Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bioscope [dir. K.M. Madhusudhanan]

My God, this is one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen. When I say this, I don't mean it with some qualifier like low-budget film or Indian origin film or something like that. I would readily put this one in the same ballpark as films by Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci and Michaelangelo Antonioni and still say, “My God, this is one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.” I doubt there's a single shot in this film that cannot be simply framed and hung up as a work of art.
Of course, it's not a film I can recommend in an unreserved fashion because the elliptical script also has the narrative cohesion of a work of art (although never to the point of being aggravating), but if you are one with the idea of film as the magic of moving image, of poetry in motion, this is as good as it gets. The moving image is an integral part of the film's soul, its lead character Diwakaran (Murugan) succumbing to the magic of the early movie projector. Diwakaran, a sensitive dreamy young man with a consumptive wife, in turn aims to spread the magic bringing the instrument to his village. In the pre-independence era the film is set in, the arrival of the bioscope in the village provokes whispers of ghosts and witchcraft, and even his affectionate family is disturbed at what might bring a curse upon them.
This may sound like a ripe royal melodrama but Madhusudhanan and his collaborators DOP M.J. Radhakrishnan and Music Composer Chandran Veyattummal completely discarded such tropes, transforming the experience through visuals and sound into one of sublime cinematic sensuality. Beyond an initial viewing there is even no need to keep track of the narrative, just submit yourself to the phantasmagoria of iconic imagery that is Bioscope.
The good news is that the NFDC-Shemaroo DVD is in general a very good presentation of the film. The image is on the soft side and can occasionally be quite dark but I think it reflects the intended look. Primary colors are incredibly rich and the all-important shadows are deep. Although there are minor scratches/blemishes now and then, the print is quite clean by most standards for Indian films and major damage is thankfully quite rare.
But there is a single flaw in the transfer which is quite egregious given the visual nature of the film. What we have here is a non-anamorphic transfer in 16:9 ratio, which means that if you have a 16:9 widescreen TV the image, instead of filling the screen completely with its gorgeousness, will stretch out with black bars. Additionally the subtitles fall in the region of the black bars, so zooming in will lead to them getting cut off from view. You can get around this if you have an HTPC setup like I do (VLC Player ftw!) or have some fancy DVD player that allows you to alter the position of the subtitles, but really it should not have to be addressed like that. It's a shame because otherwise this is a tremendously good effort.
But don't let these niggles stop you from experiencing what is surely one of the most absorbing painterly experiences in cinema.

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