Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shabdo (2013)

What happens when a sound design artist gets so obsessed with sound that he fails to even notice the spoken word? Kaushik Ganguly, in his spectacular psychological drama centering around a foley artist's obsession with his job, tries to focus on the gravity of such a dire situation.

Tarak (Ritwick Chakraborty) is a master sound design expert, a foley artist contributing with the best of his ideas to cinema with his ingenious methods of sound recording for various ambient sounds. His colleagues and others testify to his work. All is well on the professional front, but what is it doing to his personal life? Tarak, unbeknownst to himself is losing it. He is losing his concentration power and perhaps his touch with reality. But is he really? Well it is all relative!

His attentiveness is failing him, especially when it comes to the human voice but he is all ears to the background sound! So when his wife is clearing the mess created by some spilled pieces on the floor with a broom, and giving him a verbal dosage about how clumsy he is being, he is more focussed on the sound of the broom swishing the floor and the china clay pieces tinkling against it! His braincells are already working toward giving that awesome sound some shape in the sound studio on his next assignment.

The dedication and passion to his work are nothing short of commendable but the problem begins when Tarak starts drifting away and his mind ceases to focus on anything anyone has to say to him. What's worse is how it takes a toll on his married life. His poor wife, Ratna (Raima Sen, reduced to a mere spousal role), who is a simple, homely girl, with no idea about what her husband's job entails or how difficult it really is, fails to connect with his passion. She just tries to get past his nonstop ramblings about sound. It occupies every single moment they ever get to share together. Needless to say, it makes her a second priority in Tarak's life.

Dr Swati (Churni Ganguly) under the guidance from her wise old professor Dr. Sen (Victor Banerjee) has taken up the challenging task of first recognizing the problem and attacking it to rid Tarak and his family of it. His obsession has indeed been deemed to be a psychological illness. Sure, we have all seen films that deal with talented individuals suffering from mental illnesses and hallucinations while their loved ones go through hell as they try to maintain sanity and give their eye-teeth to get the patient some help. But these films mostly focussed on Schizophrenia ("A Beautiful Mind", Marathi film "Devraai", to name a few). Ganguly however, tackles a different beast altogether, by bringing forth a situation in which a man's passion and profession form a lethal combination that threatens to take over his life!

Ganguly's script is minimalist and to the point, yet quite potent. Tarak's and his well-wishers' predicament may sound simple but it is not. The man is actually slipping. Even on a vacation meant to take his mind off his job, all he ever does, is think about sound! After a nice drinking session he makes a point or two that silences his meek wife. It silences us audiences too, as his critics. "A poet thinks about poetry; a singer sings about tunes. When I, a sound artist, thinks about sound, I'm mentally ill??" A very astute point that! 

The viewer, especially a cinephile, is more than convinced that Tarak has a point as he bolsters this theory with the importance of sound in cinema. But do the people around him understand that; those not really well versed with the art he is into? Come to think of it, this is a familiar scenario when it comes to a painter for example. His art is abstract, the individuals who do not have an eye (in Tarak's case, an ear!) for his art, do not understand that. He sees beauty in ordinary, passable sights. But does the eye of a non-artist see it that way? Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. In Tarak's strange case, it is in the ear of the listener! This facet is further accentuated in a tirade launched by Dr Swati (albeit somewhat unconvincing and forced) on the inherent subjectivity of society in perceiving what is normal and what is not.

It doesn't come as a surprise then, that things take a dramatic turn when Dr. Swati takes up the challenge to cure Tarak but gets emotionally involved and disillusioned about the whole thing. This is when Dr. Sen steps in, but the battle is almost won. Ganguly keeps it simple and focussed in a theme so rich, the film engages the viewer with a spellbinding narrative. A lot of emphasis is given to the importance of sound design in film, a very important technical aspect often overlooked, especially in Indian cinema. It is no wonder then, that Tarak knows just as we all do, that he may not be known by name, but his work is surely admired all over the globe by those who would want to pay attention.

With brilliant audiovisual techniques and some expertly written scenes, Ganguly depicts the loneliness of Tarak in a way anyone can relate to. When tea is being poured in a cup he cares a damn about what the guy sitting across the table is saying. He would rather listen to the sound of the pouring. While traveling in a train, the sound of stainless steel cutlery emanating from fellow passengers' lunch boxes seems shrill to his ears and voices almost drowned in it. He drifts away, wanders, in search of sound; follows a drunk in the dead of night, trying to imitate the sound of his awkward gait owing to lack of balance. Even when asked to rest and suspended temporarily from his job, he is more concerned about how he bungled up an important sound, that of a filled cup being placed on a table in place of an empty cup and how it is a big disgrace to his meticulousness!

The attention to detail is simply applause-worthy here, a rarity in most modern Indian cinema and Ganguly achieves it like a true whiz. Complementing him in a fitting manner are Sirsha Ray in the cinematography department and the sound department crew, Dipankar Chaki, Anirban Sengupta and Foley artist Gaya Dhar Nayak who work wonders with sound, that is the very essence of the film. Together they create a dreamlike atmosphere, complete with a stupendous dream sequence that reminds one of the heydays of David Lynch.

A few sections do let down, like Dr. Swati's sudden emotional outburst regarding Tarak's condition, after an experience at a dinner party, is a tad unconvincing and perhaps unnecessary. Victor Banerjee's Dr. Sen is given some silly and repetitive lines, specifically his harping on how he is the best! And then there's Srijit Mukherji who is annoyingly wooden as Tarak's boss and friend. But in the end accolades must be reserved for Ritwick Chakraborty's convincing lead performance. His facial expressions actually echo his aural senses and that speaks volumes of his talent as an actor! Writer/Director Kaushik Ganguly who also appears in a brief but important cameo has delivered a solid film that deservedly won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali. Do not miss it!

Score: 8/10

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

George Orwell's famous 1949 novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was given its mainstream celluloid representation by writer-director Michael Radford. It begins on a rather startling note, and for the uninitiated it might prove to be a taxing job registering what exactly is going on in the depressingly dark world the audience is led to via Radford's envisioning of Orwell's dystopian nightmare. 

We are welcomed to a visibly unwelcome sight of hordes of people dressed in blue uniforms who appear to be prisoners but not in the conventional sense. Via some media clips on a large screen TV, they are subjected to an education about the totalitarian society they are a part of. Their state is called Oceania and it is governed by The Party, headed by Big Brother (Bob Flag) who appears as a menacing face all around buildings and streets, at homes and on desks. The Big Brother's steady gaze watches each individual in Oceania. In other words, every person is under constant surveillance. It is a state that seems to be constantly at war with the fictitious nations of Eurasia and Eastasia. 

The captured enemy is executed publicly amid cheer and fanfare. What the society lives by however, is the thought imposed by the government or Big Brother! Any individual thought or attempt to change/modify/question is subject to persecution at the hands of the powers that be! Natural sex is prohibited and the concept of a family is slowly being eradicated! Males and females are made to refer to each other as brother or sister! Anyone who thinks outside of this system is deemed a thought criminal and the entity patrolling the environment to detect and do away with such thought criminals are the thought police! In the end, the goal of The Party is to change the mindset of any individual that dares to dissent, by means of mind control and brainwashing.

In such an atmosphere of total desensitization, one individual, Winston (John Hurt) dares to rebel by falling in love with Julia, an outer party member who seems to be selling herself in exchange for genuine food and goods that are a thing of the past for a normal citizen. Winston maintains a secret diary in which he pens his rebellious thoughts, thus becoming a thought criminal! Does love triumph over a rule of oppression?

Radford's film paints a very scary picture of a dystopian future in which the ruling government takes complete control of its subjects' minds and hearts. This is a place where bombings are commonplace, an atmosphere of war is perennial and power is established through pain and fear. People live in crummy apartments that are falling apart yet, hi-fi surveillance equipment is an important part of the design of any dwelling! The thought police can read one's mind and monitor one's actions. A possible threat in any form is immediately subjected to brainwashing and torture in order to eliminate any chance of a revolution or disagreement with the principles of The Party. It is a dark city where buildings are falling apart; any piece of decorative furniture is a historical souvenir. 

Winston's character is of a physically weak, haggard exterior, but of a spirit that is undying and independent. He is perpetually perturbed with the scheme of things, what with his job full of lies, that of working for the press and rewriting history! He simply can't find himself coming to terms with how language and emotions are gradually being destroyed. 

He questions the happenings as words become unwords, the size of a dictionary is seasonally reduced, dissenters become unpersons, and real food is substituted for some replica edible stuff! Nevertheless he dares to fall in love, and his optimistic face shows signs of some happiness amid fear while the rest of the folks around him continue to live under constant fear and paranoia. The object of his desire, Julia already appears to be a desensitized individual although some kind of strange attraction draws her to Winston's enigmatic personality. Both are held together by a strong bond, resilient to the conflicting forces around them; forces that do not approve of their relationship. Winston believes that betrayal by a forced confession is one thing, but what would really make them cease to be human beings is the betrayal of their feelings for each other!

Whether the authoritative forces of Oceania are capable of winning this battle of fear versus freedom (the individual freedom to say that two and two equals four, and the freedom to choose feelings over their worst fears), eventually forms the crux of this terrifying story. Playing a soft-spoken antagonist in this conflict of emotions and power is the great Richard Burton in his last film role. He personifies betrayal as you see him turn from a man of comforting words to a deadly oppressor. 

"Nineteen Eighty Four" unfolds at a slow pace in the first half and in a sharp manoeuvre, takes a significantly disturbing turn in the last one-third. While it is commendable on the director's part to make the viewer quite uncomfortable watching what follows, it also appears to be a wrap-up exercise of sorts, especially owing to a limited development with regard to both characters and plot, leaving a clueless viewer deciphering what actually ensued eventually. 

As some heavy dialog full of dictatorial jargon is exchanged, we are left wondering how did it suddenly come to this! Whilst the protagonist drifts in and out of dreams of a lush green utopia behind the notorious Room 101 (a term made famous by this very novel, by the way, among other terminologies and concepts, like Big Brother, 2+2 = 5, Newspeak), amidst turbulent moments of destruction, a disturbing third act comes to an abrupt halt with an ambiguous ending that could mean one of two things. This is still fine in the context of the events that just precede. However, a more fleshed out plot or chain of events carried forward with a steady pace, albeit with a longer length to encompass the evidently broader scope of the novel, could've given the film a more tangible shape.

Radford's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" works well, nevertheless, despite a slightly lacking screenplay, and credit goes to a tremendous act from an ever dependable John Hurt, a frightening manifestation of a bleak, apocalyptic future of humankind as we know it, and a hypnotic electronic soundtrack featuring the forgotten pop duo, Eurythmics.

Score: 8/10

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Under the Sand (Sous Le Sable) (2000)

There's a scene early in the film when Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and her portly husband Jean (Bruno Cremer) are vacationing in their isolated country home. Marie is washing up and while looking in the mirror, notices signs of aging on her otherwise beautiful face. She notices, stares, then uses some cream to try and hide those signs. The scene is a clear indication of Marie's particular character trait that would later threaten to make things difficult for her in the course of the story; her inherent inability in coming to terms with the fact that nothing lasts forever; that essentially everything in life is part of an indefinite phase, something that would inevitably pass her by at some point of time. Be it her age, beauty or life itself, more so of people close to her.

And in what follows, in a tragic twist to an idyllic country vacation, while Marie relaxes and dozes off on a near private beach, her husband who goes out swimming disappears without a trace! Marie wakes up and finds her husband hasn't returned yet, a distraught look on her face, quite tangible. Perhaps she regrets dozing off. Nobody seems to have seen him, although there hardly were any people to notice him on the virgin beach anyway. The coast guards at a shore nearby are alerted, police helicopters are brought in, enquiries are made, but alas, Jean is never found.

Time passes by, perhaps a year, and we cut to Marie socializing with some friends over dinner. Yet in any conversation she seems to refer to her husband in a present tense, while the others exchange strange glances. The viewer is baffled as well, then, wondering if Jean eventually did come back. And then, Amanda (Alexandra Stewart) her best friend mentions a psychiatrist!

This dinner scene sums up the gist of this splendid study of grief, loss and the incapacity of some individuals to deal with it. François Ozon's "Under the Sand" has the exquisite Charlotte Rampling as its backbone and her flawless performance and also Ozon's handling of this character in entirely convincing situations ensure that the viewer stays transfixed to the screen, eagerly waiting in anticipation to learn how Marie's life would shape up post the tragedy. 

Marie has last seen her husband on the beach saying he was going for a swim. And then...nothing! No contact from him, no body either. It is not surprising then, that she isn't entirely convinced that he may be dead. Although deep within, she knows she may never see him again, yet a part of her continues to be in denial. A closure is what is missing. Whenever someone gives her odd looks or reminds her that something happened to her husband she quickly brushes it off. 

At social gatherings, she continues to discuss Jean like he is still a part of her life. She goes home to her empty apartment and has hallucinations of her husband still living with her. She goes to bed with him as usual and has breakfast in the mornings too. Later when Amanda's kind friend Vincent (Jacques Nolot) shows interest in Marie, she imagines having a conversation about him with her husband, as if trying to convince herself that her husband approves of the possibility of a new man in her life!

Ozon writes some of the scenes like a pro and with Rampling complementing with her tremendous performance, every frame emerges as a winner. One scene for instance in which she dines out with Vincent, comes back home and imagines there are two sets of hands comforting and caressing her is one of the most beautifully written scenes ever, aptly depicting Marie's state of mind. Your heart goes out to Marie, so accurately portrayed by Rampling in a nuanced act that never shows her breaking down or getting hysterical. There is a definite sadness, a melancholy on her face and a sorrow in her heart, which she tries to mask with a smile and Rampling makes it seem so effortless, you can't help but applaud her acting skills. One also feels for the handsome, middle-aged Vincent who tries to communicate with Marie about her loss, but she just snubs him and belittles him, even comparing him with her late husband.

A standout winning aspect of "Under the Sand" is how Ozon, via simple scenes and not much dialog manages to communicate the feeling that he intends to, to his audience. It is the feeling experienced by his lead character Marie. While we do not know the full extent of the relationship of Marie with Jean, there is no denying that Marie loves him dearly, so much so that she is unable to let go. We do not know Jean's past, so whether he accidentally drowned, committed suicide, or just went missing from her life, is a mystery to the audience as much as it is to poor Marie who takes great pain to find out what her husband was going through during the time of his disappearance. 

In the third act, we do get a hint of what might actually have happened that fateful morning at the beach. One of the scenes hinting at the outcome is a wonderful conversation between Marie and her mother-in-law. However, Ozon's film is not about the mystery of Jean's disappearance. It is more about the aftermath of his disappearance and how it affects his beloved wife Marie. Ozon wants his viewer to feel the absence of a closure as much as Marie does! And hence, he maintains an ambiguity surrounding Jean's vanishing. And in that lies the soul of this wonderful film that makes no pretense of what it is trying to portray and emerges a winner making such complex character studies seem like a walk in the park. 

Make "Under the Sand" a top priority item in your watchlist. Along with being a riveting psychological drama and a near-perfect portrayal of loss and loneliness that will haunt you for quite a while, it is also a lesson in why one should try and leave a tragic loss behind, bury it deep under the sand and move on, for that's the way life is and the only thing permanent, is change.

Score: 10/10