17 December 2015

Taking a new direction

Last Sunday's Mirror column:

Watching Mia Madre sets off a train of thought about an unspoken assumption that underpins most cinema.

In Nanni Moretti's superb recent film, Mia Madre (My Mother), a middle-aged film director must grapple simultaneously with the chaos of shooting a film and the impending death of a parent. Things are not aided by the American actor she has cast in the main role.

Stop. Did that "she" surprise you? When I said "a middle-aged film director", did you immediately envisage a man in the role? Well, if you did, you would only be subconsciously reiterating what pretty much every film industry in the world has been doing in practice.

The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual study of women employed behind the scenes in film, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University, found that women comprised only 17 per cent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films in 2014. That is exactly the same percentage of women working in these roles in 1998. In the case of women directors, the 2014 figure of 7 per cent is actually lower than the 9 per cent figure recorded in 1998.

Another recent US study, looking at 1,300 top grossing films from 2002 to 2014, found that only 4.1 per cent of all directors were female. Among other findings, it appears that women are fairly well represented in shorts and documentaries, but seem to find it harder to break through when it comes to feature films. And the bigger the budget of the film, the more likely it is that it will go to a male director.

Last week, it made headlines that there were three films directed by women (Patricia Riggen's real-life drama The 33, Jessie Nelson's family comedy Love the Coopers, and Angelina Jolie's By the Sea) running simultaneously in US theatres. One commentator called it a 'Halley's Comet' moment for Hollywood, because of the time it would likely take to occur again.

There are all sorts of reasons why it would be a good thing for there to be more films directed by women. Recently, in this column, I wrote about two very different films, both about teenage girls who embark on affairs with much older men. It is the sort of tendentious subject that could, in the wrong hands, end up being exploitative, sensationalist, or deeply judgemental. But both An Education ( 2009) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2014), while recognising that the situations they're dealing with are less than ideal, evoke the excitement and vulnerability of sexual discovery. While starkly different in how much sex they show, both films are astute about young women coming to realise the power of their own sexuality. It seems to me no coincidence that both films are directed by women: An Education was made by Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who first came to international attention with the 2000 hit Italian for Beginners -- a romcom made in the characteristic Dogme style of hand held video cameras and natural lighting -- while The Diary is a powerful directorial debut from actress Marielle Heller.

Given how rare women directors are, however, it isn't surprising that historically, almost all films about film-making have featured male directors. Think of the great European auteurs: Godard's Contempt (1963) cast the famous director Fritz Lang as himself, Antonioni's characteristically elliptical Identification of a Woman(1982) centred on a director's search for the perfect actress (who would also be his lover), Fellini's 8 ½ was an autobiographical part-fantasy ostensibly seeking solutions for the director's existential crises. Right down to the present: think of Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, in which both Ben Stiller's documentary filmmaker character and the New York world of indie filmmaking are a partial evocation of a similar world seen in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989).

In India, the situation is even more skewed: we can count our women directors on the fingers of one hand. So of course, in any film featuring the film industry -- from Guru Dutt's Kaagaz ke Phool to Mrinal Sen's Aakaler Sandhane, from Shyam Benegal's stellar period piece Bhumika -- right down to last year's marvellously energetic Tamil release Jigarthanda -- the director on screen is always a man.

All of this means that the crisis of creativity has invariably been presented as a masculine problem. Which is why Mia Madre is so refreshing.

The display of masculinity appears in Moretti's film as either wounded or ridiculous. The director in the film (Italian actress Margherita Buy) is already dealing with what she sees as the clingy behaviour of her just-divorced husband, and now must also deal with the particularly masculine demands of her star actor, Barry Huggins (John Turturro in a truly memorable turn), walking a thin line between patronising sexism and hilarity. For instance, when Margherita drops him off at his hotel upon arrival, he says, "Eating alone is so sad. Stay, have dinner." And when she refuses, he says, "Then you stay to sleep with me. What's your name?" She is trying to process this when he adds quickly, "That was a joke."

The film is very much about cinema, but directing a film is allowed to feel like work - rather than necessarily existential. There is, for instance, a film within the film, a serious-looking drama about a workers' strike, but Moretti approaches the whole thing with a lightness of touch. The wonderfully funny scene in which Huggins is supposed to be driving a car, for example, works as a hilarious metaphor for filmmaking. Moretti also uses the power of the cinematic medium to transport us constantly between reality and dream, often tricking us into believing one is the other.

But the real emotional centre of Mia Madre is Margherita's unwillingness, or inability, to accept that her mother is dying. Things will never be the same again, and yet the world remains unchanged. The crisis is not that of cinema, but life itself.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Dec 2015

7 December 2015

Cobwebs of the Mind

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

A documentary that brings the 'jharu' to the forefront, using it as an illuminator of our past and present.

On a trip to Jodhpur a month or so ago, staying in a little budget hotel in the Old City, I was struck by the filth of the streets around me. I've lived in India pretty much all my life, and don't think I have unrealistic expectations. But this felt like a different degree of dirt: rotting vegetables and plastic, puja waste and more profane trash lay everywhere in piles. Animals rooted devotedly through it, while human beings seemed to have perfected the art of avoidance. 

The latter response, though, wasn't possible for at least two chunks of the day, when a mysterious stream of water came gushing down from the direction of Mehrangarh, the royal enclave atop the hill, turning the streets into a swirling sea of garbage. Then you could do nothing but wade through with your skirt/sari/trousers held gingerly up, and your chappals soaked through. It was a little like being in a real-life version of Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar: the rich folk in the citadel diverting their river of sewage down to the lower town. 

Neecha Nagar, though, wasn't the movie on anyone's minds in Jodhpur. The film poster I did see several times was for a Rajasthani historical action drama called SP Chaudhari Tara Chand, apparently about a pre-Independence police officer. The tagline was: 'Swacch Bharat Nirmaan'. 

It felt quite serendipitous, soon after my return, to stumble upon the 2011 documentary Jharu Katha [Broom Stories]. Directed by Navroze Contractor, with a script by the scholar Rustam Bharucha, Jharu Katha draws inspiration from the lifelong work of Komal Kothari, a self-taught authority on the myriad folk cultures of Rajasthan. Kothari, who died in 2004, was exemplary in his ability to see how 'culture' is embedded deep in the roots of India's political and economic structures, and vice versa. The critical gaze he turned upon everyday life in the desert often focused on familiar objects, in which a host of social relationships lie congealed. And the broom, as the film demonstrates, is the perfect object to start with. 

Jharu Katha opens on a crisp Jodhpur morning, with two aerial views of the city showing us glimpses of the famous blue-walled houses. As we descend to the gali level, we are brought down to the ground -- literally -- by that familiar scratching-scraping sound so often heard in the Indian city: the sound of a jharu sweeping the street. 

The broom is the embodiment of some of our most deeply embedded civilisation tropes: ideas about pollution and purity that millennia of caste-consciousness have turned into a nigglingly pervasive Indian common sense, about what --and who -- is dirty, and what is clean. Without making heavy weather of it, the film constantly signals this ontological contradictoriness, most fascinatingly by taking us through a plethora of beliefs: when a jharu can be perceived as auspicious and when it becomes emblematic of inauspiciousness, filth (women of various communities describe the rules that govern the use of brooms in the home). 

Jharu Katha also does a fine job of introducing us to the communities engaged in broom-making in Rajasthan: the Banjaras, the Bagarias, the Bargundas, and the Harijans. The first three only 'make' brooms; the Harijans also 'use' them, in their professional capacity as municipal sweepers, and this seems necessarily linked to their 'lower' social status. We meet members of each of these communities -- and while jharu-making is clearly a household activity involving women and children, it is largely men who speak for the family and community. There is, for instance, Gopal Banjara, a middle-aged man with eight children and a bitter air. "Humne na toh iskool ka munh dekha hai... Hum toh matlab janme hain aur yeh Bajrangbali ka gota haath mein le liya (We have neither seen the face of a school... we were born, and took this hammer of Hanuman in our hands)," said Gopal, picking up the wooden mallet he uses to flatten brooms into shape. 

The film also details the material pressures on broom-makers today: the technological innovations that challenge profitability for these small-scale artisans, interlaced with the question of inter-community competition. Bagarias are listed as OBC. We hear from Onkar Lal Bagaria about how education isn't helping Bagaria young men get jobs, and how they are therefore 'stuck' in broom-making work. 

Understanding the different varieties of jharus is also to realise how closely the broom is tied to the natural environment. Moonj grass has to be brought from rainier areas. Household brooms can also be made from local desert plants -- kheemp, vipuno, buado, heeniyo -- but they do not seem prized. The Harijans have a traditional monopoly on the bamboo broom. The Bargundas used to make brooms out of khejur, date palm leaves, but they claim that Bagaria competition is forcing a shift to the more expensive, less popular phooljharu, for which the plant supplies come from Northeast India. "But we aren't even the only ones making phooljharus!" says Madan Lal Bargunda. "The Mohammedans, and every other caste, are making them, too." 

Most women's voices in the film tend to focus on household ritual. But a conversation with Lakshmi and Ratni, both Bagaria women, reiterates how forms of labour are linked to social position, and caste to gender. The villagers forbid them from spreading out their prickly khejur leaves to dry, forcing them to live beyond village limits. 

The film ends in Jodhpur's largest garbage dumping site, Keru, where a superintendent quietly quotes Gandhi: if we could each take charge of our own waste, there would be very little garbage problem to deal with. It is a simple maxim, but one that goes to the root of our murky relationship to dirt. Without actually trying to transform our minds, no amount of strategic appropriation of Gandhi is going to bring about a Swachh Bharat.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Mon 7 Dec, 2015.