21 June 2014

Picture This: Remote Controlled

My BL_Ink column today:
Filmistaan isn’t half-bad. But it reminded me of a Bangladeshi film, also featuring a remote village, and the media as the central theme
Among the funniest sequences in Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan is one where the abducted Sunny Arora persuades his Islamic fundamentalist kidnappers to perform for the camera. The kidnappers hope that the evidence of an abduction — even if that of a single Indian aam aadmi, instead of the intended many Americans — will gain them some bargaining power. But none of them know how to actually operate a video camera. After some blaming and shaming among the group members for not having acquired prior training in this clearly important skill, Sunny speaks up: if the gentlemen don’t mind, he could do the recording?
The next thing we know, the unwilling abductee has become the very willing star of his first real film appearance. But after several rounds of ‘Rolling’, ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’, Sunny decides it isn’t him who should have the speaking part; the burly, kohl-eyed Mehmood Bhai, delivering his threat to Sunny’s life, is much more likely to create the desired cinematic impact. And so Sunny directs, and Mehmood Bhai acts.
Comic tone notwithstanding, the film is threaded through by a sense of mutual incomprehension between Sunny and Mehmood Bhai that constantly threatens to turn violent. Much of that incomprehension is because neither can grasp the other’s attitude to cinema. Sunny’s total adoration is evenly matched by Mehmood’s pure hatred. It is one of the film’s failings that we hear about that adoration in so much detail, and practically nothing about the hatred.
Filmistaan’s desert village has a faux-timeless, elemental quality that’s definitely bumped up by Kakkar’s decision to portray it as nearly media-free. There’s no television, no mobile phones, no computers or internet — even the radio (on which this particular bunch of Pakistanis listen to World Cup commentary) arrives aboard a colourfully decorated truck. All there is, rather too conveniently fitted to the film’s romantic aims, is a khatara VCD/DVD player on which a pirated version of Maine Pyar Kiya is played to a captive audience seated on the sands.
Filmistaan isn’t half-bad. But it reminded me of a Bangladeshi film I watched six months ago at the International Film Festival of Kerala, also featuring a remote village, and the media as the central theme. And Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s film is way better.
Television, as Farooki’s film is called, gives us a much more sympathetic figure to represent the Islamist perspective. The village’s chairman shaheb, a doleful old man who reads a newspaper specially covered up for him, has banned the villagers from watching television, since according to his reading of the Hadith, the depiction of any human image is haram. But when a Hindu family acquires a TV set, he cannot bar them. He froths and fumes as almost everyone in the village proceeds to go stand outside the house, requesting mirrors to be placed for their viewing benefit.
Running alongside this central narrative is a whole set of other events, all of which involve media forms of one kind or another. The chairman’s son Sulaiman is in love with a young woman named Kohinoor, and since it is hard for them to meet, a cell phone — and later Skype — forms the ideal vehicle for their budding romance. When we first see Kohinoor, she is speaking to her father from a cybercafé, and later enters an adjoining photo studio to meet her lover secretly. The cell phone and computer, like the romance, are kept secret from the chairman, but all hell breaks loose after the old man discovers her amid the Muslims watching TV at the Hindu family’s house.
The television is seized and thrown in the river, but when villagers start to cross the river to watch TV, the chairman’s men come up with an inventive solution, what they call a halal TV. A live theatrical performance is staged inside a massive TV-shaped box. But then the chairman, passing by, bowls his last googly: if the role of Akbar is played by Sattar, then that’s a lie. “But that’s imagination,” says his man Jabbar. “Imagination is very bad. It can take you to terrible places!” says the chairman, putting an end to the show.
All through the film, people are framed in windows and doors, seen through the slats of windows or parted curtains, as they might be on a TV screen. There are other marvellous ways in which Farooki evokes the television as metaphor for imagination. In one great scene, a man tells a woman that he has a private television on which he can imagine her, and on that television they have set up home together. The make-what-you-will-of-this tone here is an example of Farooki’s ability to weave a tragicomic tapestry, where recognising the absurdity of something/someone does not preclude sympathy for it/them. In the moving climactic scene (let me not give it away), the chairman is forced to confront the fact that the television as a form — or the imagination as a medium — is not deterministic. It is a powerful comment on what the media can mean.
And yet this is too optimistic a conclusion. Because if cinema and television can be essential to opening up the imagination, they are also avenues of colonising it.

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