Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Silent Indian Cinema

No, this is not going to be some illuminating overview of the early days of Indian cinema. I can claim no appreciable knowledge of the same. These are my impressions of a DVD that contains surviving material of three silent films taken from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Of the three films, two are from India's pioneer of film Dhundiraj Govind Phalke aka Dadasaheb: Raja Harischandra (1913), regarded as India's first feature film, is available only as a fragment containing the opening and closing reels, while Kaliya Mardan (1919) is present almost entirely. The last film in this set is a feature from Bengal, Jamai Babu (1931) by one Kalipada Das. Along with my impressions I have also given screenshots, click on the screenshots for the full resolution.

Both the Phalke films are based on famous incidents from Hindu mythology, obviously with an aim to differentiate them from foreign product and have immediate attention value amongst the Indian public. I suspect the decisions about which stories to adapt for film would have resembled the sequence in R.K. Narayan's Mr. Sampath (The Printer of Malgudi), where a film-making team brainstorms about their maiden production, trying to zero in on suitable stories from the mythos to adapt for the screen. If Phalke's two films set six years apart can be taken as an indication, there was not much evolution to his style. Of course, he was making films in the period when the mechanics of the trade were still primitive in most parts of the world and the added challenges of working in Indian conditions with the aim of producing material that would appeal to a film-illiterate Indian audience cannot be underestimated. However it stands that in these films, his style is generally that of filmed theater than an erudite visual language. Most shots are mid-range upfront, capturing naïve actors repeatedly performing a set of uncoordinated arm-waving gestures without any clear idea of the length and rhythm of the shot.

Another source of unintended humor is a practice Phalke, as depicted in the bio-pic Harishchandrachi Factory, unfortunately could not avoid - the use of cross-dressing men for female roles. The image in Kaliya Mardan of a flock of hirsute gopis grinning lasciviously at the child Krishna (incidentally played by Phalke's daughter Mandakini) is more disturbing than anything. Technically, panning of the camera is quite rare, and apart from the odd overhead shot in the last reel, I cannot recall the use of any striking camera angles or tracking movements. Occasionally he juxtaposes shots where characters in a room are looking out of a window at another scene. Apart from the use of some rudimentary visual effects for the climactic battle between young Krishna and the snake (an obvious rubber inflatable with the plug right on top of its head), this is about the extent of its difference from amateur theater.

What a world of difference in the 12 years between KM and JB. While no match at all for the genius of FW Murnau or Fritz Lang, the visual style in Kalipada Das' film is, of course due to the greater experience and exposure to better quality western cinema, more sophisticated and professional than the previous films. The story of a country bumpkin that lands at his in-laws' place in Calcutta and has a series of misadventures on account of his bumpkin-ness is quite modest and not particularly noteworthy, but the film's execution has a pleasing polish. The location shoots give a lovely view of the old city and have a quasi-documentary feel. The framing and the editing of these sequences (both credited to one D.R. Barodkar) are elegant. Camera pans are more frequent (not as an empty exercise in style), close-ups, juxtapositions, lighting schemes and non-theatrical angles are judiciously used, and there is, heavens, even the odd tracking shot. Considering that I have not even heard of this film, it was a lovely surprise and it would have been nice to have some access to Kalipada Das' other work (sadly, nothing else is known to survive at this point).

The NFAI DVD (authored by one Kriti Media Services and manufactured by Sony DADC) gives us an acceptable presentation of these films. Given the age and likely condition of the source material, we cannot expect miracles. That said, the bulk of Kaliya Mardan and Jamai Babu look quite acceptable (although Jamai Babu, despite being newer is more scratched and washed out). NFAI have specially commissioned scores for these films by composer Rahul Ranade and he obliges with material that sits comfortably with the style of the films. There are no extras apart from a dull slideshow of pictures of the NFAI screening facilities. A small interview or featurette on the restoration and presentation of the films on the DVD, or even a sitting with Rahul Ranade regarding his contribution would have been much appreciated. The package includes liner notes, carelessly printed on a very non-standard size leaflet. Oh well, just appreciate the good stuff while they still bother to put it out.

Gafla [dir. Sameer Hanchate]

The cover of the Gafla DVD says “India's first film on a stock market scam”, and I suppose that's true. Originally released in 2006 (and included in the London Film Festival that year), Gafla is a loose adaptation of the events leading up to and encompassing the Harshad Mehta scam of the 90's. Here we have Subodh Mehta (Vinod Sharawat) getting into the stock market world first as a wide-eyed apprentice with a brokerage firm, then climbing up the professional ladder. He eventually becomes his own boss and engineers resources at hand to manipulate stock prices that lead to a rigged bull-run. The expose of his attempt to fund his venture by illegally harnessing the resources of banks eventually lead to the end of his success story. Gafla portrays the Harshad Mehta character in a curiously whitewashed manner, as an entrepreneur who does what he does with the intention of expanding the stock market and increasing the investor base, thereby bringing democracy to the market and prosperity to the small investors. He is shown as a maverick crusading against a coterie of suited tycoons that for reasons of their own periodically crash the market. The Mehta of the film says that his investments are always in firms he has thoroughly researched for their potential and that by following his lead “the market will never crash”, something of a large swallow. His downfall is shown entirely as the work of his rivals in collusion with corrupt journalists.

To Gafla's credit it is a sincere and focused film that doesn't stuff in any needless commercial elements like songs, cheap sexuality or ornate romance sequences, and more importantly no significant detours from its plot line. Mehta is shown as someone willing to do anything to achieve his ends, including marrying for political advantage (without the usual associated melodrama for such moments). Vinod Sharawat in the lead role acquits himself in a decent manner. The problem however is that the treatment is linear and lacks any emotional strength. In a 2 hour film that charts a significant period of its protagonist's life, there are hardly any memorable moments; contrast this with Oliver Stone's Wall Street or David Fincher's The Social Network, which made sure to have a strong dramatic element in the progression of the story, and interesting characters.

Neither do Hanchate and his team have the creative chops to make the film interesting on a technical level. I don't know how much research was done for the project, but the portrayal of the workings of the stock market seem empirical and simplistic, little above the “Market mein saare shares khareed lo (buy up all the stock in the market)” depiction of business rivalry in several archaic Bollywood films and TV serials. Combined with production values and flat visuals normally associated with the more recent Dev Anand films, it feels more like a movie composed of footage excerpted from an 80's era Indian television serial. The presence of tele-serial actors of that period like Shakti Singh and Somesh Agarwal only adds to this feel.

The DVD of the film by one Junglee Home Video, claims to have an anamorphic transfer (and even instructs you about adjusting your TV settings for the same). But it is an amazing botch up job in which they have somehow managed to generate an anamorphic signal for a stretched out 4:3 image. To illustrate, I have here modified one of the film's images to a 4:3 ratio and you can see that this looks less distorted than the original so-called anamorphic image (yep, Vikram Gokhale isn't THAT fat :D).

Original "Anamorphic"

Resized to 4:3

The film also has an official website HERE.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dracula [dir. Terence Fisher]

This is going to be rather embarrassing, but I will first paste in an old review I had done for Hammer Studio's version of Dracula aka Horror of Dracula. The review was written in 2004 for an informal online film discussion group, and going through this you would not think I liked the film as much as I do now. Here goes:
My only earlier experience of the Hammer horrors being the slow-paced and unrewarding Countess Dracula, I thought I would, before dismissing them entirely, give a try to their much praised (among the genre fans) first Dracula film. Well, it's a lot better than Countess Dracula, better paced with the thrills coming along fairly frequently but it remains in most part a clunky, garish effort that doesn't very well stand the test of time.
Jimmy Sangster's script is a very `free adaptation' of [Bram] Stoker's book, cheerfully fooling about with the characters and relationships (Lucy, engaged to Jonathan Harker, is the sister of Arthur Holmwood, who is married to Mina???) and doing away with major chunks of the original plot to fit Hammer's limited means. The film bears a lot of B-movie trademarks – stagey sets, cacophonous music, horrible dialog, and with few exceptions, prosaic visuals. Christopher Lee's Dracula is decent if not too effective in the scares department, and way ahead of his predecessor [Bela] Lugosi's stodgy turn.
The best parts of the movie though are the solid performances of Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. A word about Cushing: He plays Van Helsing more as a vampire hunting Sherlock Holmes and quite rightly since he has such a startling resemblance in his looks and gestures to the beloved sleuth - only the lack of a proper baritone puts him a couple paces behind Jeremy Brett. He and Gough gamely manage to imbue their roles with some dignity in the face of all the ridiculous lines they have to mouth. So in total, this movie won't having tearing your hair out over it but is also nowhere near the must-sees for the current-day horror fan.
Even then I had begun to have second thoughts, since just a few hours after the initial writeup I added a post-scriptum:
I feel that I may have come cross as being a bit too harsh on the film. To be sure, it would have had some powerful shock moments in it's time, when the only Dracula film to reference was the turgid 1931 Lugosi version. It's mainly that the shock value doesn't translate too well today, since it's not accompanied by a strong aesthetic. The sets are not bad in themselves but, unlike Mario Bava's Black Sunday, unimaginative lighting reveals their prop-like quality all too obviously. The performances in general would have made a much better impression if the actors hadn't had to grapple with mostly inept dialog. 
Well, given that nearly a decade later I still enjoy watching the film, enough to drop 18 quid on a blu-ray release, I guess I can shove the "doesn't very well stand the test of time" remark where it came from. Dracula is still not a frightening film unless you're extremely young or extremely simple-minded, but it is a rousing adventure with generous lashings of the sensational. My remarks about the turns by Lee and Michael Gough are also reversed in this span of time. Lee does the best he can with the material at hand (although his absolute lack of dialog after the initial scenes does dampen the impact of the character as anything more than ravening animal), and Gough seems to have a hard time finding a steady tone for his performance, some of his delivery almost amateur drama level.
But one of the big things this new home video release of Dracula based on a 2007 BFI restoration of the film (with some additional work to incorporate previously censored footage found only on a Japanese print) does is, make me reconsider my views on the technical merits and visual aesthetic of the film. Now I was not even born when the film was released in 1958 and have no grounds to speculate on how faithful the new look of the film is to the intentions of its makers. But to mine eye, the film now looks amazing, in a way that it can finally be taken seriously as a product of fine craft. The previous reference for me was the Warner DVD, where the brightness seemed uniform throughout the film and the level was so high it flattened the image, stripping it of visual drama and exposed the budgetary limitations. One of the major changes here is that the brightness and colors are carefully graded to correctly represent the time of day in the scenes. Just this simple act of cohering the script and the visuals instantly boosts the dramatic strength of the scenes. The new restoration is also not afraid of darkening the screen as necessary, even if it means obscuration of previously visible detail. Thus scenes like when Jonathan Harker invades the crypt in Dracula's castle near twilight in the hope of destroying the master look atmospheric instead of stagey. With the readjusted color timing, several scenes have an almost painterly quality to them. If true to the original look of the film, it reveals Terence Fisher to be a far more skilled and careful craftsman than I previously gave him credit for. While I will not say James Bernard's score is equally revelatory this time around,  the several Hammer films I have seen in the interim have made me more comfortable with his style and appreciative of the unique identifying stamp it brought to the studio's output.

So yes, I will gladly eat my erstwhile words regarding  this wonderfully entertaining film. A few additional words for those interested in the blu-ray (which also comes with DVD versions of the new restoration and sundry bonus features, so it's well worth your money even if you aren't yet on the high-def wagon):
Like I have described above, visually the presentation is quite lovely and beyond anything previously seen on home video. It is however soft in appearance, detail is decent but not eye-popping and print damage is still apparent in some scenes. There are however no digital anomalies, and it is unlikely that there will be any better presentation of the film in the near future. The dual-mono lossless audio track faithfully presents the original sound mix, which again means that it's a little on the hollow side, especially when the brass booms in background, but works as intended.
There's a good smattering of extras: A making of featuring interviews with several people including Jimmy Sangster, a documentary on the restoration process and the incorporation of the Japanese footage, and another on the censorship of the film in the UK. This is all good stuff. There is also a commentary track I have not yet sampled, which thankfully doesn't include Christopher Lee. What annoys me is that this premium priced package does not have even a liner note insert but a PDF booklet (which is located in the DVD containing bonus features, but not the blu-ray). It's a minor quibble, but considering that companies like Eureka offer significantly better packaging for their Masters of Cinema releases which incidentally are cheaper than this, it is annoying.