Tag Archives: Nandita Das

Ramchand Pakistani (Pakistan, 2008)

Nandita Das as Champa

Nandita Das as Champa

I very much enjoyed this film showing at Bradford’s Bite the Mango festival. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and it raised questions about how it might be categorised. It’s officially a Pakistani film. Director Mehreen Jabbar left Pakistan for UCLA and returned to work in Pakistani television. This was her first feature with a story based on a real incident that was taken up by Mehreen’s father Javed who sold the idea to his daughter. The eventual screenplay was written  by Mohammad Ahmed, a well-known writer in Pakistani television.

The story focus on a Hindu family living in the Pakistani province of Sind close to the border with India. They are low-caste villagers attempting to scratch a living from the soil in a semi arid region. Ramchand, the 8 year-old boy in the family, accidentally crosses the border during a period of tension between India and Pakistan. He is held by two Indian border guards and when his father Shankar also crosses the border looking for him, he too is arrested. Father and son are then taken to a prison housing other Pakistanis similarly arrested and Champa, wife and mother, is left bewildered at home when the two don’t return. The story then follows what happens to Ramchand and Shankar in prison with inserts of life for Champa who is forced to work for the local landlord when she cannot pay her debts.

A parallel film?

If this was an Indian film, I would be tempted to call it a parallel film. I’m not sure if that is appropriate for a Pakistani production. In any case, this is not a Lollywood or Bollywood film, although the relatively simple story and the handling of scenes could I think appeal to a mainstream audience. As I watched the film, my first thoughts were how similar it seemed to much of the Iranian Cinema seen in the West (without perhaps the political and artistic sophistication of work by Kiarostami, Panahi or Makhmalbaf – though this is not to suggest that the film does not have great artistic merit) and also to aspects of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). According to the Press Pack available for download from the official website these were indeed the influences that Mehreen Jabbar has cited.

In some ways. Jabbar has acted like diaspora filmmakers such as Nair and Deepa Mehta. Wary of the pitfalls facing a first-time feature filmmaker in Pakistan (with the local industry largely in decline in Lahore, as far as I can tell) she drew on her American contacts to provide Key Heads of Department on the shoot and cobbled together the funding for the film from individuals and independent companies in Pakistan and the US. She also approached both Pakistani and Indian government agencies because of the delicacy of the subject matter and travelled to India to ensure authenticity in the large sets that were eventually built in Pakistan to represent the Indian prison.

As with most films from the sub-continent, whether popular or parallel, the music in the film is important. This included adaptations of several Pakistani folk songs and a score involving Indian composers and playback singers with post-production in Mumbai. The songs are used as accompaniment to the visual narrative rather than as performance numbers. With an American cinematographer and a general realist approach (apart from a couple of dream sequences) the film fits the parallel category.

Genre

In one sense, the film fits the cycle of ‘line of control’ films set on the border. However, unlike the Indian films that I have seen, the political aspect of the situation is not exploited and there is no propagandist intent in the film. The Indians in the film are generally represented fairly  and it is the ‘situation’ and its impact on civil and military administrations that is the villain.

More emphasis is placed on the story of Ramchand’s development through puberty. Over the course of the narrative he ages from 8 to 13 (and is (very well) played by two different young actors.

There is, of course, a ‘prison movie’ genre to consider and this is utilised in scenes dealing with the tedium of prison routines. These generic traits mean that the narrative seems familiar to the Western viewer. It also makes it more difficult to deal with the scenes back in Pakistan which seem to belong to another film. I wouldn’t agree, however, with reviewers who found that these dragged. The scenes are necessary for the realism of the story and I think that Nandita Das does an excellent job in conveying what poor Champa must have suffered.

Reception

The film seems to have been very well-received. The official website offers many reviews. Obviously these have been selected but the coverage on IMDB is also positive. The only real criticisms have come from Indians and Pakistanis complaining about the accents used by Pakistani actors playing Indians. But these seem to be contradictory in some cases. Not understanding Urdu or Hindi, I found the subtitles to be unhelpful sometimes when they weren’t held on screen long enough (and I’m a fast reader). I also missed the significance of most of the songs which weren’t translated. There were also some contrasting views on how Nandita Das handled her role. Most reviews were positive, but she has now played similar roles several times – in several languages. Her presence undoubtedly helped the film get screenings internationally. The rest of the cast were mainly experienced Pakistani TV actors.

I have seen reviews which suggest that the film is a difficult sell to popular audiences. This may well be true, but I can’t agree that it is a film filled with despair. Certainly there is a sense of despair in several scenes, but there is also plenty of fun, moments of joy and overall real hope and faith in the human spirit. I left the screening with a tear in my eye having become engaged with several ‘real’ characters. One of the highlights for me was the introduction of an intriguing character, an upper-caste young woman who is a senior officer in the prison. At first she treats Ramchand quite coldly as an ‘untouchable’, but he charms her and the two end up watching movies together on her TV set. I don’t want to give any other spoilers, so I’ll just recommend the film highly. It is available on a Region 0 DVD from various Indian suppliers.

Here’s the Urdu trailer for the film:

Kannathil Muthamittal (India 2002)

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

The summer is a chance to watch some of my archive of videotapes and transfer those worth using to DVD. Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is one of two films made back in Tamil Nadu by Mani Ratnam after his Hindi experience with Dil Se. The other was Alai Payuthey (2000), one of my favourite films that I have watched several times. Although my experience of Mani Ratnam’s work is limited, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that his films shot in the South are better than those made elsewhere in India. When I watch the Tamil films, I really do wonder why anyone bothers to watch the majority of Bollywood films. The cliché is that Bollywood represents a fantasy India constructed just for the vicarious entertainment of the cinema audience. By contrast, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films deal with real social issues set in ‘real’ environments. I use the scare quotes to emphasise that Ratnam’s world is not a simple reflection of reality (which we all know is impossible on film) but that his construction of reality does draw on the experiences of families living in a recognisable world.

Kannathil Muthamittal tells the story of a child born in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in India and subsequently adopted by an engineer/writer who marries the girl next door in order to qualify as an adoptive father. The couple then decide to tell the child about the adoption on her ninth birthday. Mani Ratnam reportedly based the story on the experience of American parents taking their adopted daughter back to the Philippines to meet her mother. The trip from Chennai to Northern Sri Lanka is much shorter, but much more dangerous. The combination of an emotional struggle within a family and an attempted reunion literally in the midst of guerilla war is potentially overwhelming. But Mani Ratnam knows how to handle it, as he had already demonstrated with Bombay (1995), set amidst communal violence.

How does he do it? First, it is important to recognise that he has a conventional popular narrative approach. The adoptive couple are middle class with the resources to do things. Father is a production line engineer who conveniently has plenty of spare time to write short stories (using his wife’s name, ‘Indira’, as a pseudonym). But his wife is no stay at home housewife. She is a morning newscaster on a Chennai TV station. So far, so glamorous and the father is played by Madhavan, Mani Ratnam’s discovery from TV who has become both a Tamil and Hindi star. Madhavan is a likable presence and I think he plays the role well. Mother is played by Simran, who I haven’t seen before, but who I thought very impressive. The trick is to have this middle class couple played by attractive stars, but to create a mise en scène which doesn’t turn them into fantasy creatures. They have children who wet the bed and squabble, a grandfather and in-laws who behave normally and they live in a recognisable community. In many ways, Ratnam achieves what the best Hollywood directors often managed in the studio period – the creation of heroic characters who were in one sense ‘just like us’ and in another ‘able to do impossible things’.

But for this story to work, the child actor playing the child Amudha has to be perfect and Keerthana is. In the brief intro to the film as screened on Channel 4, Mani Ratnam described how he looked at many girls but chose Keerthana even though she had no experience (but her parents did). She then quite naturally became a high profile character on the shoot. Her performance is extraordinary. I’m sure some of it must come from sensitive direction, but the institutional apparatus of casting and preparing children for auditions must be important too. I strongly believe that this is something Hollywood could learn from the approach here, in Japan and often in the UK (at least for social realist films). Most of the time, I can’t bear to watch Hollywood children, who seem like tiny aliens. Keerthana as Amudha is sparky, sulky, excited, intelligent, vulnerable and assertive – a real, live girl with believable behaviour and emotions.

My main prompt to watch the film was the appearance of Nandita Das (who strikes me as a younger version of Shabana Azmi). She plays the birth mother, Shyama, in the prologue and again in the closing sequence – and she’s very good. Both Das and Simran are from outside Tamil Nadu. I mention this partly because Mani Ratnam’s script includes at least three references to skin tones. Indian film stars are generally light-skinned. Darker skin is a marker of both lower social class and also ethnic difference so that Southern Dravidians are generally darker. The subtitles inform us that Shyama means ‘black’, yet Nandita Das is noticeably ligher skinned than the other women. Back in Tamil Nadu the adoptive father’s sister wonders why he is adopting a ‘black baby’. The other use of language that I found intriguing was in the references to Chennai/Madras. At home everyone refers to Madras, but in Sri Lanka, father says that they have come from Chennai. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it exactly the same as the decision to use Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta?

The other reason why the film works so well is the combination of A. R. Rahman’s music and Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography. I thought Rahman’s music for Guru was disappointing, but here he is on top form. The cinematography is just wonderful. It helps to have locations as stunning as those in Tamil Nadu, but I particularly liked the shot selection and especially the use of long shots. Although a different cinematographer was on Alai Payuthey, I thought the overall use of sound and image was similar.

Kannathil Muthamittal is available on DVD in the UK from Ayngaran.