Thursday, November 6, 2014

MAMI Diary: On Killa, Chauranga and Court

I started my this year’s Mumbai Film Festival with Killa (English title: The Fort). Killa is an affectionate tale, told in Marathi language, that objectively looks at the age of adolescence through its kid protagonist Chinmay for whom change of environment, due to his single mother’s job transfers, has been a constant source of nurture. Directed by debutant Avinash Arun, the film has won Crystal Bear (Award for Best Children’s Film) at the Berlinale early this year. An FTII graduate in cinematography, Arun has also shot the film in the picturesque Konkan parts of Maharashtra. The delicate subject of childhood does remind us of another brilliant Marathi film that played in Competition at the festival last year- Fandry. But the treatment here has been stark serene (with huge help of background score by Naren Chandervarkar and Benedict Taylor who recycle their own score from Ship of Theseus) in a microcosm with no friction of worldly realities, and dipped in nostalgia (The kids take you back to the Malgudi Days). Instances like reeling an audio cassette with a pen, a kid chanting old Doordarshan show Chandrakanta’s title song and kids dancing on Ram Lakhan’s dhina-dhin-dha roughly tell us about the time it is set in. 

A still from Avinash Arun's Killa
Arun creates deliciously tensed moments and a sense of thrill looms over in such scenes: Like when Chinmay is lost in the titular fort- symbolic to adulthood and permanence in his constantly changing environment- in the village searching for his friends who came all the way cycling with him but left him alone; or in the scene where Chinmay is only with a stranger drunkard fisherman on a boat, in the mid of a sea. Someone from the audience even asked the crew post screening (from which the director was absent) what if the fisherman, in his pervert mind, had abused the kid. But, thankfully, the story didn’t take that route. The kind of tension built in that scene must have let that audience member think about it, and there’s no wrong reasoning to it- the last time that fisherman character met Chinmay, he asked him to get his bottle of alcohol refilled, which could’ve just given way for that abuse to happen! But the tone of the film would have definitely not allowed that. You know, you have to believe the tale here more than the teller. Sadly, the member who raised this point got a reasonably bad answer by the lead actress, Amruta Subhash, who otherwise did a fine job in portraying her character of the kid’s mother in the film. 

I loved its nuanced visual storytelling. In one scene where the kids in their regular misdemeanors scribble expletives on toilet walls one by one passing the chalk next to each other, the camera stops at the central character as he is standing at the end of the wall and his scribbling gets hidden by his head and we can read only after he rushes out with other kids till then giving us time to think, predict and study his behavior. The setting here helps the director to tell even the significantly smaller scene with a sense of suspense attached to it. And in one masterfully composed scene when the shy new-kid-in-the-school Chinmay tells a notorious and abuse-spewing Bandya (show-stealer Parth Bhalerao of Bhoothnath Returns fame) in grief that he lost his father, Bandya tells in return with rather much casualness and funny undertone that he lost his parents in a bus accident. Chinmay then sits facing opposite to Bandya, thus we not only observe the contrasting brushstrokes of their characters but also the two distinct faces of childhood- innocent and intrepid.

Competing in the India Gold section, Killa was so loved that an extra screening was demanded at the fest, and to the surprise of many, it went on winning the Silver Gateway (Second Best Film Award) and not the Best Film award- the Golden Gateway which went to Chauranga by Bikas Mishra. 


A still from Bikas Mishra's Chauranga
I didn’t like Chauranga much though. Despite of its good dramatic builds and storytelling, I couldn’t shrug off its forced rusticalness and its inconsistencies. Very little detailing of the place and the film’s very unconvincing casting is to be blamed for that. Mishra claims to belong from one such village, yet his take and recreation of a village from Jharkhand feels like that of an outsider. Surely, the film works as a good drama but the social issues it is surrounded with- caste discrimination, hypocrisy, sexual repression- are dealt standing far away at a distance which was a conscious choice by the writer-director, Mishra confessed. 

Chauranga, too, has a child protagonist and Fandry’s caste-schism between upper ones and pig catchers reappears in this one. Santu, a Dalit kid, secretly has feelings for an upper-caste Mona, daughter of village supremo Dhaval (poorly casted Sanjay Suri). It is as if last year’s favorite Fandry was diluted into two films with Killa taking only the adolescence theme out of it and yet delivering a far superior film than this which, despite of having so many themes in hand, feels a bit underachieved.


Dramatic build-ups for realism and intimacy fade away in Chaitanya Tamhane’s cinéma vérité Court. We are made to sit back and observe life as it happens, turning the screen in front of us into a window to the world where we come from, through proceedings in a sessions’ court where not many of us have ever been to. Last time we visited a courtroom was in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (that was screened at the 2012 edition of the fest; and like Shahid’s protagonist, the lawyer here too gets his face blackened by a tribal group for calling them regressive) but even that somewhat relied on heated drama between two fine actors asking for audience’s engagement. Here, you have hardly known faces as actors who don’t look like they’re “acting”, the proceeding involves monolithic dictation of exasperatingly long law codes straight out of the Constitution followed by the judge’s anecdotic minutes to his typewriter which makes you more than invested into it. 

A still from Chaitanya Tamhane's Court
The court case in question is about a folk singer being accused for abetment of suicide of a sewage-cleaner who must have been incited by one of the songs being performed by the singer nearby. Sounds bizarre but it gets only compelling to know as the film hides all the socio-political relevance of the case in the clouds of doubt. The film remains a silent spectator, makes no deliberate commentary but presents us incidents from our daily walk of lives. The audience laughed and clapped together at the scene when the judge dismisses a hearing as the female petitioner was dressed- against the moral code of conduct of the law- in a sleeveless! And in a scene when Tamhane, a theater director himself, stages a Marathi play that makes politically incorrect statement against the North Indians in the Mumbai city, the play’s audience of which the female lawyer’s family is a part claps wholeheartedly, we don’t. The director makes no statement here; the film does, irreverently; thus, separating himself from his work, giving us to read into the minds of two distinct beings- the art and the artist. 

The story that  the director is interested in telling is a much bigger film that has nothing to do with the court case but with the people involved in it: mainly the two lawyers- a male and a female- and the judge. These are the people whom we consider as the authoritarian of the law, someone whom we bestow the judicial powers in; their judgments would decide the fate of many lives. But, that’s just their daily job. The lady lawyer, in a scene, in a regular conversation with her peers ignorantly says that the judge should finish off the case by giving the accused a final verdict of 20 years of imprisonment. She and her peers are not at all bothered about discussing the case and its ridiculousness or how a 20 years imprisonment could drastically ruin someone’s life; it’s just another case for them. They have as much personal lives beyond their jobs as anyone else in the city. The film was screened in the same city to a packed house and the audience seemed never so amazed by looking into their own lives or of one’s sitting next to them. 

The film is too clinical in its treatment and given its realistically natural staging of scenes with little improvisations, its fly-on-the-wall observant nature works. Tamhane’s theater talent shines here (Another theater director Vivek Wagh, who was also executive producer of Fandry, made his directorial debut with Siddhant- screened at the fest, a very soap opera-ish, full of cardboard caricatures and unassured direction- need to learn from Tamhane the difference between theater and cinema- it’s the camera!). On being asked his directorial inspirations, Tamhane was a bit reluctant in dropping names, but when someone from the audience cleverly asked “Would you like Michael Haneke to see this film?” Tamhane’s answer was a resounding yes. Haneke’s style of long shots with minimal cuts is evident. In one sufficiently long take of a courtroom getting vacant and the lights fading out, one may presume that film ends there, but given the theme of the film about life going beyond the court, the last shot of the film is when the old judge, on vacation, is sleeping on a bench and a bunch of kids mischievously wake him up by shouting in his ears and run away while one of them gets slapped by him and cries away. Probably, that’s how a court functions. 

Last Indian film that got this close to the similar treatment and true to the genre of cinéma vérité was Anand Gandhi’s masterpiece Ship Of Theseus which was also a part of the International Competition at the fest in 2012. Court, the final film I saw at this year’s fest, won Best Film award in the same category this year and Tamhane, the Best Director. 

P.S.: In between these three films, the other (non-Indian) films that I watched and absolutely loved were Xavier Dolan’s cinematic triumph called Mommy and Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian film of twisted genre of horror and western pop- A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

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