18 August 2012

That Sense of Place

Scattered thoughts from film-watching at this year's Osian's Cinefan. In today's Business Standard:

Some 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me with some excitement that someone he’d asked what kinds of films they liked had replied: “I like films with a sense of place.” My friend thought this an exceptionally poetic answer. I grudgingly agreed, silently wishing that I had come up with the formulation myself. Clearly, neither he nor I was yet acquainted with Andrei Tarkovsky, giant of Russian cinema, who had long ago declared that cinema was about sculpting in time.

Despite the huge number of films I’ve watched in the intervening years (including Mirror and Stalker, both evidence that Tarkovsky’s particular genius was definitely temporal), most films I instinctively respond to are still those that have a sense of place. Sometimes the pleasure is in watching a place you know – or imagine you know – recreated on screen, testing it for the ring of familiarity. At other times, watching unseen places unfold before you can feel like cinema’s greatest gift.

I was thinking about all this recently, while at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival in Delhi. Watching four or five films a day – standard practice if you’re a film festival junkie and have managed to take time off – forces you to think about place and time anyway. Emerging into the blinding light of a Delhi afternoon when you’ve just spent what feels like a lifetime in some dark Thai night can feel like a strange travel magic.

The strangest film I saw at this year’s Cinefan was also among the most transporting: Wakamatsu and Adachi’s almost-silent journey through post-war Japan in the footsteps of a serial killer, tracking the places where the young man lived and worked and, finally, murdered. We never see his face, nor his victims. There is nothing in the locations – markets, railway stations, small-town streets lined with shops, the massive ships he tries more than once to stow away on, the naval base from which he stole the gun – that can be said to create suspense, and yet the power of cinema is such that as we float uneasily through these spaces, their crowded anonymity begins to fill us with dread.

The sense of tragedy unfolding in the midst of crowded anonymous streets also animates Ajay Bahl’s Paharganj-set debut, BA Pass. In stark contrast to AKA Serial Killer, which is a lens through which to look at a country I’ve never been to, BA Pass works for me precisely because it recreates Delhi worlds I’m somewhat familiar with — stiflingly quiet drawing rooms with glass sideboards full of dolls, cheerfully seedy bars with loud Bollywood music, hotels whose neon-lit exteriors hide dark grimy corridors.

Bikramjit Gupta’s compelling debut Achal (The Stagnant) is even more immersed in its locale. Gupta, who spent four years on it, shooting a scene whenever he managed a bit of cash, has characters modelled on real people who live and work in Kolkata’s streets — a sex worker, a poster-sticker, a mask seller and a man who makes a living as a human statue: Vivekananda one day, Karl Marx the next. Krishna Bairagi, who plays “Mr Statue” in the film, actually does this for a living (though at functions rather than at street corners). Achal sometimes underlines a point too obviously, but the decision to use silence (Krishna Bairagi never speaks) leads to some marvellously affecting tableaux. The film has a startlingly documentary-like quality, capturing the city’s energy and its poverty without milking it for exotica.

Watching Mr Gupta’s film alongside a film like Prague makes one wonder whether one simply has to live in a place for years in order to be able to capture something of its essence. Prague, an uber-clever, often sharply acted Hindi film about selfhood, sets nearly all its action in that city, even half-convincingly incorporating a Hindi-speaking Czech girl — but barely skims the surface of the place. References to Gypsy antecedents and architectural projects commemorating the Roma cannot compensate for the filmmaker’s seeming inability to transcend guidebook visuals.

Then one watches something like Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (Kite) and it becomes clear that recreating a place does not depend on “belonging” to it. Patang’s sliver of a plot involves a successful middle-aged son and his teenaged daughter making a rare visit from Delhi to their ancestral Ahmedabad home. The US-based Bhargava spent months in the neighbourhood where he shot, finding non-actors to work alongside stellar performers like Seema Biswas and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and his film consciously plays with the insider-outsider dynamic, often switching perspectives between how it feels to live in the old city and how it feels to visit.

But whether it’s the sense of an unchanging urban poverty that Achal wants to convey, or the kite festival in Patang creating a time of heightened emotion, a window in which unlikely things can happen — each of these places only comes to life in time. Every place ever captured on film is also a capsule of time. Perhaps Tarkovsky was right after all.

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