Thursday, June 25, 2020

Bulbbul [dir. Anvita Dutt]

I remember Anushka Sharma's Pari had a gotten a lot of good word but for sheer cussedness, I did not see it in the time that it was making waves, and then it went out of my consciousness (I had better catch it while it's still on Prime). As some kind of atonement I suppose, when I heard that Sharma was producing another horror flick to be shown on Netflix I pounced on immediately. How did that work out for me?

In early 20th century Bengal, strapping young lad Satya returns after many years to a home where his much elder brother has deserted, abandoning his child bride Bulbbul. Much nearer in age to Satya, Bulbbul's coquettish behavior suggests old passions. Meanwhile, a bunch of murders in the neighborhood are being attributed to a Chudail.

Bulbbul is the kind of horror story that, if you've seen / read any horror stories before, you will know within the first 15 min EXACTLY how it's going to play out; the film does not once in its entire 90 min running time surprise you. I suppose one must be grateful for its not having the twist-for-twist-sake convolutions that make you want to slap the writers silly, but it is a slog.

It's not unwatchable, though. There's some serious thinking behind the visuals (DoP Siddharth Diwan), with lovely colors, dramatic lighting (and aggressive color grading), which make for the best reason to sit through. Director Anvita Dutt is obviously going for a lush Gothic feel a la Crimson peak (even if certain scenes like a prominent bathroom sequence evoke hilarity rather than the intended gut-wrench, while another set on a hospital bed is undeservingly icky). The climax with a forest fire fares well in terms of the integration of the CGI.

The titular Bulbbul is played by one Tripti Dimri who is...actually good. Depending on the scene, she has a smile that alternately conveys innocence or a knowing sensuality, and commits to the part. One wishes the writing had done her more justice. Male lead Avinash Tiwari seems to come from the T-series stable of bland movie heroes (interestingly, Deepa Gahlot gives him a lot of credit in her review of the recent Laila Majnu movie, so maybe he was just badly let down here). Rahul Bose in a double role is twice as awful. Damn it, why can't he be implicated in one of these #metoo scandals and made an industry pariah?

Monday, June 15, 2020

Samskara aka Funeral Rites [dir. Pattabhirama Reddy]

It was probably a couple decades ago that I came across writer and academic UR Ananthamurthy's 1965 short novel Samskara, a searing indictment of the the hypocrisy in ritualistic Brahmin society. UR was a perennial iconoclast (in the years before his demise, he got into trouble with the establishment for suggesting that the Mahabharata has references to the consumption of flesh, including beef, by Brahmins) and a passionate fighter for his secular beliefs. In Samskara, by engineering a moral question that leads to the disintegration of a Brahmin colony he prods the hollowness of orthodox society, suggesting that in its quest for self-denying austerity and ritual, it has lost essential humanity. The 1970 film version, which I am seeing only now, is a faithful adaptation of these themes.

Fittingly, Samskara begins with a death. The victim is one Narayanappa, who during his lifetime was notorious for deliberately offending the Brahmin orthodoxy in which he was born, by abstaining from the prescribed rituals, indulging in meat and liquor, and - horror of horrors - consorting with the low-born woman Chandri. His lifeless corpse embodies the dilemma facing the community - should one whose life was dedicated to mocking Brahmin traditions be accorded the ritual funeral reserved for the high-born? And if so, who among them should undertake to perform the rites, since he then cannot be touched by anyone other than a Brahmin. The situation is compounded when a grieving Chandri offers all her gold jewelry to ensure a proper sendoff for her beloved Narayanappa. Trapped between their fear of ostracism and greed for the reward (and general necessity, as they are forbidden to even partake of food until the dead man has been taken care of), the Brahmin locals place the matter in the hands of Praneshacharya, the deemed leader of their community.

Praneshacharya is a study in contrast to Narayanappa. Known for his deep knowledge of scripture, he is single-minded in adherence to their prescribed norms and austerity. His marriage to an invalid woman he assiduously tends to by himself makes his home life also a model of self-sacrificing devotion and celibacy. Even his critics like Narayanappa admit that unlike the others he is at least a sincere Brahmin. In Sanskrit the name Pranesha roughly means "Lord of One's Life" and can be used as the term for a spouse. While not a caricature prig, Praneshacharya appears to have designed his entire life to focus on climbing the spiritual plane hierarchy. In fact one of the reasons why Narayanappa had not already been ostracized from the Brahmin community despite his provocative behavior is that Praneshacharya held back on this step, hoping that he could, by personal example and counseling, reform the wayward prodigal. This again can be interpreted as selfless benevolence or a calculated piety-garnering exercise.

Anyhow, with the matter placed in his hands, Praneshacharya feverishly pores over his texts but finds no answer. He then prays for divine intervention from the god Maruti / Hanuman (also a representative of celibacy and unswerving devotion in the Ramayana), relying on the device of placing a flower on the idol and waiting to see which way it falls. Here too, Praneshacharya's prayers fail him. In a daze from disappointment, exhaustion and hunger, he comes upon Chandri; at that moment, his self-control fails him and they give in to their physical urges.

His lifelong commitment to the austerities of spiritual life breached, followed immediately by the death of his wife (a reflection of the death of his self-imposed celibacy?), Praneshacharya wanders out of the village barely conscious of himself. In the meanwhile, Narayanappa's body continues to rot, and dead rats and hovering vultures show up as omens of blight. A plague is spreading through the community and nearby villages. As Chandri desperately tries to get her man cremated by any means, Praneshacharya's aimless tramping brings him in contact with the garrulous hedonistic Puttu, who takes the guru under his wing to show him the "sights of the world" (or at least the neighboring temple fair). In partaking of these pleasures (and eating at the temple feast without undertaking any purification rituals), Praneshacharya 'pollutes' the entire temple community. He begins to regard himself a bigger sinner than Narayanappa, who was at least open and honest about his transgressions.

I normally do not like to dissect plots in so much detail, but in Samskara, the course of the narrative and the questions it raises is what powers both book and film, and without bringing out these themes, there is no discussion. It questions the rigidity of strictures that force individuals to shirk basic human decency or be so conscious about denying oneself any gratification that the merest tremor can bring down the arduously built tower of virtue. Ananthamurthy's book was the subject of much debate when it was released, and the film version in turn had to fight the imposition of a ban by the censors.

Made on a low-budget with location shoots and a wholly naturalistic style, Samskara is a milestone in Kannada film. The crew, assembled as a true collaboration of creatives coming together to work on a meaningful project, included a foreign DoP (Tom Cowan) and editor (Steven Cartaw), possibly because the makers felt that local technicians at the time were not sufficiently conditioned for cinema verité. Acclaimed writer and stage personality Girish Karnad in his first screen role brings a lot of humanity to his portrayal of Praneshacharya, drawing our empathy for his dilemmas even as we realize that he (and the community he represents) has engineered his own fall from grace. The film adaptation of Samskara is undoubtedly a precursor to the social justice focused cinema of Shyam Benegal (Ankur, Nishant, Anugraham) and an engaging experience in itself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Return of the Vampire [dir. Lew Landers]

I am astonished that 1943's Return of the Vampire (RotV) isn't better known at least among classic horror fans. Starring Bela Lugosi as the titular vampire, it works almost like a sequel to Universal Studio's iconic 1931 Dracula (which IMDB's trivia section for the film tells me is what Columbia Pictures was aiming to put it as, before Universal threatened lawsuits, after which they changed the name of the vampire to Armand Tesla and made it anyway). RotV stands high with any of the classic monster movies and in some ways it is refreshingly progressive. The leading lady and, Tesla's nemesis is a woman (Frieda Inescourt), and not some screaming damsel in a negligee, but a strong-willed middle-aged scientist and mother who is willing to do what it takes to stamp out the vampire's menace, even if no one believes her.

Taking notes from the mashup movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, RotV includes a werewolf (Matt Willis), who is  slave to Tesla (although one wonders what he carries in those frequent packages to his master, it's not like the vampire needs takeout). The early part of the film is also notable in its implying of the vampire feeding off a child (I'm surprised the censors were okay with that). Later he also drinks from a young man, belying the exclusively heterosexual context of vampire attacks, at least in classic movies.

The resolution is a little pat and rushed (the film runs a brisk 70 min) but it carries sufficient interest and has some atmospheric fog-shrouded visuals (remember the movie clips used in Iron Maiden's video for Number of the Beast? They come from here). The dissolve effects used to show the vampire's demise might have been an inspiration for the death scene in Hammer's 1958 Dracula /  Horror of Dracula.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Vanaprastham - The Last Dance [dir. Shaji Karun]

If I correctly recall my school lessons, Vanaprastham in ancient Hindu scripture literally means "retirement into the forest". It refers to the phase of life when one gradually dissociates oneself from the affairs of the world - possessions, family - and becomes more spiritually inclined, in preparation for Sanyasa, the phase of complete renunciation and asceticism.

But what does this have to do with Kunjikuttan (Mohanlal), the sad-eyed protagonist of Shaji Karun's ravishingly mounted poetic drama? Kunjikuttan is an exponent of the operatic artform Kathakali, a star on the rise. When the film begins we hear that he is graduating from female parts (he portrays the demoness Putana, known for trying to kill the god Krishna in his infancy, by suckling him with her poison-tainted breasts) to heroic male leads - he is slated to play the  Mahabharata's famous warrior Arjuna. But Kunjikuttan is also a tragic figure. Born of an illicit tryst with a lower-caste maidservant, his father refuses to acknowledge Kunjikuttan, even though he is also his rigorous mentor in the Kathakali discipline. All through his youth, Kunjikuttan has yearned for a father's affection, for the identity it would give him, and always it has been denied because of his mother's lower social status.

Even as an adult with his own family Kunjikuttan feels the loss; it is reflected in his perennially distant gaze. His marriage is an empty shell, only his little daughter bringing a spark of liveliness in his face. Kunjikuttan's art is his sole raison d'ĂȘtre - against the red glow of the flickering oil-lamps, under the layers of traditional make-up and costume finery, escaping into an entirely different character is when he lives rather than merely exists.

The second act of the drama of Kunjikuttan's life begins when his role-playing of Arjuna is attended by Subhadra (Suhasini). A high-born erudite woman of literary persuasion, Subhadra is the niece of the local diwan (landed nobleman representative of the ruling class). There is an innate double entendre in this: The Subhadra of mythology is the consort of Arjuna and the mother of his celebrated son Abhimanyu. Our Subhadra too is smitten by Arjuna; apart from entrusting Kunjikuttan with her own libretto for the famous episode of Arjuna's abduction / rescue of his consort, she also pulls him straight from his Arjuna performance into her boudoir. After their love-making, she exults in smearing the colors from his make-up on her face, while he quietly slips out like a thief into the night.

This courtship also marks the end of their affair, because Subhadra has no feelings towards Kunjikuttan, the lower-born Kathakali performer. Her eyes are only for the mythical Arjuna. She shuns his attempts to contact her, and even the son born of their one-night stand is shown to him only once (Subhadra's moneyed status in old Kerala's matriarchal society means she does not need a husband to rear her son). Kunjikuttan's caste thus robs him also of the identity of father to Subhadra's child. His soul torn apart at these repeated betrayals, Kunjikuttan turns away from hero parts, preferring to play demonic characters that mirror the rage within him. Time moves on, seasons change, people around him grow older or die, his own head grows gray, but the void within Kunjikuttan remains; he is neither the son of his father nor the father of his son. He decides that there is but one way to resolve the situation. He must stage Subhadra's libretto in which he will for one last time return to the role of Arjuna.

Those who have watched Shaji Karun's previous films like Piravi and Swaham will know what to expect - a languorous reflective journey with feet placed in the boats of past and the present. Vanaprastham is something of an epic project in Karun's career - a co-production between Indian and French studios, it has apart from Malayalam cinema superstar Mohanlal, an international behind-the-scenes crew (the gorgeous cinematography is by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta while editing duties are shared between Sreekar Prasad and Joseph Guinvarch) and is scored by the acclaimed classical music maestro Zakir Hussain. Thankfully, all of this does not add up to a tiresome prestige piece. While Mohanlal does not seem entirely convincing in the performance segments (it takes several years of practice for an actual Kathakali practitioner before he/she can ascend the stage), he anchors the tragic arc of Kunjikuttan's personal life with a restraint that is evocative; In his soft-spoken words, in his silent stares we feel the pain of a rootless man. This Vanaprastham would seem to be for one who has renounced the hope of having an identity in this world.