Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:

Las Plantas (Plants, Chile 2015)

Chilean cinema has certainly developed in recent years. This month a Chilean film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and here is a first-time writer-director Roberto Doveris creating an unusual coming-of-age story which succeeds on several levels. A weird and wonderful tale, Las Plantas combines genres and ideas that don’t always cohere, but the film is always watchable and it is innovative in interesting ways. I caught it on MUBI (on its last night of availability unfortunately).

Flor in the school playground with the comic book

The title refers to a comic book discovered by 17 year-old Flor in the garage of the apartment for which she is now responsible. The comic book appears to be Argentinean and offers an episode in a longer science fiction/fantasy/horror story which borrows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other familiar tales about plants that in the dead of night take over human bodies. Throughout the film there is a sense that the comic book and several other factors must be in some way metaphorical about the situation in which Flor finds herself. ‘Flor’ is short for Florencia, but ‘flor’ also refers to ‘flora’ or ‘flowers’.

Flor in cosplay mode at a comics fair

Flor has more to cope with than most teenagers. Her brother Sebastian is in a persistent vegetative state and needs constant care in feeding and washing. Flor’s father is absent and her mother is also seriously ill in hospital. When Clara leaves (she may be Flor’s aunt?), Flor is in sole charge of the apartment and Sebastian. A creepy uncle appears and disappears one night. Money is in short supply and it appears that Flor has had to move schools. We don’t see her engaged in school work and she doesn’t seem to have a ‘best’ girlfriend. Instead she hangs out with two boys with whom she creates dances that might at some point be performed. The trio also engage in forays into internet chatrooms, looking for sexual encounters. Eventually it becomes clear that this fascination and anxiety about sex (and the comic book story) is what helps Flor get through the daily grind. In the final part of the narrative Flor’s sexual desire takes centre stage.

. . . and sleeping next to her comatose brother

I can see from some of the online comments that the slow pace and the loose narrative has put off some viewers. It’s true that some characters appear without much explanation and that it is easy to get confused by characters who are similar in appearance and often photographed in shadow. On the other hand the whole film has a dreamlike quality and a ‘tidier’ narrative might lose some of the atmosphere or ‘tone’. The film stands or falls on the central performance of Violeta Castillo as Flor. This is her first listed feature and Castillo (who is Argentinian) has also provided some of the music in the film.

I’m a little surprised that the film hasn’t had wider distribution. I can see that the nudity (especially erect penises) might be a problem for censors but personally I’d be happy to see this film get a ’15’ certificate in the UK. It’s worth pointing out that the sequences depicting Flor’s developing sexuality are by no means sexist – nakedness is not ‘gendered’ here. It’s refreshing to see a narrative focusing on a young woman’s discovery of her own sexual desire and her own attempts to explore it.

Las Plantas won prizes in the ‘Generation 14+’ section of the Berlinale in 2016. Here’s the trailer from the festival:

Godspeed (Yi Lu Shun Feng, Taiwan 2016)

‘Little Boss’ and ‘Old Xu’ find themselves bundled into the boot of a car . . .

This year’s Chinese New Year screening at HOME Manchester presented by the Chinese Film Forum UK and the Confucius Institute at The University of Manchester, was a Taiwanese film. We’ve had a variety of features over the last few years in Manchester and they have usually been films that haven’t been acquired for UK release. This is particularly the case with Taiwanese films which struggle to get any kind of profile in the UK. Godspeed introduced me to Taiwanese auteur Chung Mong-Hong who wrote and directed as well as photographed his film (using his cinematographer pseudonym Nakashima Nagao). Chung’s credits on IMDb suggest that his career began in his early 40s and that he has performed one or more of his three creative roles across seven fiction features and one documentary since 2008. This seems unusual and I wonder what he did before?

The screening was introduced by Fraser Elliott representing both HOME and the Chinese Film Forum. Fraser suggested that this was a ‘multi-genre’ film drawing on the repertoires of crime, comedy, the road movie and the buddy movie. It was successful both commercially and with critics in East Asia, winning various prizes. Director Chung is part of the renaissance of Taiwanese film at the start of the 21st century and there are several interesting features of Godspeed. Fraser explained that one of these was the casting of Michael Hui, one of the legends of Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, who then became an important figure in HK television. It has been suggested that Hui has not worked so often in Taiwan or the Mainland, partly because of the difficulties he has had learning Mandarin. His Hong Kong status is utilised in Godspeed by making his character ‘Old Xu’, a not very successful taxi driver who moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan in the 1990s. Fraser suggested that Godspeed offered something somewhere in between “Samuel Beckett and Golden Age HK Cinema”. What on earth did he mean?

The young man (Lin Na-Dou) has to follow conoluted instructions to perform his role as courier . . .

It fairly quickly became apparent that Chung Mong-Hong belongs to that small group of directors who pitch their films somewhere between the arthouse and the multiplex. Similar directors often move some titles a little towards the arthouse and sometimes in the opposite direction, but always there is an intelligence and a ‘knowingness’ about genre. As I tried to make sense of Godspeed, the only handle I could grasp was my knowledge of Johnnie To, whose films seem to inhabit the same fictional universe. Godspeed opens with two seemingly separate stories. In one a Taiwanese man (Leon Dai) travels to Bangkok for some kind of trade that appears to go badly wrong. In the other a sad and overweight young man (Lin Na-Dou) answers a newspaper ad and gets a job as a courier to take a package to the South of the island from Taipei. He decides to take a cab and is approached by a yellow cab of some vintage with an equally vintage driver – ‘Old Xu’. The young man is reluctant and haggling ensues before an uneasy truce and the journey begins. Eventually we will realise that this is a drug mule choosing an unusual mode of transport and that the two stories are actually linked – but we won’t make all the connections immediately.

The long sofa still covered in its plastic wrapping. What will happen when it comes off?

Chung is seemingly not interested in the kinds of conventions which enable genre films to be easily exported. I found the film’s opening hard to follow. In Bangkok there is a play on whether or not a large rock will contain jade if broken open – and if someone could tell, just by handling the rock. I know that jade is very important in Asian art and culture, but I wasn’t sure what the allusion was here. Was it about expertise or trust or being a good gambler? In the other story, the procedures the young man has to follow to accept the job and carry it out were tortuous and mysterious. I thought at first that Old Xu was ‘in’ on the drug run and that the young man was meant to take his cab. But apparently not. Fraser described the drug run as a mundane genre element and indeed there are aspects of the film narrative that do feel rather tedious in laying out the plot. If the film is to take off, it requires that interesting relationships are developed between pairs of characters. This is certainly the case and all the lead performances are excellent. Each relationship also has an underpinning of comedy. This is strongest between ‘Old Xu’ and ‘Little Boss’ (as he terms the young man) but it is also there in the meeting between Leon Dai’s character and his partner which involves an odd conversation about an enormously long sofa, still in its plastic packaging. Chung inserts many quirky plot details into scenes and creates a delicate ripple of absurdity. He then ups the violence and there are some very gruesome scenes at various points. These last might make the film commercially viable for an international audience (remember the ‘typing’ of ‘Extreme Asian Cinema’ used by Tartan Video to sell East Asian horror and crime?). However, the other features of this unconventional film are likely to deter Western buyers.

The last third of the film sold the whole package to me. This is when Little Boss and Old Xu learn about each other and a relationship develops which is genuinely moving. I confess I’d like t0o have followed this story into its next phase as a father-son relationship seemed to be developing. There are more comic moments and more emotional moments in this last third than in the rest of the film. I knew steamed buns were important in Chinese culture and this confirms it. I’ll certainly watch another Chung Mong-Hong film if I get the chance. The trailer below from the Seattle International Film Festival gives a good insight into the style of the film. I was taken by the landscape of levées and waterways and the unusual locations for events including the abandoned mini theme park and bowling alley.

 

Ek Tha Tiger (India (Hindi) 2012)

A Cuban interlude in a Hindi film

Ek Tha Tiger introduced the pairing of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as ‘super spies’ in a Hindi cinema blockbuster for Eid 2012 that became a big commercial hit. It’s interesting to re-visit now that the sequel has been similarly successful after release during the Christmas period of 2017. Though both films are instantly recognisable as mainstream Hindi cinema (or ‘Bollywood’ if you prefer) there are some interesting aspects of both films – and the films themselves have significant differences.

Tiger and Zoya meet in Dublin

In this first outing, Indian RAW agent ‘Tiger’ (Salman Khan) is sent to Dublin where an Indian scientist is working at Trinity College and potentially vulnerable to surveillance by Pakistani agents of ISI who could steal valuable data from him. Tiger and Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) attempt to make contact with the scientist but only get as far as his part-time housekeeper Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Tiger falls quite heavily for Zoya but is attacked by Pakistani agents. Perhaps it’s a SPOILER but I can’t really discuss the film without revealing that Zoya is herself a Pakistani agent. The Dublin sequence ends without revealing what finally happened, but Tiger clearly hasn’t forgotten Zoya and eventually sets out to find her at an Istanbul conference. From here on the two decide to run away together despite knowing that neither security service will rest until they have been silenced in case they compromise their employers. In the last section of the film they are discovered in Cuba.

This very sketchy outline perhaps suggests the kind of ‘romance thriller’ that is often termed ‘Hitchcockian’ since it became that director’s most favoured format, most famously perhaps in North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. This might sound an unlikely reference but there are actually a number of parallels. Like Hitchcock, director Kabir Khan (whose background appears to be in documentary) has an eye for exciting action sequences in well-known settings and Ek Tha Tiger makes excellent use of Dublin city centre with a remarkable supertram fight sequence. Istanbul is the second well-exploited location and full use is made of old Havana for both romantic and action sequences.

The Dublin dance sequence sees Zoya (Katrina Kaif) as part of a pipe band.

Most Indian popular films are ‘multi-genre’ and here the two elements of the romance thriller are joined by the extension into fight sequences from international cinema. The other familiar genre tropes refer to the use of music in Indian blockbusters. There are, if memory serves, two traditional choreographed dance sequences. One which effectively pauses the action in Dublin and a final credit sequence in a fourth location, not identified. Possibly Morocco? In addition there are other songs accompanying, for instance, an extended montage of the couple enjoying the delights of Havana. This is a typical example of how more recent Hindi films have preserved the idea of six songs promoted separately to the film, but reduced the number of ‘performance songs’. Ek Tha Tiger runs for 132 minutes, perhaps 30-50 minutes less than the traditional masala film of earlier periods.

The Pakistan-India history of conflict is reflected in the fights in the film – the conflict is differently handled in the second film. I was intrigued that Havana was used as a location. It was still seen mainly as a tourist destination, but I was impressed that the two central characters did get into the more interesting parts of the city (watching a boxing match for instance) and I did detect a different ‘feel’ to the way in which the narrative was working compared to Anglo-American representations of the city.

Having watched both ‘Tiger’ films over a couple of days, I think I prefer this earlier film. (I’ve written about Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) on ‘The Case For Global Film’ blog.) Partly, my preference is because Ek Tha Tiger involves more ‘romance’ and fewer explosions. It has what seems to be a lighter touch and feels more coherent.

Ordinary Heroes (Qian yan wan yu, Hong Kong (Cantonese) 1999)

Anthony Wong as Fr. Kam with street children

‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.

The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.

I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.

It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.

Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan, India (Hindi) 2017)

Rajiv and family take a trip along the Ganges in Varanasi. Daya is with one of his new friends and his granddaughter Sunita. Rajiv and his wife Lata seem somewhere else.

Hotel Salvation is the latest Indian Independent film to successfully tour film festivals worldwide and now receive a limited general release in the UK. It was first launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. Its young (25 year-old) writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani had already won prizes with Kesh (2013), his thesis film short from New York School of Visual Arts which also first screened at Venice, winning two awards. His début feature feels tonally similar to Court (2014) and seems to have followed a similar distribution pattern. It also shares one of the lead actors from Court, Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays Lata, the wife of the central character, Rajiv (Adil Hussain). Rajiv is a hard-working family man with a student daughter living somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. His 77 year-old father Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with the family and one day he announces that his death is imminent and that he wants to die seeking salvation in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He expects his son to take him to Varanasi for his last few days. That’s the outline of the plot. When I saw the film at a preview a few weeks ago, the flyer promoting it from the distributor, the British Film Institute, gave a wholly misleading reference, quoting critics who likened it to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011). I have nothing against that film, but Hotel Salvation is quite different and the reference simply shows the problems Indian films face with such ignorance from mainstream critics. The BFI now seems to have withdrawn the flyer, probably after so many negative reactions.

Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his father Daya (Lalit Behl) arrive at the hotel.

Shubhashish Bhutiani had the idea for the film when he discovered the existence of the Varanasi ‘Mukti Bhawans’ or ‘Salvation Hotels’ – modest hostels which allow a dying person to stay for a maximum 15 days. If they have not died in that time they must move out – but some just re-admit themselves under a different name. The hostel has a priest on hand and access to all the necessary services. Varanasi is still well-known for its ghats – the stepped embankments that lead down to the Ganges, some of which are regularly used for cremations and pujas (religious rituals). However, the numbers are now restricted because of fears of pollution. Daya avails himself of what is on offer and makes a number of friends in his first fortnight while Rajiv grows increasingly frustrated, linked via his mobile to a boss who keeps asking him when he is returning. Later both his wife and daughter will come to visit with their own concerns and Bhutiani has said:

“What this film does is that it looks at the same incident from the eyes of three different generations. It is also reflective of present-day India when a section is busy consolidating cultural and traditional mores while there is a set of people wanting development and liberalism. In between, there is a struggle between the East and West and the issue of cultural dilution with internet telling us what people are eating and wearing in different parts of the world. Things like what is organic food?” (The Hindu, 18 April 2017, Interview by Anuj Kumar)

Bhutiani is a sophisticated young man, born in Kolkata, schooled in Uttarakhand and then New York but also familiar with his mother’s family background in Rajasthan. He states his identity as Indian but his perspective as global. It’s not surprising then that his film has a global appeal not unlike the films of Satyajit Ray, but, also like Ray, rooted in ‘real’ local traditions and cultures. Hotel Salvation is a gentle film, sometimes quite humorous and overall very affecting as we see the family individually learning about themselves and their relationships and eventually coming together. Adil Hussain is the most experienced actor in the film while Lalit Behl has just the one other role in Titli (India 2014). Interestingly, the theatre actor Hussain has complained that he has been ‘underexploited’ in films, including this one: “I want to get rid of this realistic acting for some time. I want to fly, and the stage is one place where I am allowed to fly”. (The Indian Express, 7 May, 2017). But it is precisely the realist representation which works so well here. The situation creates the drama and the actors express the emotion. I look forward to the future films of Shubhashish Bhutiani, a young man with lots of promise. I also liked the music by Tajdar Junaid and the cinematography by two Americans (?) who I’m guessing Bhutiani knows from New York.

Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.