a teenager – later Ravi became famous in his own right as a musician and composer.) In 1938 Uday opened an arts centre in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas to which he invited leading dancers, musicians and filmmakers such as a young Guru Dutt. The centre lasted just four years before the funds ran out. It was at this point that Uday headed south to the Gemini Studios in Madras to make Kalpana.

Uday Shankar spent many years making Kalpana in Madras. The film was made in Hindi, but for five years another feature was being made in the Gemini Studios in Tamil that included spectacular dance and action sequences and which has been seen as ‘borrowing’ ideas from Shankar’s filming. Chandralekha, the first Indian film to receive a genuine ‘all India distribution’ (in Tamil with subtitles) in 1948 was a massive hit, but Kalpana was a flop at the box office and Uday Shankar made no more films. We are able to see Kalpana today because of the World Cinema Foundation and its restoration project. The restoration was completed at Bologna in 2012 and very grateful we all should be.

When Kalpana is described as a ‘dance film’ it means that this a film about dance and with a story told through dance. The narrative is told as a long imagined film narrated by a writer trying to sell a script to a producer. The story is about a visionary dancer (played by Uday Shankar himself) and his struggle to fulfil his dreams. The scenes detailing his childhood and early attempts to stage his shows are dealt with so quickly and with such economy they become almost surreal. Shankar sets up a narrative in which there are two women competing for his love. One is played by Shankar’s wife Amala and that narrative plays on melodrama coincidence. The other woman he meets during a storm in the countryside and both women will follow him when he sets up his arts centre in the Himalayas. Hanging over him all through is the accidental death of an impresario. The sexual rivalry and the threat of prosecution are played expressively in the dance sequences which make up most of the 155 mins running time. The long final sequence comprises the show that Uday must put on to try to raise the funds needed to keep the centre running. This is where the ‘double-play’ of the film narrative and Uday’s real-life story come together. The third major theme of the film is its plea to the Indian people and the Indian government to fund the arts because without them the nation has no soul, no identity. The film actually begins with a bold statement about the artist’s intentions – and clearly he is not worried about offending the holders of the purse strings.

Uday Shankar and (I think!) Alama Shankar

Uday Shankar and (I think!) Amala Shankar

I’ll pick out just a few of the features of the dance sequences (since I have no real knowledge of dance as an art form). I recognised that there were many different forms. I think I recognised Kathakali dancers from Kerala and there are folk dances, one of which from the far North East of India is used to illustrate how middle-class Indians have lost sight of their own culture and misread the dancers as ‘African’ because of the impact of Hollywood’s presentation of the exotic. Each of the dances is choreographed in both the sense of the dance steps and movement for the camera in relation to the elaborate studio sets. This choreography is sometimes quite comic. I’m not sure about the ‘staged’ fist fights and face-slapping earlier in the film but there is a deliberate jokery around the use of drums of different sizes and shapes which drive the rhythms of the dances. I don’t know enough about Indian cinema in the 1930s to judge whether Shankar was drawing on earlier cinematic forms from the sub-continent, but I was struck by how elements of the film overall, especially in the location of the arts centre made me think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (which may well have played in Madras in 1946-7) and of course, The Red Shoes. Shankar could not have seen that film in time but he would have been, like Powell, knowledgeable about the classical dance culture of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m sure also that there are elements of German expressionism in the sets. What is clear is that it is possible to see some of the same ideas in the films of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt in the 1950s.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the film was its handling of political questions. Started around 1942 in wartime India (when dance troupes in Assam were threatened by Japanese invasion) but not released until 1948 after independence, the film picks up on all of the nationalist fervour and the idealistic hopes for the future. The India depicted in the film is an undivided India and the stress is upon everybody being represented. (In Hindi films of the 1950s and 1960s I have noticed a distinct prejudice against the South.) At the start of the final sequence as the visitors are arriving at the arts centre, they are allowed in only if they are wearing their ‘native costume’. A few British in suits are allowed in, but not middle-class Indians. Another Indian is turned away because he is wearing a European-made shirt. The princes, the rich Maharajas who come (and who the dancers hope will contribute millions of rupees) are forced to duck and crawl through a tiny entrance. The more money they pledge the more Shankar mocks them – they pledge money because of the sexual allure of the dancers, not because they appreciate the culture of the dance.

If this becomes available on Blu-ray or DVD I urge you to get a copy. I certainly need to watch it again. Bravo Martin Scorsese and the WCF and bravo BIFF for showing it.

BIFF 2013 #6: A Night Too Young (Prílis mladá noc, Czech Rep 2012)

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

BIFF19logoOne of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).

The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.

The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s  Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.

I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.