23 December 2018

The work of home

My Mirror column:

Alfonso Cuaron’s exquisite portrait of 1970s Mexico places a maid at its centre, producing a film that is as stately as it is intimate, as harrowing as it is tender.

Not too far into Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which released on Netflix on December 15, a man gets a much younger, slighter woman to carry his bags. It is only after the 20-year-old Cleo has, with some difficulty, dragged the heavy luggage out and lifted it into the car boot that the man of the house walks up, making an ineffectual offer of ‘help’. It’s as if it’s her luggage, not his.

What the scene really reveals, though, is how both master and servant see it as her job, not his.

It is a minor scene, but one that typifies the magisterial new work from the director of films as various as Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: unobtrusively shot, exquisitely performed, and relentless in laying out the unquestioned social hierarchies that underpin our lives. Set in the early 1970s, in the Mexico City of Cuaron’s childhood, Roma takes us through a year or so in the life of an upper middle class family— but from the perspective of the household’s maid, who also doubles up as nanny to the four children.

It is a large and boisterous household, and Cleo and the other maid Adele are constantly on their feet: cleaning up after the dog, attending to the children, cooking the meals, washing and ironing and sweeping and scrubbing. In one of the film’s loveliest moments, one of the children lies down in the back courtyard, pretending to be dead. Cleo leaves the clothes she is scrubbing for a minute and joins him, the washed clothes on the line dripping gently onto them. “Hey, I like being dead,” says Cleo. For her, such a moment of quiet nothingness is exceptionally rare, and Cuaron marks that fact –without emphasis. There is no emphasis laid, either, on another moment that reveals the strangely mixed circumstances produced by domestic labour.

The whole family is on a sofa watching TV. Cleo hovers on the edges, serving, adjusting, half-watching. She is drawn into the circle by one of the children stretching an affectionate arm around her, but even as she seats herself tentatively on a floor cushion beside the sofa, the moment of pause is immediately interrupted by the mistress asking the maid to bring the master a tea.

But the mistress can also hug her departing husband with terrifying desperation in front of the maid; Cleo is to her as much of a harmless intimate as her own watching child. This is not a film that makes the mistake of treating people as good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Cleo must work non-stop, and she has little choice about anything —but as Cuaron shows consummately, this is simply the nature of things. The stratification is assumed, but it does not preclude affection.

Roma joins a growing body of films about the complexity of the relationship between domestic workers and bourgeois employers, especially children. Played with exceptional grace and gravity by Yalitza Aparicio, a non- professional actor whose own mother has worked in domestic service, the character of Cleo is based on Cuaron’s own childhood nanny Libo (to whom the film is dedicated).

Watching the scenes where Cleo lovingly wakes up each child individually reminded me of another great filmmaker’s recreation of his childhood— Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, in which the maid Maj tells the child Alexander that he can’t sleep in her bed tonight, “but you know you’re my sweetheart”. The effervescent Maj is, like Cleo, a mother-surrogate, as is Regina Case’s older, slightly frumpier Val in Anna Muylaert’s Sao Paulo-set The Second Mother (2015), Deanie Ip’s Ah-Tao in Ann Hui’s Hong Kong-set A Simple Life (2012), or Angeli Bayani’s Filipino nanny Teresa in Anthony Chen’s Singapore-based drama Ilo Ilo (2013).

All these films depict the hapless worker who enables the smooth functioning of her employer’s household, while spending years of her life forcibly away from her own. The nanny/housekeeper/cook is often beloved within the bourgeois household – but that home will never be really hers. And outside these homes, too, these women’s status is forever compromised. Across the world, the irreplaceable work they do seems tragically to make them ineligible for their own private lives. In Ann Hui’s superb film, the only time Ah Tao loses her equanimity is when an occupant of her old-age home says snarkily on being introduced to her, “That sounds like a servant’s name”. And in one of Roma’s most distressing scenes, Cleo’s feckless martial-arts-practicing boyfriend responds to her tentatively voiced claims on him by hurling at her the worst insult he can apparently imagine: “Fucking servant!”

Cuaron’s empathy does not stop with Cleo. We weep with the children’s grandmother as she nears a nervous breakdown in trying to get Cleo to hospital on a day of street riots. We feel the shared bond between Cleo and her mistress, both abandoned by cowardly men (this has shades of the ’80s Hindi films like Kamla and Arth).

But the film ends on a note of absolute clarity. The staircase Cleo must climb at the end of the film, at the end of each day, takes her very far away from the home she supposedly inhabits. It is a bridge to nowhere.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Dec 2018.

19 December 2018

Page-turner from the past

My Mirror column:

Thinking about Dilip Kumar, who turned 96 last week, as I leaf through a book of Urdu film memoirs now translated into English

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, who played Salim and Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam

Last week, I started to read a new book called Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends, a collection of pieces from Urdu film magazines that have been selected and translated into English by Yasir Abbasi. Also last week, on December 11, actor Dilip Kumar turned 96. 

Dilip Kumar, born Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922, has long been known as an Urdu aficionado, so I was hopeful that he might feature in the book. I was thrilled to find that there was actually a piece by him. Published in the Delhi-based Shama, it was a thoughtful reflection on his ‘King of Tragedy’ image. “I was declared a ‘tragedian’ at a time when I was still in the process of refining my skills,” he writes.

For Abbasi, a cinematographer and “lifelong film buff”, the book is clearly a labour of love, combining a nostalgic appreciation of Bombay filmdom with a desire to archive a lost world of Urdu journalism. By following each translation with a sample paragraph from the original essay, transcribed in Roman, the book offers a delightful little bonus to many readers like myself, who cannot read the Urdu script but are perfectly capable of understanding the words. 

But this also means opening up the translation to rather wider scrutiny than usual. To return to the Dilip Kumar reminiscence, for instance, it slips up in that single sample paragraph. “I believe real tragedy leads to a kind of sadness that permeates a person’s soul, making the individual stand out in a crowd,” reads Abbasi’s translation. But here is Dilip Kumar’s original Urdu: “Ya’ani andarooni wajood mein kucch aisi udaasiyan taari hon ki aadmi bharay mele mein bhi akela nazar aaye.” I’d say that “bharay mele mein bhi akela nazar aaye” here was meant to suggest that the tragic individual would have a profound air of solitude: he would appear alone even in a crowd.

Despite this, I was glad to read Dilip Kumar’s brief account, which revealed a man able to step away and scrutinise himself, both as an actor and a human being, in a way that would be rare in any era. He begins by pulling up those who equate tragedy with sentimentality. Tragedy, he says, goes beyond “superficial catastrophe” (though again, this is not how I’d render his “satahi qism ke haadsaat ki bharmaar”). His list of emotional markers is fascinating, because it maps a whole social -- and cinematic -- universe: “parting with the beloved, going bankrupt, betrayal of friends, or being disowned by the family”. (Again, the original ends with “makaan-jaaydaad se waalid ka be-dakhal kar dena”, which I’d have translated as “being disinherited from family property by a father”).

I was also struck by the remarkable honesty with which he spoke of his depressive tendencies — we must remember that he was writing for a mass Indian readership in 1973. He says he consulted psychologists in England, who suggested he take a break from melancholic roles. Taking on SMS Naidu’s comedy Azaad (a remake of the director's 1954 Tamil film Malaikkallan, starring MGRupon his return to India, he says, was a professional decision made for psychological reasons.

But while Dilip Kumar straddled Hindi cinema like a colossus (others in the book make many references to his aura, his linguistic skills and professionalism), what Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai makes clear is that his personal life also remained grist for the gossip mill. It comes up in all kinds of ways: as sly rumour, as tragedy, as professional hazard. An amusing instance of this is Dharmendra in Shama in 1977, where he cites Dilip Kumar’s affairs with co-stars as part of his aspirations: “Before I stepped into the world of films, I had heard a lot about the Raj Kapoor-Nargis and Dilip Kumar-Kamini Kaushal pairings. I too would fancy forming a similar duo with someone.”

His affair with Madhubala had a more tragic aftertaste because they separated on an acrimonious note (her father was, according to Dilip Kumar’s 2014 autobiography, not opposed to the wedding as much as keen to add Kumar to his money-making assets) — and because Madhubala died young. Madhubala seems to have other admirers: Nadira’s account here informs us that Premnath’s only true love was Madhubala, and the character-actor and later villain Ajit describes her after she dropped out of Naya Daur as “the wilted Anarkali who had been abandoned by Salim”. But other actresses could remain unsympathetic: the actress Veena’s version has Madhubala telling her during Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi that Dilip Kumar was her husband, and later, that she only married Kishore Kumar “[t]o annoy Dilip Kumar”. 

Among the last references to the thespian in the book is about how Ruby magazine went after the story of Dilip Kumar’s second marriage in 1982, when his vehement denials turned out to be false. But while it did not shy away from salacious or critical commentary, the Urdu magazine seems to also have offered a space for film folk to present themselves in their own words. Dilip Kumar's gift for words, of course, gave him an advantage here. Even in that tiny piece, he managed to suggest his perfectionism: “A misra [line of a poem] by Firaq saheb sums it up aptly for me: Akseer ban chala hoon, ki aanch ki kasar hai [I’d turn into an elixir, if only I could simmer a little more]." He may well have fulfilled that hope.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Dec 2018.

Life in the shadow of death

My Mirror column:
Thinking about how AIDS has been represented on the screen, from the USA to France to India, throws up a set of tragic tropes, with one exhilarating exception

The award-winning actor Nahuel Perez Biscaryat in Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute 

In May this year, a Tamil film called 
Sila Samayangalil 
(Sometimes) was released on Netflix. Directed by Priyadarshan, the film is set in the waiting room of a medical clinic. It gets certain things right, deftly establishing situations and characters.

A salwar-kameez-clad receptionist (Sriya Reddy) arrives insensitively late, given that people have been queuing since 6.30 am, and proceeds to talk on her cellphone. The depersonalised waiting room is typically unwelcoming, with its immovable rows of uncomfortable chairs, its notices about rules and timings, and the annoying automated voice-over in which counter token numbers are announced.

As is so often the case in India, however, that sanitised veneer of bureaucratic efficiency stops short of ensuring a functioning water dispenser, or preventing bribery. Despite a tendency to over-dramatise his actors' responses, Priyadarshan produces a sense of how this shared experience (the lack of drinking water, the collective irritation at the receptionist) shapes this rather motley crew into a community – especially as the seven people who’re waiting realise they’re all here for the results of the same thing: an HIV test.

There are six men and one woman, each with different reasons why they think they might have contracted the virus. Ashok Selvan’s relatively calm Balamurugan volunteers his story first, then Prakash Raj’s petrified Krishnamurthy, and so on – until we, the audience, have been given a whole range of possible ways in which AIDS might spread. By making the talkative Bala a pharmacist, the film takes the easy route to information dissemination, telling rather than showing.

I was struck by how wary Priyadarshan seems to be of his viewers’ moral judgement, how little he trusts them to sympathise or forgive anything that might depart from the monogamous heterosexual norm. Some of the male characters – though by no means all – are allowed a single ‘mistake’, but even so, they judge themselves very harshly.

Others have tragic stories about blood transfusions and saving accident victims. As for the sole woman character, she is visualised as being infected in the most non-agentive way possible – as a victim of anonymous sexual violence.

There is, of course, nothing ‘wrong’ with any of these narratives. All of them gesture to real possibilities where a person might get HIV without having, as the film’s characters repeatedly say, “done anything wrong”. But it is worth noting how studiously a film released two months before the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised consensual gay sex by scrapping the relevant parts of Section 377 avoids the slightest mention of men having sex with men.

I came upon Sometimes last week, when thinking about World AIDS Day, which was instituted in 1988 by the World Health Organisation, and thus celebrated its thirtieth year on December 1. And I couldn’t help but think about how far we are from making a film like 120 BPM – Beats Per Minute, Robin Campillo’s award-winning 2017 film about ACT UP activists and the battle against AIDS in 1980s Paris.

120 BPM
, among whose many richly-deserved awards is the Golden Peacock at last year’s IFFI, is both a pulsating account of a political movement and a profoundly affecting personal narrative. Campillo moves with consummate fluency between brilliantly detailed scenes of political agitation and intensely intimate scenes that take in love and sex, friendship and family. And yes, death. For death is what hovers over all the AIDS films that have ever been made, right from the originary 1993 moment of 
Philadelphia. Its early Hindi ‘adaptation’, Phir Milenge (2004), in which Ron Nyswaner’s protagonist, played by Tom Hanks, was split into two characters, played by Shilpa Shetty and Salman Khan, and Salman died. As did Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil (2005), an early AIDS drama in which Onir managed to give Hindi cinema an openly gay and yet sympathy-worthy protagonist, even if it had to be wrapped up inside Juhi Chawla’s saccharine-sweet sister act for public consumption. At this year’s IFFI, I also watched Yen Tan’s painful 2018 drama, 1985, in which a young Texan man goes home for Christmas but cannot bring himself to tell his family that he is gay, let alone what he really needs to, that he has AIDS.

and My Brother Nikhil have many tropes in common: the ultra-masculine unsympathetic father, the clueless childhood girlfriend who can’t understand why the protagonist won’t reciprocate her love, the devoted monogamous partner – and the close sibling who will be the one to remember the hero after he’s gone.

Young people living under the shadow of death: that is what unites these disparate films. In Sometimes, too, it is the possible death of innocents that the film plays on. The AIDS film repeatedly shows how love in these situations comes with the terrible condition of illness: taking care of the one you love is a literal responsibility.

120 BPM
, too, is tragic, with perhaps the most excruciating and moving depiction of slow death by disease that I have seen on film. And yet, somehow, what the film leaves one with is a remembered energy, a sense of endlessly articulate debate and endlessly flamboyant action, stretching from past to future.

In one of 120 BPM’s many stunning moments between the protagonists Nathan and Sean, Nathan describes being 19 and driving from Aix to Marseilles with an older man he has just met. The highway is jam-packed with cars, and Nathan imagines dying there, in a car accident, and their blackened bodies being discovered, and people wondering what they were to each other. It is a strange, dark vision, and yet acutely appropriate to the AIDS film – a vision in which desire and death, anonymity and intimacy, past and future are forever, and tragically, intertwined.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 Dec 2018.

10 December 2018

How the other half sees

My Mirror column:

Women filmmakers were a quiet revelation at this year’s International Film Festival of India, offering an alternative view of the world: the second of a two-part column.

Ioana Uricaru’s taut debut feature Lemonade stars Malina Manovici as Mara, a Romanian woman trying to move to the USA with her son

The work of women directors, I wrote last Sunday, seemed particularly strong at this year’s IFFI. The Bollywood based programming at the festival showed some cognizance of this, too, featuring a conversation with three women who have directed Hindi films: Meghna Gulzar (Talvar, Raazi), Gauri Shinde (English VinglishDear Zindagi), and Leena Yadav (Parched, Shabd). The festival also screened Raazi, among the most fascinating films to come out of Mumbai in 2018. Reema Kagti’s hockey historical Gold was part of the open-air screenings of recent sports films in Hindi, while the 1993 classic Rudaali was shown as a tribute to its director Kalpana Lajmi, who passed away this year.

But it was women filmmakers from the rest of the world that I decided to focus on. Having begun the festival with Nico, 1988, Susanna Nicchiarelli's acute reimagining of the last two years of the life of the late singer Christa Päffgen, it seemed appropriate to catch the festival’s other biopic of a female performer: Emily Atef’s Three Days in Quiberon. Although also set in the 1980s, and similarly structured, focusing on three days in the life of German actress Romy Schneider a year before her death, Atef’s approach could not be more different from Nicchiarelli’s.

Three Days is a polite, measured affair that uses black and white cinematography to achieve an even greater distance from its characters. And yet the predicaments of both women being portrayed are strikingly similar, almost to the point of cliché. Both shot to fame early, with their looks and private lives garnering more media attention than their talent, as happens so tragically often with young women. We see them both in later life, chafing against the milieu that has made them who they are – but also trapped them in a kind of freeze-frame. If Päffgen is frustrated with journalists ignoring her current music, refusing to see her beyond the three songs she sang with the Velvet Underground, Schneider is distressed at still being seen, at 42, through the lens of a 15-year-old character she once played.

Both women feel imprisoned by their beauty. But while Päffgen has finally escaped that particular cage with the almost deliberate use of heroin, Schneider’s drinking problem (throughout the film, she is at a detox retreat whose no-alcohol rule she breaks hungrily) has not yet led to the loss of her looks – a fact that may help explain why Atef shows us a woman desperately unhappy, trapped forever in the flattering, invasive gaze of the camera.

The most bizarre thing in common between Päffgen and Schneider is the French actor Alain Delon, who had affairs with both women, and was the father of Päffgen's son Ari. Which brings us to a more significant fact: both women were single mothers, torn between their unstable, overly public lives and their dreams of mundane, stable domesticity.

In fact, the depiction of women bringing up children by themselves is what unites several of the female-helmed films at IFFI. Men are absent from these domestic worlds for reasons as disparate as the films. In Beatriz Seigner’s affecting Los Silencios (which I wrote about last week and which has since won a Special Mention award at IFFI), the protagonist Amparo has lost her husband to the Colombian civil war. We watch her having to stretch herself across the gender divide: the only job she finds is as a loader of fish at the harbour; at home she must offer her little son enough company to prevent him from seeking out unsuitable male role models.

Another kind of migration lies at the core of Ioana Uricaru’s excellent and harrowing debut, Lemonade, about a Romanian single mother trying to stay in the United States on the strength of a nursing degree and marriage to an American man who was until recently her patient. Here the demands placed on the woman are not about transcending her gender, but reducing her to it. No matter what she does, her personhood is irrevocably tied to her sex.

From Iceland comes another fine film featuring border-crossing and single mothers: Ísold Uggadóttir's And Breathe Normally. Uggadóttir makes the child the bridge between mutually suspicious adults – and then the border guard from Iceland and the illegal immigrant from Guinea Bissau turn out to have more in common than they realise.

In other films, the father is the one who travels while the mother is left behind with the kids. Thrown back upon their limited resources, these mother-child relationships are less well-adjusted. In Shireen Seno’s dreamily evocative if self-indulgent memorialising of a solitary 80s childhood, Nervous Translation, the absent Filipino husband works in the Gulf, and the wife guards her privacy fiercely enough to become annoyed when the child listens to her father’s recorded cassette-letters. Camilla Strøm Henriksen's somewhat overwrought Norwegian debut Phoenix also maps a fraught mother-daughter relationship, drawing an affecting performance from Ylva Thedin Bjørkaas as a teenager who wrongly imagines her absent musician father will rescue her. “I travel the world and I play music,” he tells his girlfriend. “Steady relationships aren’t my thing,” he tells his daughter.

“Have you never had a man who’s said, ‘Quit the show business’?” the surprised journalist asks Romy Schneider in Three Days in Quiberon. “No, I’ve never had a man like that,” she responds. Perhaps the lesson from these films is a different one: the women waiting for men to return, resolve, or rescue them will wait forever.
We must make our own worlds.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Dec 2018.

Screening the World

A personal report from this year’s edition of IFFI: the first of a two-part column.

A still from Beatriz Seigner's haunting new film Los Silencios (The Silences)

I write this column from the middle of the 
International Film Festival of India, the 49th edition of which is currently on in Panjim, Goa. The festival got under way with its usual quota of frustrating glitches — the shiny new interface for online ticket booking worked smoothly for about a day before giving many users (including myself) trouble; the stated categories of manual ticket booking counters were defied in practice (e.g. numbers of non-media people, even students in film school T-shirts, insisted on standing in the media ticketing queue); the redemption of online bookings on Day One was limited to a single counter, effectively punishing those who’d actually made bookings online. That has thankfully changed, and the young people working the ticketing machinery at Inox, Maquinez Palace and Kala Academy are getting slightly better at it with each day, thus making the queues move faster.

The festival’s programming this year appears to have surrendered more space than usual to 
Bombay filmdom. Two of these sessions have been dominated by filmi families: producer Boney Kapoor appeared with his and Sridevi’s daughter Jahnvi, who made her debut with Dhadak this year, while David Dhawan will have a session today called Dha-One with his son Varun Dhawan. Singer Arijit Singh, lyricist Prasoon Joshi and actor Kriti Sanon have also had sessions at the festival. These sessions are apparently intended to lure in Bollywood fans who have little interest in the world cinema or regional Indian fare that the IFFI is meant to showcase. But it’s not clear to me what the festival is doing to bridge the gap between Kriti Sanon watchers and arthouse cinema watchers. Merely bunging both categories of people into the same venue only rubs everyone the wrong way. And it’s not about dissing popular cinema: I’m a Hindi film buff, but I don’t see why one particular industry gets so much play on what ought to be an equal platform for all our many cinemas.

For any serious film festival goer, though, the main business of the day remains the choosing of the next day’s films. Many are here to catch Indian Panorama screenings at Inox Screen 2. Others might be tempted by a chance to see the late Vinod Khanna on the big screen (A well-chosen mix of his films features Achanak, Dayavan and Lekin, though Mere Apne would have been even nicer), or watch a (very small and predictable) selection of Ingmar Bergman classics, timed to commemorate his birth centenary this year.

The greater proportion of screenings, happily, remains recent international cinema. Beyond the fiction features in the International Competition section, there is the non-competitive World Panorama section, also consisting of international films made in the last year. The Festival Kaleidoscope section presents films made this year by the world’s most eminent filmmakers — this is where you go to catch Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning moving through occasionally mawkish tale of fictive kinship, Shoplifters, or agent provocateur Gaspar Noe’s frenetic dance-and-drugs cocktail Climax, or the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest leisurely three-hour outing, The Wild Pear Tree.

For me personally, this year’s festival has been a revelation for the number of female directors whose superb work I’ve encountered for the first time. The very first film I saw was Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988, a portrait of German singer Christa Päffgen, who shot to fame for singing briefly with the Velvet Underground and later had a son with legendary French actor Alain Delon. Nicchiarelli’s film is equal parts melancholy and fierce, like its heroine. I knew nothing about Nico or her music, but Danish actress Trine Dyrholm makes Paffgen’s dark, heroin-fuelled energy a thing of beauty — even as Nico revels in having aged beyond the prime age of physical attractiveness: “I was never happy when I was beautiful.” It is a bravura performance: what we get is a woman who seems gloriously intense but also casually deranged, seemingly unseeing of the risks people around her take to enable her life. Her preoccupation with herself, the bubble in which she seems to live, is only really punctured by her tenderness for her teenaged son.

Another of my favourites so far has been Beatriz Seigner’s Los Silencios (The Silences). The film opens with a small boat edging slowly towards a jetty, in an inky darkness where water merges into sky. A mother and her two children — a girl and a boy — embark. As Seigner’s film proceeds, we learn that they are “migrants requesting refugee status”, a family fleeing the violence of the Colombian civil war and looking to settle down on this Brazilian island rather too fittingly called La Isla de la Fantasia.

The island is both surrounded by water and built upon it, and the atmosphere is hauntingly evocative: the draughty wooden houses standing on stilts, the women looking out of the square windows in their slatted wooden walls, the row boats gliding silently between them, the rain outside and the hearth fires within. Seigner, whose previous film Bollywood Dream tracked the Hindi film ambitions of three young Brazilian women, has produced here a slow, immersive work of beauty. The simplicity of its approach to its political context did not seem to me to take away from the film in any way. The warmth and attentiveness with which the camera treats both place and people — letting us absorb not just the faces of the central characters but also people who appear briefly, like the boy with one leg —seemed to me emblematic of a politics we need much more of: a humanising politics which sees each missing person as a person.

(To be continued next week)

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Nov 2018.