This post is by Salik Shah, whose twitter bio says his location is Milky Way, and he is addicted to speculative fiction. Once in a while, when he remembers us or finds a film worth talking about, he sends us his cinema notes. Over to him.
The story about struggle behind the making of a film shouldn’t be criteria for judging a film. The act of borrowings, bold decisions and compromises made can’t be more important than the film. When a film reaches the theater, or the screen, it stands on its own feet. There is no director to defend it. No producer to sell it. No critic to lead. The decision is tough—whether we like it or not. Our choices reveal more about us than the film.
Let’s take two very different films for comparison, The Drop (Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2014) and Court (Dir. Chaintanya Tamhane, 2015)—both set around a fixed point—to see the differences between the choices made by a master screenwriter and a promising debutant.
The bar in The Drop and the court in Court have one thing in common: they don’t move. Written by an American, Dennis Lehane, and adapted to the screen by a European director, The Drop is a striking film set in an American neighborhood. Nothing happens in The Drop—nothing extraordinary—until the beginning of the end, or an end. The Drop ends at one point, and then starts again. Same with Court, like MFC said. Tamhane pushes the violence off the screen. Lehane embraces it. Tamhane denies a verdict. Lehane delivers justice.
Storytellers have to make tough choices—and those choices make or break them. Tamhane’s earlier effort, Six Strands (2011), is mesmerizing minus the political comment. Forerunner (Dir. Sahej Rahal, 2013) is clever and intriguing, also equally political and confident. But it is Pati (Dir. Sohrab Hura, 2011) which emerges as the winner among the three with its stark realism. Pati reminds one of Satyajit Ray’s early films—though it isn’t supposed to be a film.
Court is made with paper, but the script is not the film. Pati’s strength comes from the camera, which isn’t afraid to move when the need arises. Kamble embodies anger, movement and restlessness, but the still camera doesn’t quite capture his free spirit. Court doesn’t let Nutan’s kitchen speak for itself. It chooses noise over silence during the train journey, which could have been a memorable and powerful scene. Pati sings, Court stings.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (Dir. Jabbar Patel, 1999) is a Bollywood film—but manages to offer nuanced characters and scenes. Though I struggled to get past my bias against the style of the film in the beginning, I was really interested in the subject. When the style became unimportant, the story took over my senses. Towards the end of Ambedkar, the struggle is lost but the spirit remains.
Court doesn’t offer such comfort. It refuses to be subjective. It is a balanced work, and therein lies its flaw. It is fair to everyone, but unfair to itself. Jai Bhim Comrade (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2011) from where Court borrows its strength isn’t such a sleek and sanitized film. Patwardhan isn’t easy to watch not just because of the controversial subjects of his documentaries, but also for his low-production value, unplanned, haphazard shots and unprofessional cutting by our ‘high’ standard.
Anand Patwardhan tells the truth, and he shows that it can be really ugly, quite literally. He has a signature that doesn’t need introduction in the history of Indian filmmaking. And he isn’t afraid to go the court to fight censorship and secure release of his films. We can label Patwardhan as an activist filmmaker, but Anurag Kashyap (Gulaal), Vishal Bhardwaj (Haider) and Imitiaz Ali (Highway) are also activists in their own fashion and target audience.
Subjectivity comes with the position of power—internal and external—and Court was wise to recognize that it didn’t have such power early on. Court tempered the anger, harshness and spirit of Jai Bhim Comrade to reach out to a wider audience (who might actually commit suicide if made to watch a Patwardhan). Its strategy worked, but our cinema lost. Again.
“In the last few years, [I] have discovered that there is nothing bigger than a filmmaker’s ego. And [I] would surely worship that ego the day I get to know that a film is cure for AIDS or some serious disease like that. Till then, it’s just a film, a fucking film…
Does it deliver anything new? A new cinematic language? A new/hidden India that we weren’t aware of? A new art? A new craft? The answer is no. It’s a new voice that’s assured, makes brave choices but is still following the diktats set by the Top 5-fest-selection-committee. It felt like what an European art-house director would do if he is asked to direct the film. Even when the lights are switched off one by one in the Court, you knew at that moment that the film won’t be over there. He would go back to the mundane life of one of the characters. And he exactly did that – its predictable in that way, you know whom the film is trying to please.”
The above criticism is harsh, but necessary. It is true that a film can’t be a cure to physical diseases, but it can be a balm to spiritual calamities. It can save marriages and prevent suicides. It can give hope to those who need it desperately. It can also make life bearable and worthwhile. It can help people to grow beautiful from within. It can also lead one astray, sow guilt, and kill. It could be a world event promoting science, or a political tool to ensue genocide. It can be extraordinarily mundane, or remain just a film, a fucking film. Should it be pathbreaking or formulaic? The choice is ours and ours alone to make.
Dear Bollywoodwallas, the good news is: the most famous scene from the court of Indian cinema is yet to be convicted. The bad news is: the world has changed. Chaintanya Tamhane is a confident voice of our changing times, and Court is better than most of our paper mache. Vivek Gomber, you’re the quiet hero we need. (Though I must confess that 12 Angry Men (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957) is still my favorite court film.)
In memory of Bollywood, and to good times ahead:
(Pic Courtesy – Court’s FB page)