We are back to our “movie recco” posts and will try to be regular this time. This recco post is by lyricist and screenwriter Varun Grover. And let me warn you that by the time you will finish reading this post, you will be desperately searching for the film. So please start your search (#youknowwhere) now. And read on.
Polite Disagreement of the Sugar Man
Most of the times, how powerful a film (or any piece of art) is can be judged by the simple test of what and how many things it reminds you of. Things that you have read, seen, experienced, or heard about. Like this excellent, meditative Russian film The Return reminded me of my mother’s old Buaa whose husband had returned after 30-years of having gone missing and she didn’t know how to deal with it. She had been living the life of a widow at her brother’s (my Nana’s) house for almost all her life and here was this man she had even forgotten the face of too, standing in front of her shocked, crying face, talking in broken English for some reason, and telling her ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ (What happened with Buaa and her husband after that is even more surreal, but that’s for another day.)
Similarly, Terrence Malick films remind of the world I imagined as a child, Vihir reminded me of dealing with a recent death in the family, Holy Motors reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., and many others, and Anish Kapoor’s recent exhibition in Bombay reminded me of Waltz with Bashir and Mughal-E-Azam.
I watched Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man last night and the list of things it reminded me of is probably the greatest ever. From Gurudutt’s Pyaasa to Charles Bukowski and Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poetry and persona, to Bob Dylan (“Bob Dylan was mild to this guy” says one character in the film), to Mirza Ghalib, to many of my friends struggling with the whole commerce-vs-art, indie-vs-massy question hanging over their futures – everybody/thing has flashed past my eyes in the last 12-hours. (And one more man, but about him, later.)
There could be a specific reason, not within the film but within me, that it reminded me of so many things. May be I myself am struggling with the questions of immortality or otherwise of art and my place in the creation process.
(Spoiler free. Though I’d say watch the film without even reading the synopsis.)
Detorit, 1970s. A construction worker called Rodriquez, who writes poetry of the streets and is a struggling musician, cuts an album. Album sells just “6 copies in all of America” and he goes back to a life of obscurity. Word goes around that he killed himself later after singing some iconic, depressing words like “But thanks for your time and then you can thank me for mine.” But soon after him receding back into the shadows, bootlegged copies of his album reach South Africa, to a people locked away from the world due to apartheid. There, in SA, his songs gain a cult following and a couple of fans decide to find the truth behind his death.
The man who walks
One recurring motif in the film, used brilliantly even in animated portions, is that of a man walking relentlessly – through snow and streets, in a city past its prime (or may be a city that never reached its prime like Rodriguez himself). My guess is this motif, of all the brilliant things this film shows, will stay with me for the longest. Rodriguez was a man who poured his suffering and his observations of the city into his music. (His songs and voice alone are the reasons enough to revere him as one of the greatest musicians ever.) This motif captures the slow rhythm, the effort, and imagery of his music just perfectly.
But another reason, as my wife pointed out after the film, this motif captures Rodriguez’s essence is because his was a life of polite disagreements – with the rules of society, norms of success, recognition and copyright. His lyrics were angry but not bitter in a Pyaasa/Sahir Ludhianvi or Bukowski way nor pessimistic like Ghalib/Batalvi – his anger too was like his persona – easy, sweet, and with a dash of hope. I am sure unknowingly, but he lived by the Gandhian principle of सविनय अवज्ञा (Savinay Avagya – polite non-cooperation), and hence the walking motif gets another layer of Gandhi connection. (There’s one more, even bigger Gandhi connection but giving that out will be a spoiler.)
Since it’s a reco-post, there are so many things I am tempted to write but not writing. So will give you a quick ‘10-reasons to watch this film ASAP’ and wrap this up.
- A musical docu (with some of the best music you’ll hear in a film) narrated like a thriller. The search for Sugar Man (Rodriguez) is as surprising and twisted as any good, genuine thriller.
- An underdog story with so many uplifting moments. Better than in any similar-genre fiction film I have seen last year.
- Technically top-notch. Animation, frames, footage from the 70s and 80s, all pieced together absolutely seamlessly.
- A mysterious central character that may have been lost to the history forever.
- Some of the most articulate interviewees in a docu. One man (called Clarence Avant) looks and talks straight out of a Tarantino film.
- In spite of being an almost-thriller, the pace is languorous and easy – like Rodriguez’s music. Very difficult to achieve and done very well.
- A terrific statement on the real value of art and artist, and the eternal tussle between business and creative.
- One real chunk of footage of a Rodriguez concert. If you don’t have a lump in your throat in that portion of the film, please get your species-test done.
- Poetry. Both visual and verbal. (One frame with smoke billowing out of a factory chimney across the river and merging into clouds above while Cold Fact plays in the background is cinema at its ethereal best.)
- The message it conveys, subtly but powerfully.
Note: It’s out #youknowwhere. And thanks to documentary lover @AuteurMark for recco-ing this to some of us.
The following TRAILER has SPOILERS. So we would suggest that you should AVOID it and watch the film directly.