Bangladesh Now, Through the Lens of Mostofa Sarwar Farooki

Television
Still from “Television”

Two films by Bangladeshi director, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki recently released on Netflix. I wrote a review essay on present-day Bangladesh as seen through the prism of these films.

Read the full story in The Wire.

Advertisements

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan—Making the Unseen Visible

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse) isn’t a film you will watch every day. The language of the film, Punjabi, makes it an even bigger rarity. For a while now, the Hindi film industry in India, popularly known as Bollywood, has been projecting a certain version of Punjabi culture—gaudily-dressed bhangra dancers, songs laced with Punjabi phrases or dashing heroes–self-assured, upwardly mobile and often given to crass humour.

Based on a Gurdial Singh novel of the same name, Anhey Ghorey breaks that pattern with grating sharpness. Rarely, if ever, was a story told about the people who are not any of the above. About those marginal men and women whose very existence is of little meaning for those who keep these people in the fringes.  Here is a film encapsulating a day in the life of a Mazhabi Sikh family, who are ranked the lowest in the caste hierarchy. Yet encapsulation is probably an inadequate and even inaccurate word to describe this debut film of director Gurvinder Singh.

For Anhey Ghorey is not so much a tapestry, but a number of threads hanging down a wire, even as the breeze around them threatens to rip these threads apart. The film opens with the house of Dharma being bulldozed by a powerful landlord who has sold the land to an industry. The tremors of this demolition are felt by Dharma’s neighbours, including the family that is at the centre of the story. The male elders’ collective plea to the village head or sarpanch falls on deaf ears, as his gun-wielding henchmen step forward to show the poor villagers who the boss is.

Thereafter, the story moves to the town of Bhatinda, where Melu, the son of the family, is a rickshaw puller. Despite moving to the city, he finds the pasture no greener than in his village. He is still on the margins, working hard and long hours, but not earning enough to lead a life of dignity.

This part—the middle of the film—can be a challenge for the mainstream/conventional viewer, who expects a turn of events to unfold. Instead what appears is a documentary-like collage of staccato images, punctuated with dialogue exchanges between stray characters. The director’s emphasis on using ambient sounds—the thunderous rumble of an approaching train, the screeching halt of a bus, the shrill noise of metals being sharpened—to amplified effects, is deliberate. In place of harmony as created by music, these sounds strike as discordant notes—announcing, as it were, that something isn’t quite all right in the world.

The subtlety of the film is such that it penetrates the viewer’s psyche even without a hard-hitting linear storyline. The imagery, particularly the way the camera has been used to convey the sense of the story, is arresting. For me, the verdant fields seen through the just bulldozed walls of Dharma’s house, the mass of empty rickshaws on a day the rickshaw pullers call for a strike in the city, or the village women standing next to each other in the dark on the tense night when gunshots are heard on the streets were more telling than any spoken dialogue.

The film ends in sombre irony—even as Melu’s father proceeds at night towards the city to meet his son, Melu, having had enough of the city life, returns to his village. But it isn’t just the irony that makes the scene of the father’s departure memorable. As he decides to make the journey, he seeks his young daughter Dyalo’s opinion. Her silence makes the old man, noticeably sparse in speech and defeated  in silence, utter one of the most endearing dialogues of the film—“If you don’t want me to go, I will stay back.” A stoic Dyalo, however, urges him to go ahead and meet his son.

Upon his return to the village–swept in uneasy darkness–Melu sees his sister Dyalo, who has ventured out of the house, unable to hold her restive spirit. Suddenly, all those threads hanging precariously are brought together—if only momentarily.

Anhey Ghorey is in the league of the best of contemporary world cinema. Both the content and the aesthetics of the film set it apart from the slew of Punjabi or Punjabi-themed films coming out of India. It might not be an easy film to watch. But then neither is the story reality of families leading sub-human lives no one cares about, an easy one to come to terms with.

Read another review of the film here.

Séraphine and the Source of all Sparks

The other night as sleep eluded me, I requested my husband to tell me a story. Though juvenile, the exercise was definitely enjoyable. He started narrating a tale in which the protagonist was a small car. The story took me through this little car’s journey into the big, bad, puzzling world–about its getting lost in the woods, feeling lonely and scared, and finally being brought back to its mother, a truck. A story suitable for all children, including the occasional one like myself. It was a rather well-crafted story with all components fitting well with each other and flowing logically. At the end of it, I wondered where did he, who insisted on being a reader, not a writer, get the brainwave for this story? And that brought me to the bigger question–where do well all get our ideas from? From life around us, some would say. Of course, that’s true, but what plants a particular story seed in one’s brain in the first place? The answer remains one big mystery and has been so for quite a while since humans embarked upon adventures in creative expression.

Rabindranath Tagore, toward the end of his life said something to the effect that he never wrote anything of his colossal body of work. He meant that all his writing had “been written,” that it wasn’t something he could claim as his deed. His refrain is echoed by Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest and most revered of Urdu poets. Ghalib condenses his creative process in a couplet where he says:

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazaami khayal mein

Ghalib sareer-e khaamah nawaa-e sarosh hai

Loosely translated, it means

These flourishes of imagination come to me from (nowhere)

These words are the ones uttered by the archangel.

And in the book on the legendary Indian sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij that I translated, the artist says in one place:

“A lot of times, one doesn’t know what form the painting will acquire. You understand? The image comes alive on its own. It inspires awe. Completely stuns you. Then I think intoxicated, where does that man, who quickly drew the picture by keeping me standing like a mute witness, live? “

I like to think the mystery of creative spark is what endows it with so much excitement. When you start off, it’s not a known path you take, it’s not a less-known one either; it simply is one that unfolds in real-time, moment by moment. And nothing brought home this aspect of creativity to me more than a film I watched recently.

Séraphine, a 2008 film, tells the story of a self-taught French painter, Séraphine Louis or Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine of Senlis) who was born in the late 19th century, and died in 1942. When I read the film’s synopsis, I took it to be fictional. For it is hard to believe the extraordinary life of this artist and the events that punctuated it. Orphaned by the age of seven, Séraphine grew up to a life deficient in comforts of the material kind, but rich in imagination and nature’s marvels. After spending years working as a shepherdess and a maid, she got hired as a servant by the nuns of a convent when she was eighteen. Pious and hardworking, she spent two decades with the convent, before returning to her role of a maid to keep her stomach palette filled. This is the role–of an ageing maid–that the film Séraphine opens with. We see a zaftig and somewhat eccentric spinster in the houses of aristocrats in the French town of Sinlis.

She is like any other maid one might have come across at that time–earnest, diligent, careful with her money. Except, she is not any other maid of her time. Yes, she is earnest in her chores of floor-mopping, cloth-washing, dish-cleaning, but her real sincerity lies elsewhere. She is most diligent in answering the commands of her masters and mistresses; but it’s nothing compared to the command she truly cares for. And the prudence she shows with expending her meagre earnings is not to indulge herself, except for her life’s passion.

Early on, along with portraying the rigours of her job as a maid, the film establishes her love of nature. Next, it is revealed that the pennies she so painstakingly earns and haggles for with her employers are not for buying bread, but art materials–paints and brushes–from a local store. She is even shown to sneak oil from church lamps, except her god knows this is no pilferage. For, in the course of the film we learn that Séraphine‘s foray into the world of painting was prompted by a command she received from her guardian angel. We see her painting furiously, squatting on the floor of her cramped, untidy room, even as she fails to pay rent. Her subjects are typically drawn from the natural world–trees and birds she would claim to “talk to”, fruits and vegetables, animals and the sky.

“Séraphine is a visionary in the powerful sense of the word. She let herself be carried by something that was stronger than she was, that she did not control, at the risk of destroying herself.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

It’s not long before the film as well as Seraphine’s life story take a decisive turn–with the entry of Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector. He rents an apartment in Senlis, where Séraphine does cleaning work. By sheer chance, he comes across one of her paintings at a dinner invitation. Struck by the creative vitality, Uhde immediately takes her under his wings. Even as his encouragement bolsters the artist inside Séraphine, the scimitar of World War I slashes their association–the art collector has to flee Senlis as his house is raided. Thirteen years later he returns to France and, once again, is faced with Séraphine–through a painting of hers he sees at an exhibition of local artists’ works.

One of the most touching parts of the film is when Uhde traces his steps to Seraphine’s creaky room and assures her of supporting her painting career–by this time, the old maid is even older, and weighed down by age and its annoyances, she cuts down on her house assignments, focusing instead on her heart’s calling–painting. Soon, thanks to the provision of art materials and a monthly allowance, set up by Uhde, the self-taught artist begins painting with an intensity greater than before. We see her causing an explosion of colours on huge canvases, even as her lifestyle too improves. This burst of creativity wouldn’t last too long either. This time, her own mind would be at war with Séraphine. Hallucinated and “hearing voices,” she scares her neighbours and is finally taken to a mental asylum. Almost immediately, she gives up painting. Forever. Three years after her death, Uhde would organize an exhibition devoted entirely to Séraphines works in Paris. Ironically, during the last phase of her painting life, this is what Séraphine desperately wished for–a solo exhibition.

 

As exceptional as Séraphine Louis’s life story is, the film achieves in conveying it with outstanding maturity. The strongest element in this is Yolande Moreau, who is Séraphine in the film. She appears so natural–both physically and in her mannerisms–that it’s hard to believe she is acting in a film and not living her actual life. However, what makes the film all the more powerful is the deftness with which the director, Martin Provost, has turned almost every frame into what could be a painted canvas or a brilliant photograph–works of art. Whether it be the fields or streams Séraphine passes through or the night when the terror of war booms through Senlis streets with cannon shots or Séraphine’s imaginations bursting forth on to a canvas–the scenes are rich with eloquent detail. Yet, none of it is loud that would scream for attention.

“Whether it be for the costumes, the sets, or the lighting, we were intent on making sure that everything was a bit “withdrawn.” A general desire for sobriety and discretion; the least amount of effects.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Even as Séraphine‘s story intrigues me, it brings me back to the exciting mystery that spawns creativity, while also stuffing me with bagfuls of inspiration.

“Séraphine was a simple cleaning lady—worse, a handy woman—who painted extraordinary things in secret and who was the butt of all jokes. She represented at the time what was the lowest on the social ladder. But she didn’t care. Nothing stopped her. She was able to preserve her autonomy in spite of everything, her inner life’s abundance in the secret of her little room, even if it meant accepting performing the most thankless jobs.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Do watch this film if you can. You won’t regret it.

Martin Provost interview source: http://www.seraphinemovie.com/

Latin America: A Journey Inside Out

The Duo Hits the Road

Two friends, bitten by the itinerant bug and armed with little more than a Norton 500 motorcycle and the carefree craze of youth, embark on a journey across a continent. Nothing exceedingly extraordinary about that. The human spirit of adventure has seen a lot of heroic trips being undertaken by daredevil travellers. Yet, what is it about the journey of these two Latin American friends that pulls curious onlookers like me to follow their trail to this day?

What is it about The Motorcycle Diaries that makes such a lasting impression on me and so many others? The fact that it isn’t just a travelogue, nor is it just another memoir of youthful impulsiveness; but that it’s a man’s inner journey happening hand in hand with the outer sojourn. It’s also your own journey—as a reader and as a person. A bit surreal to describe in words.

This is not a story of incredible heroism, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it be. It is a glimpse of two lives that ran parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams.

[From The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

Indeed, Ernesto Guevara hits the nail on the head there, at the beginning of the book. When I first read The Motorcycle Diaries some three years ago, I knew little about Guevara. He was this t-shirt and poster figure, the epitome of “revolution.” I only knew him as a left-inclined man who stood and fought for the rights of the oppressed. In hindsight, it’s a good thing that The Motorcycle Diaries, and not one of his political pieces, was the first Guevara writing I came across. The book surprised me. For, here I saw a 23-year-old young man, going on 24, just like any other of his age—bursting with restless energy and the spirit of quest. I saw this young man poking fun at himself, his older pal, and their often unfriendly motorcycle. I found little or none of the political rhetoric that Ernesto Guevara came to be associated with, just a few years since making this defining road trip. And layer by layer, chapter by chapter, I saw the young man changing, until the end of the nine-month journey, when he seemed to have come of age and matured way beyond he could have imagined at the outset.

On Celluloid

And then last month, just like he had done three years ago with the book, my brother gave me the DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries. I had pestered him a lot to bring home the movie. Yet, when it finally arrived, I didn’t show any urgency to watch it. I let it lie until my brother rang an alarm bell saying the DVD was a friend’s and had to be returned. That’s when I finally watched it.

Why this lack of interest? Did I think the film would be boring? No. I just felt sceptical about the movie because I wasn’t so sure the book could be adapted for celluloid without a measure of documentary-like info-dumping. And even though the book is written chronologically, it still has this scattered and fragmented persona, which I thought would make a film made from it less cohesive.

And this is why they say, don’t think about it based on what you read. Go, watch the film.

The silver screen version of The Motorcycle Diaries moved me just as much as Guevara’s own words had. In fact, there couldn’t be a better rendition of the book in film format than the one we now have from Director Walter Salles. It stands out for all the elements that define fine filmmaking. Besides being technically slick, it impacts the viewer at a very human level. That is where it’s real victory lies. It entertains you wholeheartedly yet leaves you uneasy by posing difficult but nagging questions through young Ernesto’s observations.

 

http://www.motorcyclediariesmovie.com/home.html

The breathtaking scenery first. Guevara himself does a fantastic job of describing the spots he and Alberto Granado pass by and visit during their epic journey through five South American countries—Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. The manner in which he shows a human intimacy with the immediate landscape can put a lot of fiction writers to shame. He talks of the sea as his confidant and friend that can absorb all secrets and offers the best advice, if only you carefully listen to its various noises.

 

http://www.motorcyclediariesmovie.com/home.html

That the filmmakers chose to shoot the film at the exact locations where the journey took place doesn’t just enhance its credibility, but also makes for exhilarating visual treat. Cinematographer Eric Gautier superbly captures the scenic charm of the places on his camera, often giving the viewer the feeling of being there with Ernesto and Alberto. And the landscapes covered are magnificently diverse—from the green of Argentina, to the Atacama Desert in Chile, to Peru’s mountain tracks. I seriously want to see Latin America based on what the film portrays.

The Light Side

The Motorcycle Diaries is a testimony of Guevara’s brilliant sense of humour, something he is said to have possessed until the very end, even when he turned into a hard-boiled guerrilla fighter and a mass leader.

Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dress slowly, a task we didn’t find particularly difficult because the difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, generally, of shoes.

[From The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

Toward the end of the book, Ernesto lays out a neatly chalked-out “anniversary” routine he and his friend had devised to manage some food off unsuspecting people. The five-step program started with the two friends talking loudly with some local twang thrown in to pique the curiosity of those around them. A conversation would ensue, and our peripatetic friends would subtly enumerate their hardships on the road and then one of them would ask what date it was. As soon as someone told them the date, the other friend would let out a massive sigh, saying softly it had been a year since they started their journey, and they couldn’t even celebrate, they were so broke. Their “victim” would then offer some money, which the duo would refuse, before finally accepting it with reluctance. Their host then treats them to drinks. After the first drink, Ernesto refuses another one. The host persists, asking why he wouldn’t have another one, and after much requesting, Ernesto confesses that according to a custom in Argentina, he can’t drink without eating alongside.

In the film, actors Gael García Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto) portray the “anniversary” act hilariously before a couple of Chilean girls, about their age. I was in splits watching the duo performing their antic, mischievous innocence and the desperation to fulfil their stomach’s cries leading them to stand-up comedy brilliance.

The Humanist Emerges

However, what set both the book and the film completely apart are the pertinent and often not-so-easy questions about the human condition. As Guevara and Granado travel farther and deeper, they have a close brush with the lives of the poor and exploited. This becomes possible because of the tramp-like nature of their journey for the greater part of the trip, since their bike breathes its last at a location in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Ernesto realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be a mining couple they meet in Chile who are persecuted for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are relegated, or the hapless state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. Every instance of coming across such injustice pains young Guevara and his anger and frustration is reflected throughout the book. Director Salles brings out this sense of pain very well in the film.

It isn’t unnatural for a human to feel moved or sad at the plight of a fellow human. Most of us would feel the same emotions that Ernesto does. However, there are a few human beings, for whom the pain becomes so intense they can’t remain silent about it. Even though the book is primarily a record of Guevara’s and Granado’s journey, you can see Ernesto belongs to that rare breed of empathising human beings.

The book carries tell-tale signs of the man he was to become later. The man who would galvanise poor peasants across Latin America to take up armed struggle for the life of dignity to which they had a birth right yet which was denied to them for lifetime after lifetime. And underlying the most violent of approaches he undertook as a guerrilla commandant was his deep love for human lives that had been rendered powerless through centuries of unjust subjugation. The Motorcycle Diaries—the book and the film–reveal this loving, soft-hearted man time and again. We see Ernesto’s vision of a United Latin America, when at a party thrown by the staff and patients of the San Pablo leper colony to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday, he delivers a speech saying “the division of Latin America into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional.”

Yet, the maturity doesn’t happen overnight. The self discovery happens layer by layer, and here, the filmmakers pull it off with great sensitivity, without the slightest trace of sensational exaggeration.

The symbolic nine-month journey is also a tale of immense physical grit. The two friends brave harsh blows of nature—from walking through a completely uninhabited stretch at pitch dark, to trekking their way through forests and the Atacama Desert, even as Ernesto falls prey to a series of asthma attacks (he was chronic asthmatic).

The Motorcycle Diaries includes a few letters Guevara wrote to his parents. These lend a fresh dimension to the book, reflecting his close bonding with family members with whom he freely shares his disenchantment with the appalling conditions of the poor across Latin America.

Chillingly Prophetic…

Although it’s difficult and unfair to pick sections of the book as favourite, the parts I found the most chilling were those in which Guevara envisions a future for himself exactly as it unfolds years later. Early in the book he says his destiny is to travel. Indeed, in the succeeding years, right up to his death, he travels and travels—across the world—from Russia to Asia and Africa. Only now he is shorn of youthful indulgence and is a champion for the voice of the proletariat.

And again at the end of the book, in the very last chapter, “A Note in the Margin,” Guevara gave me goose bumps, when he predicted his death.

“…I knew when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people…I see myself, immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa.”

[From The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

As insensitive as it may sound, perhaps it was only fitting that Guevara died young. He remains a youth icon through generations, although it’s sadly ironical that the ideals he stood for are now mere footnotes in history for the very people who use merchandise bearing his image.

Ernesto Guevara would be 78 today (June 14). In my opinion, people like him don’t die. Only their bodies perish. Happy birthday, Che.

And a useless bit of trivia: Ernesto Guevara shares his birthday with yours truly. How old am I? Let’s hope like Che, forever young.

, , ,