Thursday 25 September 2014

Films - June, July and August

   It feels like it has been a dire summer of film. There was little on at the cinemas during the World Cup and my PS3 broke so I couldn't watch anything at home for a number of weeks either.
   As I conserquence I haven't been keeping a full record and might have forgotten a few. 
   The highlights have undoubtedly been Two Weeks, One Night and Grand Central, whilst Begin Again though undoubtedly middlebrow schmalz, weirdly hit the spot and made me very happy! Mardaani was fab too!

At the cinema
  • 22 Jump Street
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Bobby Jasoos
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Begin Again
  • Boyhood
  • Grand Central
  • Mardaani
  • Two Weeks, One Night
On DVD/Blu-ray
  • The Consequences of Love (2004)
  • Il Divo (2008)
  • Easy A (2010)
  • Irma Vep (1996)
  • Bad Education (2004)
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
  • Swades (2004)
  • Aitraaz (2004)
  • Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
  • Bewafaa (2005)
  • Peepli Live (2010)
  • Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Gulabi Gang

   I’m not sure how you begin to measure oppression but then I’m not sure I need to – there’s so much to go around and I guess you just have to fight it wherever you find it. The press and the politicians generally want our outrage and contempt to be turned outwards, to other countries and other people, usually poorer than us, with different customs and religions; whilst not wanting us to recognise how the Western ruling classes are up to their necks in dirty deals and dirty wars to keep the world pretty much as it is as they increase their profits and hold on to power. That shouldn’t stop us from being thankful of the democracy, the freedoms, the wealth and the infrastructure in the UK that brings obvious benefits, though nor should that make us complacent. The UK statistics for how women and girls are killed, raped, sold or forced into prostitution, physically abused, sexually abused, bullied and mentally abused – usually without any chance of justice - are horrific. Go on, have a look. I dare you.
Gulabi Gang Movie Poster

   But today I watched Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (and recently read Amana Fontanella-Khan’s Pink Sari Revolution), about Sampat Pal’s group of pink clad, lathi-wielding activists and vigilantes (now over 250,000 strong). Actually I’m not really sure how to define them or what to call them - except very, very brave. We’re in northern India, in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP). UP is pretty big - 93,933 square miles, so about the same size as the UK. It’s the fourth largest state in India (nearly 7% of its total area) and has over 200 million inhabitants. The state has huge problems with poverty – perhaps 8% of the world’s poor live in UP, and huge problems with the way its inhabitants and its institutions view and treat women.

   Jain spent around five months following Pal and other members of the group and obviously had to confront two huge issues whilst making her film. First there’s Sampat Pal herself. She is a larger than life personality seemingly unafraid of anyone or anything and almost too great a force for the camera to hold in. For the first minutes of the film it’s hard to know if this is the real woman or if she is performing for the camera, or whether she’ll break the fourth wall and start challenging the viewer too. Secondly it would be easy to sensationalise the issues that the film confronts – a woman burned alive by her husband and sister-in-law, with the death covered up by the whole family (and probably, the whole village), honour killings, corruption at all levels of society matched only by lassitude and fatalism at all levels of society. Indeed this is perhaps the saddest part of Gulabi Gang: the number of blank faces - so many people that have seemingly given in to the hopelessness of their existence. ‘Fate’ and ‘God’s will’ are the watch words in their philosophy of stoicism and survival.

   Jain's answer is a measured understatement. You begin to realise that this IS the real Sampat, living day to day with the imperfections of the organisation she has created and the horror of the society in which she finds herself. Moreover, you slowly realise that she has seen it all before, time and again. This isn’t the first women she has seen burned alive, the first time that she’s recognised that a woman’s life is worth nothing, or the first time one of her trusted lieutenants has used the Gang’s influence and reputation to alter evidence and save a family member. If the injustice that surrounds her is barely comprehensible and all pervasive then she meets it head on with a relentlessness of her own. Jain also gives us small pauses in the film – often beautiful tracking shots of animals and the landscape which give you a sense of its vastness and timelessness – that give the film a meditative air and allow us vital moments to reflect on what we’ve just seen.

   The justice the Gulabi Gang delivers is often rough and imperfect but their persistence is remarkable and their solidarity and their faith in each other more so. Jain punctuates her film with moments of tenderness, frustration and understanding that underline all the horrible contradictions facing these brave freedom fighters. A mother decides to fight for justice against all the odds, a girl cries because she can’t bear the injustice and the hypocrisy of the elections, a women explains with equal measures of defiance and despondency why she would support honour killings in her family. Jain has made a fantastically calm film about oppression and injustice and about those fighting back as best as they can. Watch it if you can.

   Also worth a look: Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay`s Dance Bars and Katherine Boo’s brilliant Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Mardaani . . . . and The Professionals.

Rani Mukherjee
   I HAVE bought my Learn Hindi kit – honest!  CDs, book, dictionary – but unfortunately they languish by the side of my bed. But now I wish I’d worked harder so that I could quote some of the brilliant lines in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani. Rani Mukherjee plays Shivani Shivaji Roy, a tough Mumbai police inspector on the trail of gang that abduct young girls and sell them off to be used in sex work. Rani is tough, undaunted and determined as she tracks the gang and she gets to slap, bully and intimidate petty criminals and Hindu nationalists alike. Rani plays it straight, or as straight as is possible in a Bollywood production. The result is intriguing; on one hand there are still few Indian films that have such brilliant roles for women or that tackle such difficult subjects in a reasonably serious way; on the other hand I can’t help but love it in the same way I love The Professionals (please – if you’ve not seen an episode of that 70s show, watch one now!). Not that Mardaani is as reactionary as The Professionals, though it certainly embraces an uncomfortable level of brutal police behaviour, but the over-the-top action sequences, its sly humour and the pleasure of top actors playing it straight in slightly ludicrous circumstances certainly bears comparison.
6. The Professionals

   I doubt I would have enjoyed Mardaani so much a year ago. It’s easy to love the song and dance, the love stories, even the dramatic changes in tone that can occur throughout the course of a Bollywood film and these are the things I fell for, but Mardaani is one of those films that embraces the mode of melodrama AND wants to be very serious too and that film fans, is a dangerous game – I give you Bol (2011). Now I disliked Bol A LOT because it felt like a mixture between Dickens (at his worst) and Eastenders – thus, saccharine, soapy, full of caricatures and melodramatic to a degree that I couldn’t accept, but, I did watch it in my Bollywood infancy so maybe there was a level of culture shock I wasn’t ready for.
Rani Mukherjee In Mardaani Movie Still Images 540x360 Rani Mukherjee In Mardaani Movie Still Images
   So why did I like Mardaani? Rani, though not entirely likeable, is brilliant and compelling. The brutality, despondency and misery of the girls lives’ after being abducted by the trafficking ring is well done too. Some reviewers have mentioned films like Taken (2008) when discussing the film but this is fatuous. Instead I recalled Lucas Moodysson’s beautiful and despairing Lilya 4-ever (2002) and of course you’ll probably think back to some of the angry Amitabh Bachchan movies of the seventies. India is cast as a place of ruthless greed where lives are cheap, morality in short supply and hypocrisy rampant and where role-models – sorry, that should be heroes - with courage and principles are rare. There are elements too that are kind of bonkers – so over the top that you won’t be able to hide a cheesy smile or two. Crucially though, its heart is in the right place. As long as you give yourself up to the melodrama, Mardaani’s pleasures, along with its bitterness and righteous anger, will hit the spot and have you debating all the way home.