Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Man's Letters (Pisma Myortvogo Cheloveka) (1986)

There is nothing remotely uplifting about the hellish world depicted in Konstantin Lopushanskiy's "Dead Man's Letters" (aka "Letters from a Dead Man") (1986). The first thing that grabs our attention is how depressing just about everything in every frame of this film looks.

It is a post-apocalyptic nightmare of the worst kind. Total annihilation, death, destruction and decay is all that you see. There has been a major nuclear disaster, which has presumably, completely destroyed a few cities including the unnamed town in which the film is set, or perhaps even the entire world! Apart from the physical destruction of property, the air is polluted with radioactive elements, thereby making it impossible to walk in the open without a gas mask and a protective suit on. A few survivors take shelter in underground vaults of a large museum. One of them is an old physicist/professor (Rolan Bykov), the protagonist, who is nursing his ailing wife.

Some other individuals, who seem to be the military police have taken up the task of imposing curfews, isolating the dying from the healthy, and shifting them to another place which is the central bunker. Energy to light up bulbs in the world below is generated by manual pedaling. The old professor writes the titular letters to his son Eric, whose whereabouts are unknown; he is probably dead following the holocaust. We don't really see the man actually writing the letters for the most part, so it is possible that he writes them in his mind, as there is no place to send them. But these letters, the contents of which, we learn through his voice-over narration are heartfelt and full of emotion. They are sometimes cries of despair, and expressing deep regret about the past and a general lost cause, while at other times more philosophical and conveying that there could indeed be a silver lining.

He is also reeling under a sense of a huge disillusionment that his beloved science had let him and mankind down. He is unable to fathom the idea that science could be responsible for a catastrophe of such monumental proportions. Somewhere he still insists that he has some hypotheses, but no proof, that it is impossible that all of mankind has ceased to exist on the outside. However, most of the outside is a blind spot, so there is no way of knowing what is really left 'out there', beyond the known realms. And one can't go very far either, what with limited supplies, all the broken railway tracks that go nowhere, and the sorry sight of mountains of rotting corpses all around. The damage isn't just physical, but psychological as well. There is a group of children who are more or less rendered lifeless, in a strange stupour, as if in a shell-shock.

Lopushanskiy's biggest success lies in his astounding vision of mass obliteration. The visual form given to the devastation is such that it messes with your psyche and puts you into a mourning mode! This is arguably the ugliest, scariest depiction of a post-apocalyptic world to ever grace celluloid. Not only does it make you feel immensely miserable; but you also get the feeling of being suffocated and trapped in its gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere that literally emanates rot.

One of the most effective and hair-raising sequences in the film is that of the professor visiting the central bunker, and eventually breaking into terrified screams of shock and repugnance, as he walks through a children's ward, amid their cries of agony. This sequence, along with a few other scenes and the central idea of isolated individuals in underground bunkers also brings to mind a particular vignette in Juraj Jakubisko's masterpiece, "The Deserters and the Nomads" (1968).

Lopushanskiy had been an assistant to the great Andrei Tarkovsky on his "Stalker" (1979), and the influence on his film is evident from his stylistic choices. It is almost prophetic that "Stalker" depicted a cordoned off 'zone' that, it was later said, resembled the depopulated area which was a direct consequence of the Chernobyl disaster. "Dead Man's Letters" is in turn inspired by the happenings of the Chernobyl incident. The dilapidation, the wetness of the land, the presence of water all around, and the sight of railway tracks, albeit broken ones bring some frames of "Stalker" to mind, instantly.

A striking aspect of the film is the cinematography, with its heavy usage of coloured filters, mostly a darkish tinge of yellow and in some scenes, icy cold blue. Could it be coincidental that in a film with excess of yellow dominating most frames, the protagonist in the letter voiceover, once says "..for the twilight is monotonous."? Nikolai Pokoptsev's brilliant cinematography, Aleksandr Zhurbin's eerie, somber score and Leonid Gavrichenko's terrific sound design accentuate the dreariness of the universe portrayed by Lopushanskiy.

It is a deeply disturbing picture of death and madness, as some folks give up, burst into fits of hysterical and nervous laughter, and turn suicidal. Amid lull periods of despair, there are long ramblings, albeit stemming from a mental deterioration, about what went wrong with humankind, its mistakes, lamentations about the scant remains of humanity, and advocacy of love. A theory as to how the holocaust really happened is briefly touched upon. There is a suggestion that it was accidental, thereby avoiding putting a direct blame on anyone for a planned attack, but there is no way to ascertain what really happened. For even this revelation, if at all it is one, comes in one of musings in the form of the so-called letters of the old man.

The town also isn't really supposed to be a Russian one. It is not clear, for all the artefacts, paraphernalia, weaponry and vehicles seem to suggest that it is a non-Russian territory. In one of the film's best scenes, a shot from the top shows two masked men in conversation, one the physicist and the other, presumably an astrologer, wading through the flooded ruins of a deserted library amid papers scattered all over. The astrologer, in a long monologue, possibly with a tinge of hysteria too, suggests that there really was no war, no attack. It was all written, a prophecy. Doomsday was here, the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation, and it was but an inevitability!

But despite the feeling that all chances are lost, our professor is the one epitome of optimism. He lights candles of hope on a presumed Christmas time with the children, highlighting the essence of Christmas, that is spreading happiness. And therein lies the principal message of Lopushanskiy's film. In showing us the ghastly nature of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and by creating a very hapless picture of the same, Lopushanskiy is attempting to open the eyes of mankind. War of any kind is a losing game all the way. Seeking happiness through a peaceful path of love, and most importantly, being human, is the wisest way to be.

The film ends with a profound quote from the Russel-Einstein Manifesto that pretty much sums this sentiment up: "There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Score: 10/10


Monday, November 10, 2014

Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero (2014)

Marathi cinema comes of age, and how! In an era mired by formulaic elements of action, double entendre comedy, romance, glamour and item numbers governing the blueprint of any movie in the making, comes along a real story, of a real human being. So while most other Indian filmmakers were still in the process of concocting the perfect potboiler to make a saleable hotcake to cater to families and frontbenchers alike, and in the process, creating some pre-release buzz in the form of the number of bikini scenes or kissing scenes that their films would contain, filmmaker Samruddhi Porey dared to think differently and concentrated only on two things - a strong central figure, and most importantly, substance; a powerful and relevant subject. 

"Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero" is the awe-inspiring tale of a human being of a different breed that is genuine and rare; a personality whose example would make most of us, including the powers that be, both bow in admiration and hang our heads in shame, for it makes us realize how little we have seen and done in our lives. This is the unbelievable, but true saga of a noble soul who dedicated his entire adult life to the development and progress of the tribes in the shockingly primitive, cocooned village of Hemalkasa in the Gadchiroli district in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The story revolves around the unrelenting efforts of Ramon Magsaysay award winner Dr. Prakash Amte in civilizing this godforsaken land. Dr. Amte is the son of renowned social worker Baba Amte, who worked for the betterment of people suffering from leprosy, which was considered a social stigma in our ignorant society, when he took up the task.

Hemalkasa was the jungle land of the Madia tribe, a tribe so cut away from society, it seemed like a Herculean task getting them to understand even the ABC of civilization. These were the adivasis (tribals) who couldn't grasp any other language than their own. Worse, they had no awareness of the progress that humanity had made in the 70s and hence, still continued their ape-like existence. Illiteracy prevailed; with a lack of facilities or medical centers, children were born almost without any help, their umbilical cords severed with the help of stones! The Naxalite movement prevailed in the district at the time. Tribals exploited at the hands of corrupt police officials turned to Naxalism.

In such a turbulent environment, the great visionary Dr. Prakash Amte, who had only visited Hemalkasa once for pleasure, decided to stay there and work for the downtrodden, put his medical knowledge and expertise to maximum use in the welfare of these backward individuals; to make them aware of civilization, to make them human! And this, he pulled off, after a long struggle, with the aid of his ever loyal wife, Dr. Mandakini, and a few of his aides who stood by his side.

In a tough atmosphere, where the locals were hopelessly sandwiched and suffocated by corrupt cops, witch doctors, superstition and black magic from all sides, Dr. Prakash Amte took up the daunting task of bringing a change. The courage, determination, and devotion of this man deserves all the accolades in the world. A man of such an iron will, and noble aspirations, was sadly neglected for many years, though. The guy and his team survived without electricity in that village for 20 years, and braved all the storms and severe weather conditions. They sheltered the locals in their own hut and their courtyard so they could administer their medicine themselves, for these people understood zilch of the instructions given to them. Hell, how do you make someone who consumes a pill with its whole wrapper understand when and how he is supposed to take the medicine!

But Dr. Amte had faith. He stuck to his guns, despite some shades of hopelessness displayed by his wife. Nevertheless, she always stood with him and kept on. This was a man who could've had a comfortable life practising medicine in the city. But the selfless soul in him chose the other form of existence that he learnt from his father - living for others. This is an important man, a man whose name and contribution to society needs more recognition and awareness. This was a story that needed to be told in these days of selfish apathy and human intolerance.

Does Samruddhi Porey do justice to this great man? For the most part, she succeeds. The narrative unfolds in flashbacks, providing the right backdrop and circumstances that were an integral part of the situation in which Dr. Amte realized his dream. The rural land of Hemalkasa is captured in all its scenic beauty. The physical beauty and the ugliness of the affairs in the village are contrasted perfectly. The screenplay tries to incorporate a lot of Dr. Amte's altruistic deeds including an instance of how he gave a new lease of life to an oppressed tribal boy turned naxalite, by bringing him out of the jungles and into the light, eventually making a successful American M.S. Graduate out of him! 

Only in this process, Ms. Porey spends a lot of time chronicling the atrocities inflicted by exploitative, drunk cops on Puru's hapless mother who was forced to become a victim of their lustful desires, in return for her husband's freedom. Not that this episode isn't important, but its presentation and treatment resembles a classic Marathi B-movie with its caricaturish, villainous village authorities, inebriated and exploiting the poor. This episode serves as a reminder of the harrowing times of exploitation and forced incorporation of innocent victims into Naxalism, but is ultimately rendered inconsequential, because it goes nowhere.

Still more flashbacks narrate the most challenging aspect of Dr. Amte's life; reaching out to the tribals, communicating with them, and eventually their upliftment and empowerment. Once this bit comes in, the narrative gains momentum, and the struggle begins to show its tough-as-nails form. Porey infuses a good amount of some welcome light humour in this part, specifically the curing of the first patient they get in two years of settling in the village. This seemingly dying patient miraculously wakes up like a zombie and starts walking away on his own, even picking up a bottle of liquid medicine, probably taking it to be liquor!

This is a moment of great triumph for the doctor, who now begins to gain confidence and a good word of mouth popularity. In an ironic twist of fate, the witch doctor, whose attempts at sacrificing a child in order to cure a man are thwarted by Dr. Amte, comes begging for Dr. Amte's aid in curing his child; a unique eye-opener for most of the ignorant, illiterate tribe. Portrayed along the way, is Dr. Amte's atheism, his vegetarianism as the only thread linking him to his Brahmin roots and a great love for animals. The man who never even tasted eggs, brought home dead animals to feed his pets, consisting of tigers, leopards, bears, and other wild animals, giving way to some great light moments in the film, especially one pertaining to an incompetent forest officer.

The humour comes hand in hand with heartwarming and poignant moments of self-sacrifice on the footsteps of Gandhi. Dr. Amte refuses to wear a shirt upon seeing how the locals shiver in the cold of the night without any shelter on them. The sheer frustration, angst and helplessness rears its head when Dr. Amte has to perform a difficult operation for dismembering an unborn infant to save its mother's life, for lack of proper facilities. Some of the events depicted on screen are disturbing to say the least, but quite necessary in the film's context and for making the viewer aware of the kind of sad reality that our country has lived with. Porey strikes a neat balance of ups and downs, sadness and joy in the journey of Dr. Amte and his crew in bringing about the great change in the village of Hemalkasa.

For most of the final three-fourths, the film progresses in a smooth fashion. Some wonderful, touching episodes strike the right emotional chord. The effort, the struggle, the selflessness, the steadfast, unwavering determination of Dr. Amte are brought forth quite effectively. Nana Patekar's towering, stellar act, makes it all the more convincing and inspirational. This is undoubtedly among his career best performances and arguably his greatest performance in at least two decades during which Bollywood had reduced him to a hamming caricature of his own self. Sonali Kulkarni complements as his loving, faithful wife, commendably in yet another natural act. These two powerful central performances along with able supporting acts by Dr. Mohan Agashe and others go a long way in making Dr. Amte and team's struggle seem believable.

The problem areas are mostly to do with editing, a patchy narrative and some unimpressive choices made to show footage that was clearly out of the filmmakers' reach, possibly due to budget constraints. And hence, it lessens the quality of the overall picture when you see a cheap computer generated tiger emerge from the waters, some wildlife footage lifted straight from the National Geographic and Discovery channels and a really tacky shot of a paper cut-out bird flying in the sky. 

Adding to the cons are some needlessly lengthened, melodramatic moments, clubbed with some stilted dialog, especially in the climax and the death of a pet leopard. Do we really need exaggerated drama in a biopic that is attempting to tell a straight, factual story? A particular narrative thread that is introduced with full focus is suddenly abandoned; the one in the very beginning involving a tourist from the Philippines. And then, some characters age and even change physically (other actors fill their shoes) while others remain ageless. It would've also been of benefit to display dates or years of certain watershed events to make the time jumps and gaps clearer.

Multiple and international filming locations were probably not possible, and hence the makers chose to intersperse some shots of sights and streets, from somewhere in the U.S.A. It is evident that these shots were taken on another camera, probably a low resolution digital camera, and hence later when these frames are incorporated with the main film, their visibly poor quality shows. 

The hotel lobby which we are led to believe is in a hotel in New York, is actually the lobby of a famous hotel in Mumbai. This is excusable though, considering the general picture of a hotel lobby was essential here and nothing else. However, what cannot be easily overlooked is the existence of the round pin electric plug points in the hotel rooms that the camera clearly pans on several times, giving away the fact that the scene was shot in India and not in the U.S.A., where flat pin plug points is a standard.

Minor issues, yes, but issues nevertheless, that stain an otherwise ambitious and important cinematic product that could've been immaculate. Regardless of the technical areas that needed work, "Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero" is a very important Indian motion picture telling the story of a very important person; a human being above all others, an inspiration that is rare in today's times. 

Watch this film. Witness the stark reality of our developing nation that is more concerned about a mission to Mars, than reaching out to remote areas and bringing our country folk out of the dark and giving them better living conditions. Shatter your ignorance. Come out of your bubble of bliss. Make yourself aware, and spread the word to make others aware. 

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Naked Island (Hadaka No Shima) (1960)

Kaneto Shindo's "The Naked Island" (1960) is founded on the same basic premise of other existential 'struggle' films such as Hiroshi Teshigahara's "The Woman in the Dunes" (1964) and more recently Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" (2011). It wouldn't be wrong to say that Shindo laid the groundwork for these later films. For a significant part, Shindo's excellent drama of survival finds a closer comparison to Tarr's film, considering a minimal cast, a small family, and a modest existence with the day to day tedium of performing the same, repetitive, physically strenuous routine.

Where this film primarily differs from Tarr's, is in its tone. Tarr's film is excessively bleak with an almost surreal, doom-laden atmosphere and a sonorous dirge-like score, giving it a more hypnotic feel. Shindo's film is a bit more ethereal, simplistic, realistic, embracing nature in its pure, pleasant form with a more ponderous, rather than depressing score to go along.

Shindo's film chronicles a year in the life of a small farmers' family. The husband, the wife and their two sons seem to be the only inhabitants on a lone island in the middle of the sea. They have abundant plantations in some part of the island. However, they have to go through the tortuous task of carrying buckets of fresh water from the neighbouring mainland in order to water their crops.

This takes the form of their daily routine, the purpose of their being. But they are quite content with their life. Post all the routine, they share a happy meal, the kids go on to study, and the parents get on with preparations for the day after. It is the typically dream-like, tranquil country life, cut away from the stress, pollution and noise of the city, complete, with even the usage of a large, firewood-heated drum of water for bathing. There are, not surprisingly, all joyous smiles on the faces of the foursome as they indulge in these small pleasures of life.

The first forty odd minutes of the film are spent showcasing the couple's daily tasks, which mostly comprise of carrying buckets of water from one island to the other and watering of the crops. That's all! But ever frame drips so much beauty, it is difficult to complain about the filmmaker's indulgence in capturing the scenery in this beautiful, but challenging world. The silhouetted figure of the boatman against a dusky sky, close-up of water seeping in slowly in the soil, a delicate, emotional moment contrasted with fireworks, are all paintings in motion really.

Occasionally there are shots of a single pine cone floating in the water. There are at least ten such shots of this cone! Very beautiful, all these shots, thanks to the outstanding cinematography. Well, the same pine cone needn't have been shown ten times, but that's excusable in the larger context of the film's objective. Shindo wants us to soak in this world. He wants us to take a dip in the ocean. He wants us to feel the languor. He wants us to really live on the island for those ninety-five odd minutes of its duration. The only deviation that occurs in the first half of the film is the somewhat alarming slapping incident, which we will come to later.

It is in the final half of the film, that the happenings divert and we get to see a lot more than just their day to day activities. Seasons change, moods change, there is a fleeting glimpse of some traditional celebrations and gatherings of the locals. And then there is that awesome scenario of the big fish catch, its selling in town, clubbed with a cable car joyride and a hearty meal at a restaurant, something they don't often get to indulge in, or simply don't, as a matter of choice.

One wonders if the illness of one the sons that follows eventually, owes itself to that infrequent trip to town and that rare meal outside of their humble abode. So far they are used to having home-cooked meals from their own crops and earnings. And now with foreign grounds being trodden, does their system lose balance?

"The Naked Island" is an expertly crafted chain of ups and downs in the life of a family. There is happiness, and there's a tragedy. And finally there's the message that life has to go on, no matter what. The lack of dialog complements the primitive, earthy nature of the family's existence. While Shindo, the director is in top form for the most part and delivers as far as a putting out a fine product is cinema is concerned, it is the pacing that leaves a bit to be desired. Rapid editing in the latter half and a fast passage of time in contrast to the languorous, almost real time depiction of events in the first half, renders the film unevenly paced.

It is the final act, where the crux of the film comes in, which makes one ponder about what it's driving at. On one hand, this is a family that lives a simple hand-to-mouth, satisfied life. Almost zero materialism; just work hard, eat, get a good night's sleep, repeat! Perhaps that is what the title alludes to.

The island is naked, stripped of concrete jungles, modern technology, worldly pleasures and practically anything that has to do with the contemporary urban life as we know it. The family represents the island they thrive on. The island is their life. Whether this kind of lifestyle, no matter how healthy and cut out from technology and modern science is actually not a cool way to live, no matter how human? Or is it simply suggesting that whether you are a slave to the modern life, or whether you shun it completely, there's practically no difference?

The attitude of the husband seems to suggest so. He slaps the woman for a small error. She quietly resumes her duties without protesting. Later, the son dies, but there is no room for grieving. The woman clearly has her heart elsewhere. But the husband ignores his woman's bawling and continues to water the plants! The woman watches him and follows suit. This scene is perhaps the most crucial part of the film.

Does it mean that even if connected to nature, a general insensitivity comes in anyway? The existence of these folks is almost robotic, going through the same rigmarole day in day out. Similar to any materialistic family in the city, where the modern man has no time to look up from his tablet or computer; where the human connect is lost, and reality is virtual, a lack of emotion; where perhaps a conference call is more important than the wife's birthday, for example.

So how different is the humble farmer's behaviour from the modern man, really? Shindo gives us something to think about.

The concluding shot of the camera zooming out, revealing the island in the vast sea, perhaps suggests something on similar lines, that the lives of the members of this family serve as a microcosm for the entire universe surrounding it. The family is but a miniscule part of the whole, that essentially follows the same pattern.

Score: 9/10