Three Films Recommended by Aruna Vasudev and Reviewed by Saibal Chatterjee

p>Saibal Chatterjee is an independent film critic and entertainment journalist based in New Delhi who has co-edited Britannica’s Encyclopedia of Hindi Cinema and authored Echoes and Eloquences, a book on poet-filmmaker Gulzar.  You cannot go wrong seeing any or all of the following three classic films from India that Aruna recommends.

The reviews of the three films below are written by Saibal Chatterjee who is an independent film critic and entertainment journalist based in New Delhi.

He has co-edited Britannica’s Encyclopedia of Hindi Cinema and authored Echoes and Eloquences, a book on poet-filmmaker Gulzar.

Kasba (1990) Directed by Kumar Shahani

Kumar Shahani was one of the harbingers of the New Wave in Indian cinema, with his very first film Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion) in 1972. Ketan Mehta, also a graduate of the Film & Television Institute of India, followed a few years later, with films in his own language of Gujarati, entering the film scene with a bang with his first film Bhavni Bhavai in 1980. He continues to make films – his most recent one on the iconic artist Raja Ravi Varman, Rang Rasiya, which is still yet to be released. Audience tastes plus the market for films in India has changed radically. You cannot go wrong seeing any or all of the following three classic films from India.

One of Kumar Shahani’s more accessible films, Kasba, while faithful to the Anton Chekhov short story that is its source, is masterfully adapted for the screen to suit the director’s specific philosophical and creative requirements. The film is wonderfully c]]inematic in its visual design, which serves to underline the philosophical dynamics of the tale.

Most of the characters in Kasba, members of one severely dysfunctional family, are trapped in the feudal past, which is at constant odds with the winds of change sweeping through the community.

In this incisive study of rural decadence and moral inertia, the only figure that appears to have broken free from tradition is a defiant young woman, but she too operates without the aid of an ethical compass and stops at nothing to protect herself and her own interests.

The story focuses on the family of Maniram, an unscrupulous entrepreneur who has made his fortune by peddling contraband goods. He has two sons: one is mentally-challenged, the other is away in Delhi engaged in a counterfeiting racket. The business is controlled by his strong-willed daughter-in-law Tejo, who is married to the younger son who is inno position to fulfill his family obligations.

On one level, Kasba has the feel of a simple melodrama with a straightforward narrative. On another, it presents an intricate interplay of human

emotions and impulses framed against a picturesque Kangra Valley landscape.

Shahani emphasizes the vulnerability of a bunch of people buffeted by rapid social change and incapable of coming to terms with the process of flux. The inner world that he depicts merges seamlessly with the external ambience in which the action is set.

The camera frequently looks in on the characters and their internal environs through window frames and doorways, invoking a sense of intrigue, familiarity, and pity. But Shahani doesn’t invite the viewer to empathize with any of the characters. As a chronicler, he is more interested canadian cialis in understanding the forces that impact the human condition, no matter how vexed it might be.

Mirch Masala (Spices) (1985) Directed by Ketan Mehta

Spices, a multi-layered allegory that takes into its broad sweep an array of social, political, and gender confrontations, is a tale at once cogent and potent. Ketan Mehta addresses a complex web of dark themes – colonial oppression, rural exploitation, the ugliness of vulgar virility, and the brutalization of women against a backdrop whose barrenness suggests an almost dehumanized state of existence – with deceptive simplicity.

Coming in the wake of Bhavni Bhavai, Ketan Mehta’s breakthrough film, Spices, strengthened the director’s credentials as a storyteller endowed with the ability to blend the traditional conventions of Gujarati (the regional language of the western Indian state of Gujarat), narrative idioms with a modern, innovative cinematic language. Both in terms of visual appeal and dramatic energy, it is a film that is compelling from beginning to end.

Spices is set in a dust bowl of a village in pre-independence India where red chilies constitute the only agricultural output. Life revolves around a spice factory where the women of the village grind the chilies to powder. But they are sitting ducks. They are illiterate, their men are boors and spineless wastrels, and the landlords call the shots.

A lecherous Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) rides into the village with his force of tax collectors. The Subedar is a desperado whose persona is informed by markedly comic-strip elements. His hair is parted in the middle, and he sports a handlebar moustache. He would have been a completely risible clown but for the sadistic streak in his character. His inflated sense of authority and the villagers’ singular lack of courage egg him on to ride roughshod over the hamlet.

He sets his eyes on the beautiful Sonbai (Smita Patil in one of the finest performances of her short but eventful acting career), and orders the headman to hand her over to him or else face an all-out attack on the hamlet.

When the men decide to give in to the Subedar’s demand to save the village, Sonbai and the other women take refuge in the spice factory. The final scene makes a statement so powerful, you will never forget it.

Indian cinema has rarely seen a stronger, more pointed celebration of the power of women to strike back when pushed to the wall.

* note by Jeannette Hereniko: The images and colors and story in SPICES are AMAZING. It won the top award at the Hawaii International Film Festival when I hosted the US Premiere of it in 1985. I can’t help myself. I have to recommend you watch this one.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (Who Pays the Piper) (1983)

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the work of a group of recent alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), occupies a unique place in the history of Hindi cinema. A laugh riot that strikes a delicate balance between madcap humor and bitter irony, it was the kind of spontaneous send-up that was never replicated = again, either in spirit or substance.

Out-and-out slapstick comedy meets zany political satire in this one-of-a-kind tale of two struggling but earnest photographers who wade into big trouble in an Indian metropolis infested with smarmy builders, greedy politicians, and corrupt government functionaries.

The characters of the bumbling duo (Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani) are named after FTII-trained filmmakers Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra.

Vinod and Sudhir are employed by a manipulative woman who runs a scandal sheet, Khabardar (Beware!). On their rounds looking for a juicy news scoop, they stumble upon the shady dealings of a devious builder (Pankaj Kapur) and his equally dodgy rival (Om Puri).

Murder and revelation lead us on a wild goose chase that famously ends on a proscenium stage where an episode of the epic Mahabharat is being performed, with the blind and hapless King of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra, wondering aloud what the fuss is all about as another character is being disrobed by the disreputable Kauravas.

Vinod and Sudhir’s plight mirrors the fate of a nation forever at the mercy of its ruling and business classes, which are out to squeeze the system dry to their own advantage. Whether as a dig at corruption or at the dirty deeds in business or journalism, the film depicts the common man or woman as a helpless pawn.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, while being firmly rooted in the realist traditions of the New Indian Cinema of the 1970s, was an attempt to mesh social comment with the entertainment quotient of popular Hindi cinema’s breezy comic idiom. The film struck an instant chord and has acquired cult status.

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