Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Chantal Akerman special

On Sunday, I saw a couple of Chantal Akerman films as part of an appreciation at the local Liberty cinema.

First was Jeanne Dielman...[long title giving the name & address of the protagonist]. At 200+ min, the majority of it devoted to scenes of a homemaker doing her chores almost in real-time, it's jumping off at the deep end as an introduction to a director, and based on reputation I was all prepared to pronounce it as pretentious and dull, but the film has a rhythm and a reason for its structure. Day 1 can be interpreted as the last of the woman's orderly if dull existence. We see her wholly a creature of routine, her life devoted to accomplishing a series of tasks, be it cooking dinner, polishing her son's shoes, babysitting a neighbor's infant or sleeping with a regular client for money, all with the same unemotional precision. Day 2, we see a repetition of those tasks but with slight instances of disorder, like a tiny crack on a window, creeping into her routine, suggesting a long gestating mental breakdown. Day 3 shows those cracks spidering ever so little more, until we reach an abrupt startling crescendo

🚫[spoiler]where she stabs that day's client with a pair of scissors. It is shown that she gets an orgasm during sex prior to that and is therefore perhaps disturbed by her emotional involvement. I felt so, but not sure[/spoiler].🚫

The rhythm is what defines the film, stick with the first half hour or so of the film and it will suck you in. The differences in Day 2 will further intrigue you as to where the build-up is leading to, and the film doesn't disappoint in its culmination. There are instances where the film tests your patience, with 5 min static shots of the protagonist staring into space, but even if indulgent they make sense within the context of the film's thrust. I would urge people to see this film.

The other Akerman effort I saw was Je Tu Il Elle (I / you / he / she). It is at 86 min a brief venture. Although released in the same year as Jeanne Dielman, it carries far more of a student film feel. The opening segment has Akerman monologuing in stream of consciousness mode while we see her sleeping / writing / binging on sugar, all with / without her clothes on. The middle segment has her hitching up with a trucker who takes care of her. Apart from his instructing her in giving him a handjob we don't see any overt evidence of sexual interaction between them. There's a really good monologue (taken in a single shot, IIRC) in this section where the trucker rambles on about his married life and the routine it has been reduced to. It's a lot more comprehensible and easy to empathize with than the intellectual garbage of the first segment. In the concluding act of the film, Akerman joins up with a former girlfriend, with who she behaves in a terribly boorish fashion before proceeding to have vigorous sex with (a precursor to the sex scenes in Life of Adele). The end. My opinion: Akerman has a sexy Venus-like figure she fully exploits, but the film itself is prententious crap IMO.

There was also a 10-min short La Chambre (The Room), which is just a series of 360 degree pans around a 2 room apartment where the only change comes in the position and activity of the woman on the bed. If there was something to be made of this, it missed me entirely.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Teen Prahar Concert [12 March 2016 St Andrew's Auditorium]

Last evening I attended an Indian music concert called Teen Prahar, held in Mumbai at St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra. It is an annual event conducted by the Banyan Tree group, and this is the first time I attended. The program promised a staggering 5 hours of music (from 5-10pm), and delivered hugely on that.

The first part was a presentation of classical pieces by talented children. I'd say most of them were around 10 years give or take a couple, reminding me of the time when my folks enrolled me in Harmonium classes at school which I bunked so flagrantly they had to take me out (they were very indulgent to all my whims, sometimes I think I would have been a better person if they'd whacked me a few times). Anyhoo, Flautist boy did renditions of Marwa (one of my fav ragas) & Hamsadhwani, Harmonium boy did Bihag and Tabla girl gave a performance of Teen Taal. The boys were accompanied by professional tabalchi Anubrata Chatterjee (they seemed a little intimidated by his florid playing, but did a good job, especially in the fast runs for which they had reserved their stamina). Tabla girl was accompanied by another little girl on the harmonium and did a fine job (I'm not versed in the technicalities of the piece to make any real comment on that).

Next up was an percussion ensemble - Taal India. Led by Anubrata Chatterjee, this is a supergroup that included percussion instruments from all corners of the country - tabla, dhol, naal, khadtaal, dholak, mirav, edddakka, chenda etc. There were some 8 performers on stage (joined in the last by another 3, who played Dhak, a traditional Bengali drum). While everyone in turn showed their virtuosity, the khadtaal player with his royal mustache, pot-belly, mischievous eyes and dramatic way of moving his arms garnered the most cheers and applause - A case of showmanship over music, but that's to be expected in a popular concert, and definitely not the fault of the performer. The finale in which everyone performed together was almost deafening...in a good way. The group got a standing ovation from the crowd.

Ideally the organizers should have announced a proper break before the second half of the program, but Shujaat Khan was brought on shortly after, so one had to scramble to get a bit of coffee and a sandwich at the short-staffed cafeteria (and of course finish them outside the hall). Khan saab jokingly complained that after the thunderous percussion display, people would not be interested in hearing a man plonking on a Sitar, but the soothing strains of Sham Kalyan were just what was needed after that chunk of excitement. I cannot say anything about the purity or technical finesse but one thing was evident to me - the extent to which he can stretch and modify a meend, the man could really extract not just notes, but emotions from the sitar. A satisfyingly long exploratory alaap was followed by a composition of his father Vilayat Khan. He was accompanied by 2 percussionists, which was in most part redundant, but they had their individual solo sections during the gat, and I noticed that they played their solos in different styles. Later, Khan saab revealed that they are from different schools (one from Allarakha, and one from Kishan Maharaj) and to paraphrase his words, you can get the "khushboo" of their school from their playing. After that wonderful finish to his performance of Sham Kalyan, he launched into a medley of songs cheered by the audience (both his own and some standards like Vaishnav jan to). He also naughtily played the opening bars of Tu hi re, then said that this was just a trailer for the next performance (by Hariharan).

The last leg of the concert began with a rendition of a thumri (about a gopi calling Krishna to the river, don't recall exact words). There are a few things I have come to accept about a Hariharan show now: 1) His low-end is kinda gone, and he doesn't have the level of fluidity what a Mallikarjun Mansur or a Maharajapuram Santanam had even in their later years 2) His song repertoire now mostly consists of the blander stuff, and I'll probably never get to hear him sing Dard ke rishte (Hazir) or Khud ko behtar hai saraabon mein bhatakta dekhun (Ghazal ka Mausam). 3) Urdu blues - I know I'm being close-minded but this fusion-confusion stuff sucks. Those caveats in place, I had a good time. I was hoping for one song of my choice to be performed and this time I was rewarded with Shahar dar shahar from Hazir (based on Nat Bhairav). Expectedly, he finished with a rendition of Tu hi re, sufficiently freshened up to make it a nice experience. Among his accompanists, the flute, harmonium and tabla sections were frequently exciting: the flautist was marvelous, moving seamlessly from Indian classical to a jazz-inflected style. The keyboardist did a noticeably good job with the Nat Bhairav style in Shahar dar shahar, the guitarist played middling to bad blues/jazz solos.

In general the crowd really grooved to the music. Of course, a few sore points typical of audiences I've sat with.

Behind me I had to have the one elderly ass who had a remark for every frakking thing that happened, loud-voiced compliments for each turn of musicmanship he perceived, and even responded to the audience chatter done by the performers. An example: Even Hariharan knows his Urdu Blues is not universally acclaimed, so he modestly says to the audience "If you like it, please clap for it [he meant as a beat, not applause], otherwise forget it"

I previously mentioned the khadtaal player who charmed the audience with his style. As soon as he finished his part some in the crowd started yelling "Once more!" Hello, he is part of an ensemble and there are several others who have not had their chance to show their prowess. You could see the embarrassment on the faces of the other performers.

As soon as Hariharan finished the first song on his setlist, a dude gets up and starts shouting for X song to be performed, at which other people take a cue. Everyone has their favorites they would like to hear (I know I would) but you shouldn't be a boor about it, not with a senior artiste who has just barely started with his program. I sometimes feel organizers should include an audience etiquette sheet with the ticket.

But overall, I had a great time and would definitely be looking to attend more such concerts.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Aligarh [dir. Hansal Mehta]

Aligarh is Hansal Mehta's attempt to depict the tragedy of an AMU professor Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) who was illicitly filmed indulging in a consensual sexual act with a rickshaw puller, hazed into admitting guilt, and subsequently suspended by the authorities and pilloried by shrill conservatives for immoral behaviour.

The script travels two paths. The first is external, the struggle to restore Siras' position and dignity through the press, in which he is supported by journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), and through legal procedure (in the wake of the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgement which amended section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalize homosexuality, subsequently reversed by the Supreme court in 2013, in who-knows-what wisdom). The second path is internal, an exploration of the psyche of a lonely outcast. Apart from his closet homosexuality, Siras was a divorcee single man, who taught Marathi in an Urdu dominated institution. Despite this he was appointed Head of the Modern Languages Dept (The film implies this was a motive of jealousy for the sting operation, in which senior university officials seem to have a strong hand).

Mehta displays a genuine sadness and anger towards the tragedy. The collaboration between him and Bajpayee gives us a very moving portrayal of a man who only wanted to be accepted for what he was. Sexual orientation aside, the cruel bias faced by an ageing bachelor in a society where marriage and family are the de facto standard is something that anyone should be able to empathize with. Every moment of his life, Siras feels the burden of being shunned and judged by his peers. It is no wonder then, that even after the Allahabad High Court ruled in his favour, restoring his position and benefits, he committed suicide shortly after (There were some allegations of murder, but nothing was substantiated). While certain elements may seem overly composed and deliberate, the film depicts this aspect with honesty and feeling.

Which is why the portrayal of the legal battle seems unnecessarily shrill. Of course, after Court, typical courtroom dramas will always seem artificial, but Ashish Vidyarthi's smug cockerel act as Siras' lawyer and the general theatrics in this section are at odds with the subtlety depicted elsewhere in the film. Still, Aligarh's core remains strong and the film is a vital protest for acceptance and peaceful inclusion of differences between human beings for us to retain the right to be called a civilization.