Urban Jungle {Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai}


Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) is a peep into the mess of urbanism, the static everyday and it manages to tell a tale of vast proportions. A tale of our cities and its underwired nexuses. You may say this is an old story. Well all stories are. The builder-politician-bureaucrat underhand dealings were well etched even in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1981). What is different in Shanghai is the presence of the ubiquitous digital video camera. I felt the camera continuing its quiet but prominent presence from LSD (2010) into Shanghai. Like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the underdogs piece together information and re-connect a crime to its perpetrator through images. Much into the film, Kalki’s character Shalini tells the shady but trustworthy Emraan Hashmi’s Jogi “You can do anything to me if you want, but I need that footage.” Yes, it is the footage that counts. The mainstream media in the film is relegated to the television screen. What we see on ground is the migrant from Jodhpur’s digital video store where cheap green curtains form the chroma backdrop for a politician’s advertisement to a couple’s loving proclamations. It is here in a cubby hole on the second floor of a dilapidated building that images are made, copied, renewed, re-processed and saved. There are millions of stores like this in our cities and in our small towns where images are played with. It is here that Banerjee provides the power to fight against a system that remains the same, as much as it changes.

There is time to breathe here. To look carefully at every frame and notice the little details that the filmmaker fills it with. This could have easily been made into a classic political thriller of a ride with quick cuts, pacy action or preaching dialogues. But it is not. And that is its strength. It quietly creeps onto your skin and grows on you as the story unfolds. For me, Dibakar takes conventional material but gives it an unconventional twist. For the enquiry sequence by Abhay Deol’s IAS T.S Krishnan, we watch an ordinary empty room with peeling walls being converted into a enquiry room of a major murder – a woman sweeps the floor, a water cooler whirs, a basketball falls inside, and both Shalini and Krishnan slip on the wet floor outside. The action is almost real-time, but not slow. Every character is slippery and dual. There are nuances which can probably be read and re-read on multiple viewings. This is an urban dystopia unlike that of Satya (1998), where the underworld ruled the netherlands of Mumbai. This is a new dystopia stemming from SEZ’s, displacement and party hooliganism on the streets. The city and film have always had a relationship and in Shanghai, we see a story oft heard and told. But it does so in a rejuvenating way which can only be a good thing for Indian cinema.


A Moment’s Bliss

I haven’t written for a while here. So, what have I been doing?

Writing academic papers, drinking, attending classes, sleeping, walking, angsting, wanting to write uncontrollably but unable to, wanting to learn and unlearn, getting bored of what I like, searching for new things to like.

I have seen many films, some old, a few new. I haven’t seen a lot of films too. Sometimes I don’t want to.

So in this post I’d like to talk about Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006). I saw it some months back and I’m writing purely from memory. At times, I just scroll through my list of films and look at them, thinking of how they made me feel when I saw them. On hindsight, some memories are still fresh, while some garbled. I like the garbled ones more.

So my memory of Old Joy is a bit fuzzy. But I still remember the landscapes and the slow enchanting movement of Mark and Kurt’s car to Yo La Tengo’s soundtrack around curving mountain sides. The charm of leaving cities behind, for countrysides and mountains is dear to many of us. Here the changing landscape from city to hills is lyrically captured. Their hope for some time away to clear their heads camping in nature felt familiar and identifiable. The film is patient and in no hurry. Reichardt’s camera is sympathetic to nature and their presence in it, indeed ours as viewers presence in it as well. She is not Herzog, who wants to confront the dangers of nature and man’s unhealthy relationship with it. And there’s a lovely dog Lucy to give them company. She is the same dog in Reichardt’s other film –  Wendy and Lucy. I can still vividly recall the sequence of them crossing a tree log in the forest. After Mark and Kurt have crossed over, there is an oh so gentle pause, as Lucy makes her way across to them. She looks expectantly at the two friends, the camera, at us. You just want to reach out and pet her so much!

Old Joy can be simply surmised as two friends quest to find hidden hot springs and have a bath. That is the solace for Mark’s depression, Kurt’s joblessness and the overall hopelessness of our lives – economic or otherwise. When I went to Manali last year, I lounged around twice in the natural hot springs of Vashist. Watching the two of them lie down in tree trunk bathing tubs, sipping beer and lapsing into a state of nothingness filled me with upto the brim with joy and subtle ecstasy. As they complete their excursion and return to civilization, you are filled with that not so common feeling of bittersweetness, that you managed to escape only for a while, but escape you did.

Love on the Run {Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love}

Imagine a sunny day in the Italian countryside. Among wild flowers and a hazy line of mountains, hidden in the tall grass Tilda Swinton is naked and her nipples resemble the gooseberries that are growing around her. She and an Italian chef make passionate love in this languorous setting in Io Sono L’amore or I am Love (2009). In fact it is almost melodramatic to see their bodies – skin turning red with a sweaty pinkish glow in the sun and pores erupting into goosebumps while bees buzz and flowers bloom. Lest I sound like someone vying for the bad sex in fiction award, Luca Guadagnino, the director has made a very sensual film. Together with Tilda Swinton playing a Russian who is married to an Italian and speaks both languages here, I am Love delivers her passion for food…and love successfully onto the screen for us to savour and relish.

For it is a ‘yummy’ film for the eyes. And the ears. The lush opening sequence is set to a score by John Adams – and it recurs throughout and ends the film as well on a highly dramatic note. We enter Milan and the plush interiors of the Recchi family’s villa. Swinton’s Emma is a very attractive mother of three who seems comfortable in her environment and lovely clothes. Yet there is a constraint that we do not encounter till she meets her son’s friend Antonio – a chef in his father’s restaurant but looking out to start one of his own with his own experimental delicacies. Her break from the family towards an affair with Antonio, and her subsequent choice at the end may make people feel that the story is forced or flawed. But it represents the traditional Italian outlook towards family life (like in Godfather for example) and Emma’s digression – a break up of that system. Not just a system of family but also one of money and capital.

Being a fan of Italian filmmakers like Antonioni and Fellini and their fashionable alienation themes, I couldn’t help but to make a connection between Monica Vitti (L’Avventura, Il Deserto Rosso) and Swinton – though this seems like a very disparate comparison.  The similarity I find lies in the quest and longing for something more vibrant beyond the rich Italian society of their characters. This dynamism enters Emma’s life in the form of food and a person cooking it. A love that travels through the stomach and fills her to the brim wanting more. Yet is it but a strong physical attraction in the cliché setting of a younger man falling for an older woman? Probably. But Swinton is brilliant in making you feel for her loneliness and intense joy in her new-found life. She returns back to nature reborn and goes on to have fantastic sex in the wilderness. Whatever way you look at it, you might find it pretty tasty.

P.S: I’m not sure why story writers do not get Indian names right. Waris Ahluwalia who plays a Sikh man in the film is named Shai Kubelkian!

Brighter than Sunshine


Somehow I have always seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) in the month of December. Huddled in the cold in a quilt, when I saw it for the first time three years ago it left me with a feeling of cuddly tearful warmth. More than that, it was such a high to decipher its screenplay and identify with all the characters. The quiet creative anti-social Joel of Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet’s Clementine as ‘just a fucked up girl looking for her peace of mind’ in Ugg boots, the infatuated pretty Mary of Kirsten Dunst, an annoying  Elijah Wood’s ‘Patrick baby boy’ or the attractive bespectacled Stan of Mark Ruffalo. So I saw it again within a span of a few days. No film before that had left me with that tremendous feeling of having found something that was as yet intangible and unexplainable.

And you get that from everybody who has seen it. They will have that look on their face and you just understand. Yes, I know what you mean. Yet, each of us relate and engage with it personally. Why would this film have such an effect otherwise? Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay after he broke up with his girlfriend and it’s amusing to think about that every time up until today even when I saw it again after all these years on a rainy windswept cold winter’s day.

It’s difficult to make romantic cinema work. You either enter the cliché mushy territory that can leave you sick and disgusted. Or you enter the chick-flick zone which is another no-no (or only maybe very rarely). The Rom-coms haven’t gone a long way ever since When Harry met Sally (or at least I think so). Else there is always Woody Allen. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really comes in like a ray of light with its unique meld of science-fiction, romance, melancholy and philosophy.  

So I remember the dialogues and recite them along.

Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.

You know me, I’m impulsive

The operation is brain damage

My crotch is still here, just as you remembered it

My God, there’s people coming out of your butt.

Meet me in Montauk

The story and dialogues get a new life with Michel Gondry’s direction. I can see the visual tricks and the turns and Clementine’s changing hair colors that express her personality and stages of her relationship with Joel.  Just like her changing blue, green, orange and red hair – this film is also eternal because it means something different every time. Sometimes it is catharsis, sometimes it is longing.  The white snow at the end of the film falls like a clean slate. We fade out into the color of whitewash or even cold dew. We can feel its droplets condense to Beck’s soundtrack. Yes, I need your loving like the sunshine, everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. – Alexander Pope

Happy New Year!

Baby You’re a Rich Man {David Fincher’s The Social Network}

How does it feel to be
One of the beautiful people?
Now that you know who you are
What do you want to be?
And have you travelled very far?
Far as the eye can see.
How does it feel to be
One of the beautiful people?
How often have you been there?
Often enough to know.
What did you see, when you were there?
Nothing that doesn’t show.
Baby you’re a rich man,
Baby you’re a rich man,
Baby you’re a rich man too.
You keep all your money in a big brown bag inside a zoo.
What a thing to do.

This classic ‘67 song by the Beatles plays over the last shots and rolls up for the final credits of The Social Network (2010). Mark Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg dreamily, desperately, maybe even stalkishly ‘refreshes’ his browser over and over again, waiting for his friend request to be accepted by a friendly lawyer lady. And why not I guess after a couple of gruelling court settlements. And I gauge that the Facebook stalker amongst most of us began with Zuckerberg himself.

Well, this unhealthy stalkish behaviour has made him a rich man, portion of which he also proposes to donate off late. Meanwhile, David Fincher’s The Social Network presents to us the figure of the founder of this network that governs our lives today in some way or the other as a super intelligent nerd in a sweatshirt and slippers but mean and unkind towards women, and sometimes, to borrow Bibek’s phrase –  an annoying turd. The film wants to tell us that some big ideas in networking happen because of a broken heart. It’s not just Zuckerberg, who gets the idea of Facebook after he is dumped by a girl, but also Sean Parker, the guy behind Napster and played by Justin Timberlake. I am wondering if it’s a male fantasy to conquer the business world after failing to ‘conquer’ a woman’s heart. Or vice versa – having successfully conquered the business world makes it easier to get attractive women by your side. Well, that is all that this film is about. And Ivy League snobbery dominates the discourse. (Not to miss a girl’s Stanford labelled undies!)

I remember logging onto Napster as a teenager. I downloaded and uploaded a lot of music there and I was sad when it was no more. It felt great to be just sharing music with a lot of people. And I remember the first time I used Orkut and Facebook. They were mostly a means to stay connected with friends while at work. To kill boredom at work. To see profiles of people you were curious about, or had a crush on. This social network brought social life to the web. But after watching the film I feel like a number, a commodity – that is saleable. I’m an account that can be marketed to. Just as we click ‘refresh’ on our news feed on the Facebook home page, the headquarters in San Fran refresh to see new hits, new members and more advertisers.

Nonetheless, The Social Network is a well-made watch (in a typical Hollywood classic-edit way) but for me it threw up many questions about how we look at our virtual lives on the internet, on Facebook. So much so, that things we do ordinarily in reality are dominated by how well they will be publicised on Facebook. Well, it’s made Zuckerberg the Time person of the year for 2010. What has it made us? A Facebook Profile.