Monthly Archives: May 2014

That Girl in Yellow Boots (India 2010)

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.

Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.

The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).

Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.

As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.

2 States (India 2014)

Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt as the lovers trying to cross the North-South divide in India

Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt as the lovers trying to cross the North-South divide in India

Throughout its long general election campaign India presented itself as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’, consolidating the sense of the Union of India – and that’s how most of us outside the country recognise its identity. But in reality India is not only a physical area the size of 20 European states with three times the population, but also with the same sense of diversity. There are more languages in India than in 20 European states and just as much cultural diversity. 2 States joins a long list of Indian films that use the ‘difference’ between those Indian cultures as a narrative device to add heft to the familiar Hindi romantic melodrama.

The main problem with 2 States is that it is a Karan Johar-produced mainstream film that leaves no convention unused in its assault on its audience. Nevertheless it is interesting as the fourth adaptation of an English language Indian novel by Chetan Bhagat. Two of those films have been hits – the monster hit 3 Idiots (and its Tamil remake Nanban) and the more modest hit of Kai Po Che (the most critically successful). The earlier Hello was deemed a flop. Bhagat is a phenomenon – a graduate of India’s top graduate schools who became a banker but then turned to writing. He has chosen to write in English, the English of the new young professional class rather than the literary English of those writers lauded in the West. His world is not the English public school/Oxbridge of Salman Rushdie, rather the world of the Indian middle-class (not the same as the UK ‘middle-class’) who are at least connected to the mass of the Indian population.

Bollywood star Vidya Balan (from Kerala) at the launch of Chetan Bhagat''s new book 2 STATES at Oberoi Mall, Goregaon in 2009

Bollywood star Vidya Balan (from Kerala) at the launch of Chetan Bhagat”s new book 2 STATES at Oberoi Mall, Goregaon in 2009

2 States is the most directly autobiographical of Bhagat’s novels and is presented as a version of Bhagat’s own struggle to marry the woman he loves. The problem is that in India (the book argues) you don’t just have to find someone you love, you have to convince your in-laws and then persuade your parents and your in-laws to get on with each other as well. This is a much greater problem when a Punjabi wants to marry a Tamilian. To be more precise, the problems intensify when the Punjabi boy’s family includes a hard-drinking father estranged from his wife (though still living in the home) and a mother struggling to keep up the lifestyle she thinks the family should have given her husband’s struggling business. Contrast this with the conservative and highly cultured Tamil family of vegetarians and teetotallers whose views on vulgar Punjabis could be seen as condescending. To make matters worse, like many other Punjabi families, this one is based in Delhi – losing roots in a strong community, whereas the Tamilians feel confident in their identity. Elsewhere in this blog we discuss other similar examples of Punjabi-Bengali relationships in Vicky Donor and Bengali-Tamil in Mr and Mrs Iyer. In the different context of a sports film Chak De India! manages to explore a wide range of prejudices against minority Indian cultures.

The abusive terms used (at least as translated in the English subs) are quite interesting. Ananya (Alia Bhatt) when she first meets Krish (Arjun Kapoor) insists that she is a ‘Tamilian’ and bridles at the suggestion she is a ‘Madrasan’. But Krish’s mother uses this term to abuse her. The ever-fascinating Urban Dictionary suggests that the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ goes back hundreds of years in India and the ‘angry Madrasan’ is a modern equivalent of this ancient prejudice referring to the ‘demon women’ of the South. The script for 2 States includes the terms Madrasan and Madrasi and also includes representations of the racism of skin colour that is prevalent in India. South Indians are assumed to be darker as Dravidians and North Indian forms of beauty for women assume lighter skin. The irony in 2 States is that Alia Bhatt who is cast as Ananya is light-skinned – which again is worked into the script. Hindi films of the 1970s up to the 1990s sometimes made ‘Madrasis’ into villains. The term was also used to cover all South Indians (it would once have referred to the Madras Presidency in colonial times). The renaming of Chennai has put this prejudicial observation more into focus.

Since the 1990s, Hindi films have travelled to the South for its ‘exotic’ locations, tending to treat Southern India like a tourist destination. 2 States does at least represent Tamil Nadu as a place of work, as well as spectacular settings for romance. I found most of the music for the film to be instantly forgettable but the song which worked for me is ‘Mast Magan’ which includes some of the best images of the Tamil Nadu shoot.

It’s a surprise that this high profile film was assigned to a novice director. As far as I can see Abhishek Varman had only assistant director experience before he worked on the script for 2 States and then directed it. In some ways it doesn’t matter too much that he does not have that much experience. The story is strong and the performances generally very good from all the leading cast members. There is a ‘bracketing’ narrative in which Krish is seemingly talking to a psychiatrist about the problems with his relationships and the suggestion is that at this point he has already written the draft of 2 States as a novel. This narrative trick features in several of Chetan Bhagat’s novels but I’m not sure it serves much purpose in the film. At other times it did feel that the commercial impetus of a Karan Johar production was painfully visible and without the acting talent on view the story would have sagged. Interestingly the next Bhagat adaptation – Revolution 2020 – looks like it is going to be in the hands of Rajkumar Gupta who made the excellent No One Killed Jessica. I hope that the new adaptation turns out more like Kai Po Che.

2 States is now a ‘super hit’ in India with over 100 crore (1 billion) rupees at the Indian box office and $4.5 million overseas

Song promo for ‘Mast Magan’ sung by Arijit Singh:

Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013)

Jaile brings Terry some shark's fin soup at his grandmother's birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

Jaile brings Terry some shark’s fin soup at his grandmother’s birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

The title of this film refers to a province of the Philippines, Iloilo, from where a new maid arrives in Singapore in 1997. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ is underway but it hasn’t yet hit the parents of ten year-old Jaile. He is a bright but unruly boy, missing his grandfather who died recently. Now his heavily pregnant mother is finding housework and a full-time job too much to cope with. Tension exists between her and the boy’s father, a not very successful salesman. The family is described as ‘middle-class’ in several reviews but this is a definition of Asian families that in the West might be better defined as ‘lower middle-class’. The family has little extra money and the maid is a necessity to allow mother to work.

The film is informed by the memories of its young writer-director Anthony Chen who developed a strong relationship with his own ‘yaya’ as a young boy. What he has created here is a well worked out and beautifully executed family drama which allows space for each of the four principal characters to have their own separate narratives – though it is the boy and Teresa (‘Terry’) the maid who tend to dominate. Chen studied film first at home in Singapore and later at the National Film School in the UK (where he met his French DoP Benoit Soler) – he is now based in London. There is that same mixing of influences – British social realism, Chinese and Japanese family drama/melodrama – that we associate with films from Ann Hui and other Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Taiwanese New Cinema directors. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a useful reference, but I’ve also seen references back to Ozu and to contemporary Kore-eda. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are also glimpses of Eric Khoo’s work on Be With Me. The result is a first feature (after several shorts screened at festivals) that won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013.

The film is quite ‘clean’ and ‘open’ in its depiction of 1997 – it doesn’t have that same sense of atmosphere and city vibrancy that is often evident in the Hong Kong films leading up to the handover. Partly, I think, this is a function of the very different ‘feel’ in Singapore, characterised perhaps by the orderly ‘pledge to the nation’ made by the pupils at Jaile’s (English medium) grammar school. The sense of time and place is created in quite a subtle way, although younger audiences will probably spot the period markers more easily than older audiences. Jaile’s mother works on an electric typewriter and his father drives a battered Honda Accord. (I have difficulty in distinguishing car models over the last twenty years.)

The drama is quite straightforwardly constructed as a conventional ‘getting to know you’ narrative between the maid and the boy set against the problems arising from the stress the parents begin to feel as the recession bites. At first Jaile resents Terry’s presence and deliberately tries to make her life miserable but a dramatic incident brings them together and soon they are supporting each other. Overall, this is another of those ‘nothing much happens’ family narratives that stand in stark contrast to Hollywood entertainment. But what ‘doesn’t happen’ is actually absorbing, partly because of the excellent performances (by actors drawn from TV and film industries in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines plus a remarkable boy) but also the attention to detail. The only disappointment for me was not finding out more about the life Terry left behind to come to Singapore – there is a dramatic revelation but then little more. Is there any other nation that has exported so many workers overseas as the Philippines? There is a story there that needs to be told in more depth. In the meantime I look forward to more from Anthony Chen. This is another little gem, picked up by Soda Pictures in the UK, that requires much more exposure.

Press Pack (from US Film Movement website)

Official Trailer (which does give away many plot details):

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy 2013)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

I’m surprised at the relatively low-key distribution of this Asghar Farhadi film in the UK. It’s had some great reviews but it seems a crowded marketplace at the moment (it would have been good to see it in January-February when there were no other major foreign language films around).

This is Farhadi’s first film in French. The accompanying press pack suggests that he had already been working towards a European production before he was awarded some French public funding after the success of A Separation – one of the most celebrated films to win the Foreign Language Academy Award. A Separation also did phenomenal business in France with over 1 million admissions. I wonder if the film is understood differently by audiences familiar with Farhadi’s Iranian work and those coming to him for the first time with this French-language work? The obvious difference would seem to be that in the Iranian films we are nearly always looking for metaphors and allegories whereas the French film will presumably be taken at face value as a form of family melodrama?

The story involves a woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who has been married twice and is now having an affair with Samir (Tahir Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma. Marie has persuaded her second husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return to Paris from Iran in order to formally agree to divorce her. She has two daughters from her first marriage, Léa and Lucie, and Samir has a young son, Fouad. These six are the principal characters in the drama. Marie meets Ahmad from the airport and immediately he is wary because she has not booked a hotel for him. Instead she wants him to stay at their house where the three children are also staying. He soon discovers that his presence is required for another reason besides the simple legal procedure. He is needed as a kind of counsellor since it is clear that all is not well in the household.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

At first, with the divorce looming I thought this might be a continuation of A Separation. Then it occurred to me that it was more like a French version of About Elly. In that film, once a lie is told, everyone must continue to lie in order not to expose any impropriety in their various relationships (i.e. all the characters are aware of the difficult position of women in Iranian society). In The Past, characters don’t trust each other to cope with the truth, but by lying they make it more difficult to come to terms with exactly what has happened. I’ve subsequently realised that as in Farhadi’s three previous films it is the outsider Ahmad who acts as the disruptive agent in the opening up of the narrative – not deliberately on his part, but simply because he comes from ‘outside’.

Asghar Farhadi has many strengths as a writer-director. He writes wonderful scripts with interesting characters. He directs actors brilliantly and he is able to move the narrative forward seamlessly, albeit at a pace which would be too slow for Hollywood. Fortunately, there is no requirement to cut at Hollywood rhythms so Farhadi’s complex narratives can unfold at the pace he determines. The film is 130 minutes long and at one point when Farhadi peels back yet another layer of the onion that is the script I did feel that perhaps he had taken just one step too far in his convoluted plotting, but his skill is so great that I was soon following the next section of the narrative and through to the delicately handled and well-judged closing moments.

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

In a film like this it is all too easy not to notice the effort that goes into the construction of scenes. The film was budgeted at €8 million which is significantly higher than the current UK budget for this kind of film, but modest by some French standards. The interiors were constructed in a studio and for the exteriors Farhadi decided not to include any iconic Parisian sights which would detract from the drama. The press pack interview with cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari who also shot A Separation and earlier worked for Panahi, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is revealing. He suggests that the tension and frantic activity in A Separation (in which there are many quasi-legal disputes about who did what) was achieved through handheld camerawork. The Past started as another handheld shoot, but Farhadi soon changed to using a static camera. At the same time some scenes have many short shots and plenty of pace while others have relatively long takes. Kalari argues that Farhadi is very ‘organic’ (he doesn’t use that term but I think it matches what he means). He tries to avoid the artificialty of ‘acting’ or ‘perfect compositions’. Here’s an extract from the interview in which he explains what is different from the approach in A Separation:

. . . here the camera takes on the point of view of each character. In this film, the characters get close to each other, while still maintaining a certain distance from one another. But they are gathered together in sorts of choral sequences. And so, Asghar Farhadi has taken on the way each character views the others and the situation. And then, there was also something that my team was constantly talking about here, something they found both disconcerting and interesting: Mr Farhadi placed the actors in the most uncomfortable situations and the most complicated in terms of lighting and setting up the shot. He would place them in doorframes, which is something we avoid at all costs in the cinema . . .

One thing to note here is that Farhadi is not a ‘social realist’ or ‘neo-realist’ in his approach (see discussion of A Separation on this blog). In some ways, and perhaps because of his theatre background, he seems nearer to Mike Leigh. (Farhadi also rehearses his actors for several weeks before shooting begins, taking them through various exercises and encouraging them to learn about their characters.) I should also point out that for most of the film, Farhadi makes only a limited use of music and the film only begins to resemble a melodrama in the final section. I do wonder about the symbolism of some elements of mise en scène but I think I need to see the whole film again before I explore the idea further.

I note that one of the features of Farhadi’s script for A Separation was that it was in some ways a universal story, even though it included elements only found in Iran. The Past is also a universal story but without the obvious restrictions on social behaviour that exist in contemporary Iran. Could the film be set anywhere in the West? Is there anything specifically ‘French’ about it? One obvious observation is that the restrictions in Iran derive from certain attitudes towards Muslim teachings and in France the whole question of ‘integration’ and the secular French state is still very much a live issue. There is no reference to Muslim culture as such in The Past. As far as I am aware, Marie is not from a ‘minority community’ in France – but she has chosen to live with first Ahmad and then Samir (one of the children suggests that Samir looks a little like Ahmad – that he is a kind of ‘replacement’). Samir’s wife is similarly not from a specific minority. The French accent is a key distinguishing mark here (once again lost to us cloth-eared anglos). Samir’s shop assistant (he has a dry-cleaning business) is an illegal worker  who has ‘an accent’. Ahmad also speaks French with an accent (the actor had to be coached – we never learn just how long the character might have lived in France). There does seem to be a focus on migrant and second/third generation immigrant communities. France is home to many significant refugee communities and Paris is home to a significant Iranian diaspora community – and we should remember that one of the issues in A Separation is whether or not the couple’s daughter would have a better future abroad. Casting is also important. Samir is played by Tahar Rahim, a rising young star associated with key roles related to North African identity in France. But he and the other two lead actors insist that ethnicity/cultural identity/French social issues were not part of the film. Ali Mosaffa says that it is simply a ‘human story’. As if to emphasise this Rahim tells us that Farhadi asked him to watch De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and to focus on the father-son relationship. That slippery concept of the humanist film is very much there in The Past – everyone has a perspective and a reason for doing what they do. They all behave like ‘real people’ do and they have their ‘ups and downs’.

I have to end by praising all the actors’ responses to Asghar Farhadi’s direction. I must pick out Bérénice Bejo since her’s is the most dramatic change of image from The Artist and Populaire. In those films she is smart and indeed ‘Peppy’ in The Artist. In The Past she is weary in loose-fitting, almost shapeless dresses with her hair loose and little make-up – and she looks wonderful. Perhaps it’s the Anna Magnani/Ingrid Bergman look from Rossellini’s films?

Asghar Farhadi’s work is featured in Chapter 6 of The Global Film Book. See also the entry on Fireworks Wednesday on this blog.