Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dekalog [dir. Krysztof Kieslowski]

No, you're not going to find this on your favorite streaming channel (at least in India, although if you do, let me know so I can sign up too). Dekalog (or The Decalogue) was a 10-episode anthology serial made for Polish television in the late 80's by Krysztof Kieslowski (later known for The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy). It is predominantly set in a housing complex, and each hour-long episode is a self-contained that deals with one person / family. Dekalog is a loose reflection on the significance of the biblical Ten Commandments in modern existence.

By loosely, I mean that it's not easy to pigeonhole an episode as a rumination over a specific commandment. And that is as it should be, because life's moral dilemmas rarely come with convenient labels or pat resolutions. A wife demands to know if her critically ill husband will survive, because that will decide whether she keeps or aborts the child from a lover. A daughter may have found that the man she regards as her father may not be so; would that legitimize her incestuous feelings towards him? An impotent husband who suggests his wife take on a lover finds himself less equanimous when he discovers that she may have done so. A woman drags a former lover from his family on Christmas eve because she has been long abandoned by her husband and is jealous of having to spend that time of traditional joy alone. The most famous episode of Dekalog, and one of two that were expanded by the director to feature-length, deals with two killings - the first, in which a young man brutally strangles a cab-driver for no apparent reason, and the second, in which said young man is hanged by the state with apparently equal callousness. It is credited as being instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.

Like the individual apartment blocks of a building complex, each episode is self-contained, yet contains strands that link it to other episodes. A lead character in one story may make a fleeting cameo appearance in another. The outline of one story may be referred to in passing elsewhere. The effect is to create a rich tapestry of this microcosm of a civilization. As with James Joyce's Dubliners or Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozesha Baag, the individual parts are worthy in themselves, but the sum is significantly greater.

For this of course, thematic unity becomes essential. This comes primarily from Kieslowski's direction. Originally the idea was that he and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz (a lawyer when Kieslowski met him in the course of conceiving a documentary on legal trials) would script the episode and leave the direction to young film-makers looking to prove their mettle. But as the project progressed, Kieslowski either grew more possessive or realized the power of the material, and helmed the whole anthology, giving it a unifying vision. His musical collaborator Zbigniew Preisner provides an additional emotional anchor with the minimal main theme and the haunting pieces for the individual episodes (abetted by the great "Van Den Budenmayer").

With ample justification, the series made Kieslowski's name internationally and gave him the opportunity to become the universally respected artist he deserved to be. Dekalog was and continues to be a landmark of what television could be when it is not geared to gratify instant cravings, when it is not the idiot-box.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Eeda [dir. B Ajithkumar]

Indian cinema owes a debt of gratitude to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; that tale of star-crossed lovers is almost its own genre in this land. The hearth of the Great Indian Melodrama has in turn given back to the source by way of variations on the theme. As I recall in the bard's original script, the background for the feud between the Montague and Capulet families is never particularly elucidated and we are to take for granted their sworn enmity that forbids the romance of their children. In our film adaptations wealth/social divides, histories of revenge and even language/cultural barriers have been woven as the backdrop of clan animosity against which our young lovers revolt in the avowal of their love.

B Ajithkumar's Eeda (2018) introduces political conflict as the new ground for the discord. Our Romeo and Juliet are Anand/Nandu (Shane Nigam) and Aishwarya/Ammu (Nimisha Sajayan), natives of Kannur who first meet - appropriately - in the midst of a curfew. Their encounter is not a peaceful exchange of sweet nothings: Nandu is tasked with taking her home on his bike while avoiding rioters, and they have a tense exchange about his choice of unfamiliar routes. The selection of the leads and the manner in which this whole sequence is captured sets the tone for the film to follow. While Shane (also seen in the enchanting Kumbalangi Nights) has a Ranbir Kapoor-esque appeal that may set teenage hearts aflutter, neither he nor Nimisha in this film are given any kind of gloss or halo separating them from the rest of the cast. Nandu's entry and his manner of rescuing Ammu are never adorned with the HERO treatment. Her fears about being led by a stranger on an unknown route are sympathizable, and their ensuing arguments not the exaggerated blow-ups that are precursor to cloying romance. When Nandu drops her off at her destination, there's no grand moment of chivalry or macho posturing.

In Mysore, just a bus-ride away but a different world altogether with its cosmopolitan air, the two later meet again as regular young urbanites - she is a student in the university while he works for an insurance firm. The same groundedness and attention to small details underlines the romance that develops. How rare and refreshing it is to come across an onscreen depiction of budding love that respects the spaces, silences and the awkwardness which define that sweet ache of courtship. Like how the late Sachy's Ayyappanum Koshiyum reinvigorated the revenge drama by its organic building up of one sequence upon the other, Eeda's script and direction encrust the romantic narrative with a realism that overrides any sense of déjà vu. Even the scene where Romeo's famous balcony climb is referenced is not a quick stunt moment; you can feel Nandu's trepidation and physical struggle to reach Ammu's window. It is precisely because they are relatable ordinary people whose emotional attachment transcends their fears that their bond emerges as a powerful entity which justifies what happens later.

The third major character here is their hometown in Kannur, a constantly simmering pot of tense relations between the Marxists and the Right-wing. Here politics is not an abstract concept or a matter for leisurely teatime discussion among gentry, it is a vital, visceral force running through the populace, gripping entire families (womenfolk included). For each faction, the 'Party' is like a collective that governs the fates of its members and their kin: an individual may on orders cheerfully walk away from a kabaddi game to prison, or a marriage alliance may be fixed as per their directive. And from time to time, each tribe demands its quota of blood. While Nandu and Ammu's romance would be an unquestioned fact in Mysore, it is a different story in Kannur: here, they belong on opposite sides in a conflict they want no part of, but which is determined to bend them to its will. There are few obvious villains here. Nandu's uncle Govindan cares for his followers even as he orders them to perform violent acts, while Ammu's mother obviously loves her, but will not support her defiance of the party's ditkat. Keeping stereotype hysterics to a minimum, Eeda steeps us in the enveloping quicksand of violence and dread that strangles the dreams of our young lovers.

While retaining its credibility, Ajithkumar's script aims for more a mythic touch in its final act. Nandu and Ammu's more pragmatic visions of a joint future are shattered, but in a knowing reprisal of the circumstances of their first meeting, the lovers are determined to be together even if their fate has already been sealed. It is a fitting conclusion to a heart-tugging journey.