Sunday, October 28, 2012

Good, bad and lovely

Every year we film journalists put the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) through a sort of Rorschach Test. We attempt the half-futile task of splashing ink (truckloads of movies) on the bright page and try to see a pattern. This year, especially, it’s an even tougher gig, considering how the darlings of every film festival across the globe have been cherry-picked for our perusal. This much diversity and quality has never before touched the MFF.

For starters, the American indie resurgence has been pleasantly surprising. Smashed, a story about how one half of an alcoholic couple goes sober only to turn the things wrong way around, is a devastatingly good film, mainly propelled by the powerhouse performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And, at a time when not many comedies swim against the tide, comes Robot and Frank, in which Frank Langella plays an ex-con with Alzheimer’s who trains his android careworker to help him crack safes.

Barry “Rain Man” Levinson’s found-footage horror flick The Bay is saved from the purgatory of cliché thanks to the man’s auteuristic touch, that evokes a cross between Japanese Eiga cinema and The Blair Witch Project. However, what really grabbed us by the scruff of our necks in this self-proclaimed category isCeleste & Jesse Forever. The eponymous couple get divorced, but are yet to come to terms with it — and so continue to cohabit, only to cause more pain to each other. Worry not, there’s a lot of com in this rom. Its immensely likable leads and terrific dialogue studded with pop-culture references makes it the sharpest and funniest indie romance since 500 Days of Summer.

The British presence at MFF this year has been even stronger, both numbers and quality-wise. Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil is a tough but impeccably-shot slice of urban gangsta life. James Marsh’s early-’90s-set thriller Shadow Dancer, in which Andrea Riseborough stars as a Belfast girl torn between IRA family loyalties and an MI5 operative (Clive Owen), is a contender for the best British film of 2012, with Mike Leigh’s pared down but rigorously smart comedyThe Angel’s Share.

From elsewhere, there’s Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills, an absorbing tale of how a rank outsider tries to topple the status quo at a remote Romanian monastery. A little further south, Greek new wave cinema has been creating ripples over the last few years; this year that gong goes to Babis Makridis’ gloriously bonkers L, purportedly about a car driver who suddenly develops contempt for the four-wheeler and switches to a motorbike.

The new Bernardo Bertolucci movie (Lo e Te) is muted and monotonous, even though it has a brilliant internal conceit (a 14-year-old spends a week in his parents’ basement without their knowledge, and ends up bonding with his stepsister). On the other hand, Jacques Audiard’s internal conceit falls flat (a double amputee has A-rated sex) in his latest film Rust & Bone, but its droll humour and the impeccable chemistry between the leads (Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard) redeems it. One personal find of the fest has to be the Spanish arthouse movie Aqui y Alli (“Here and There”). After toiling a lot in New York, a middle-aged man returns to his Mexican home to a pregnant wife and two children, only to see how dire the situation at home is. Shot like a docudrama, director Antonio Méndez Esparza coerces the viewer into being a fly-on-the-wall witness to the family’s daily struggle.

There were bound to be a few misfires, too. The most glaring: Cosmopolis and On the Road. David Cronenberg’sCosmopolis is snail-paced, with Robert Pattinson’s limo-bound billionaire mumbling a series of tedious meditations on money and morality. Clinically shot, but too reverent to Don DeLillo’s rambling prose, it ends up stuck in an existential traffic jam of its own making. As for On the Road, Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel is a major letdown. It’s atmospheric, thanks mainly to the perfectly pitched, jazz-rich score and a decent cast, but is dramatically inert.

The festival did manage to give its publicist enough nightmares to last until the next installment. Many shows had to be cancelled because of the lack of a password for the digital prints; some foreign language movies didn’t have subtitles. That said, the biggest takeaway of the fest must be the capacity crowds at the most abstruse movies’ screenings. Even more gratifying have been the discussions taking place on the fest’s sidelines — for example, a panel that included Ashutosh Gowarikar, Zoya Akhtar and Mahesh Bhatt discussing “where is that film from India which has universal, non-Indian, diverse appeal?”

If Indian cinema, aided by a discerning audience, brings these ideas to fruition, the next Rorschach Test might well see a heavier concentration of ink at the section with the alternative Indian cinema.

Bigger and better

First things first: whoever curated the line-up of the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) 2012 deserves a medal. One look at the 200 films that are being screened makes it quite clear that MFF aims to be less of a boutique, niche event and more a genuine melting-pot, hosting cutting-edge international films. All films are broadly good to excellent. A few might be the talk of the town.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of The Southern Wild, the Sundance darling, is an apocalyptic coming-of-age tale of a six-year-old kid in Louisiana who has an epiphany of frozen prehistoric beasts breaking free and, consequently, destroying her sloppy habitat. With the magical realism of Beasts, you could partake of some Falstaffian meditations on the shortcomings and possibilities of old age in Michael Haneke’s Amour, with Alain Resnais’ Vous N’Avez Encore Rien Vu (‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’). However, the larkiest take on old age has to be Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, shot in Japan. A student who moonlights as call-girl goes to an elderly client — who, it turns out, is not interested in her body; and, to turbocharge the drama, there is a tantrum-prone fiancé.

If low-key humour is what you looking for, there’s Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share, about a Glasgow vagabond who wants to turn his petty life around; and becomes convinced that the best way is to lay hands on the world’s costliest whisky and sell it. With his trademark humour — as cold as the North Pole — Mr Loach weaves an intricate tale that tastes very much like any supremely elegant single malt would: hints of sweet spice, figs and a long fruity finish.

But it’s the documentary section that looks most interesting. The House I Live Inand The Invisible War paint a broad-brush picture of America’s political woes. Then there’s the Sundance Special Jury winner, Ae Weiwei: Never Sorry. Alison Klayman’s debut doc is a remarkable portrait of a remarkable man. By trailing him for close to three years, Ms Klayman has been able to capture the most intimate of take on the man who’s become a cause célèbre outside China.
Then there are historical dramas: Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen, for example, about intrigue in the retinue of Marie Antoinette (played by Diane Kruger). And, for pure magic-of-cinema sake, there’s the Brazilian filmNeighboring Sounds and the French auteur Leos Carax’s new movie Holy Motors. The former is a bizarre portrayal of the chasm that exists between the upper and lower strata of a gated community in the coastal town of Recife; the latter is a fantastically distasteful film about a hit man who transmogrifies into various characters, all in the span of one night. The bit about the protagonist chauffeured along Paris is reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which is also being shown at MFF 2012; Mr Cronenberg chose the most unfilmable of writers (Don DeLillo) to put across his views on the internal decay of the urban human.

In a recent New Yorker piece, David Denby lamented that Hollywood studios are hell-bent on churning out the battery chicken-like blockbusters — animated features for families and genre movies. He ends his piece saying that he keeps his eyes open for “that surprise, which springs out of nowhere and takes your breath away”. Two such surprises at MFF 2012 could be Smashed and California Solo. Off The Black’s maker James Ponsoldt, Scott Pilgrim actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul come together in Smashed, the doomed romance of a married couple bonding over their mutual love of booze. But when Ms Winstead goes sober, cracks appear.

In California Solo, Robert Carlyle delivers a soulful turn as a Britpop-era guitarist for fictional band The Cranks, now scratching out a living at a farmer’s market outside Los Angeles. Writer-director Marshall Levy subverts the usual rock’n’roll clichés for this touching tale. However, the coup of MFF 2012 has to be the opening film Silver Linings Playbook. The joke doing rounds in Hollywood circles is that there’s a war going on inside Harvey Weinstein’s head, now that his dark horse, Silver Linings Playbook, may have better Oscar prospects than The Master. Its director, David Russell, is quite adept at heartfelt drama. He has The Fighter, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabee on his resume.
But, if you want to get ahead of the curve and try to see movies by directors who might be the greatest in a decade or so, the new movies of Jacques Audiard and Cristian Mungiu need to be given a look.

Bugged bunnies

Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has always dabbled in the unconventional. Be it his debut novel about the inner despair of a Pakistani widow (The Story of a Widow) or the slough of despond into which wrestlers are pushed (Between Clay and Dust) or a deep thought into the footwear predilections of ants (The Cobbler’s Holiday). His latest work, an illustrated book titled Rabbit Rap, takes Mr Farooqi’s oeuvre.

Somewhere in Middle Earth (called “warren” in the book), there’s a self-contained universe where rabbits call the shots. One such rarefied rabbit, Hab, is a corporate farm owner (LAPSE) who takes an instant liking to the pesticide UB-Next for protecting his farms, blithely ignoring its deleterious impact on the other inhabitants of this rabbit-eat-rabbit eco-chain. Things take a darker turn when UB-Next’s top official, Fud, introduces Vegobese, UB-Next’s purported mother lode, to Hab. Vegobese and its multiple facets, which include “mouthwash, plaque and tartar remover, depilatory agent and insect repellent”, endear Hab to LAPSE’s board members. This, while his popularity in the warren is on the wane after a spat with Gran-Bunny-Ma.

Gran-Bunny-Ma, the mother figure of the warren, vetoes Hab’s plan to gentrify the warren so that he could use more land for his agricultural endeavours. To cash in on this fracas (spoiler alert), Freddy, one of the warren’s wildlings, devises a treacherous plot to win popularity, an effort that unwittingly snowballs into an us-versus-them tiff. Here the “us” are the warren’s youngsters and “them” are the eye-wateringly greedy people like Hab and Fud.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this theory that there are some people who are put on this planet to succeed, who were just made to blossom. And it doesn’t matter how many lesser mortals suffer, as long as they succeed. Till the halfway mark Rabbit Rap chugs along amiably on back of this Nietzschian theory competently complimented by Michelle Farooqi’s simple but lively illustrations. Then suddenly, it takes a Fantastic Mr. Fox detour, which irredeemably derails it. “A fable about politics, ecology, feminism and corporate greed, Rabbit Rap is a tale for our times,” says the PR brief on the jacket. This pseudo-intelligence isRabbit Rap’s biggest undoing.

There were times when I scribbled sentiments like this on the marginalia, “I get it, this is about greed is good, Ponzi schemes, global recession, CDOs, credit default swaps, housing crisis, one per cent, Occupy Wall Street, Lehman crash, GM crops, environmental activism but let’s move on, duh!” Had Rabbit Rap stuck to fewer issues, it could have invited me emphatically to think about them the way Othello insists that we think about love and jealousy, or Falstaff gets us to meditate on the shortcomings and possibilities of old age. The reader is constantly swamped with too many lowbrow metaphors. Whatever little breathing space there may be, it is taken up by a mundane courtship between Freddy and an attractive airhead in Gran-Bunny-Ma’s camp.

I hope my quasi-critique doesn’t cloud the fact that Rabbit Rap has quite a few things going in its favour. The entire character arc of a Coriolanus-like Hab who wants to return to the general populace only after they realise their folly of misunderstanding him is very well etched out. Wish there was more acreage given to Hab. The initial passages of backroom dealings between him and Fud are brilliant. The narrative techniques employed by Mr Farooqi are charming as well. Every chapter has an epigraph, which reads like a haiku or a tweet-sized, articulately abstruse condensation of what the chapter has in store for the reader. Michelle’s strikingly New Yorker-like black and white illustrations, which sometimes veer towards hyperkineticism, belie the initial trepidation among readers that this is only a children’s book. Mr Farooqi’s deadpan humour, where he anthropomorphises rabbits whenever he describes their body parts, is spot on. The title of the book is derived from a rap song written by one of Freddy’s mates and it has enough bite to maybe even get Jay-Z interested.

Otherwise, most of the book is written in a schlepping style. A simplistic tale like this can be given the heft of readability only if the writer invests a considerable amount of time in writing well-crafted sentences.
In a recent blog in The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell said he doesn’t feel it important to finish a book that he started. He’s perfectly fine with leaving it midway when the book is no longer intriguing enough but has been great so far. He quotes a bit in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson where he grimaces at the notion that one should finish a book one has started. “This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” Pardon me if that sounded like a mini-culture studies treatise, but I just wanted to tell you that if you have to read this book, don’t go beyond chapter 18 (it has 27 chapters) if you want to retain happy memories of it.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi
Penguin Books; 296 pages; Rs 499

Kindled spirit

Let’s get on with our lives by presuming that every time Amazon launches an iteration of its blockbusting product Kindle there will be people who’ll lament at it and beat their chests like King Kong. These people are self-proclaimed page huggers who think that an electronic device can’t replace the gooey feeling evoked by words on page. I am one of those people but I’m an agnostic one. Here’s why.

A couple of years ago writer Vikram Chandra said at the Jaipur Lit Fest that a book is a form of technology too. You don’t pluck a book from a tree. Then you have charming charlatans like Nicholas Carr saying that we only skim while reading online while our mind is more focused when reading a book. I wish he only spoke for himself. With the forthcoming generations being Internet children their neural wiring will be well-acquainted with squinting their eyes while reading on a computer if they have to.

The Kindle publishing is a tiny bit of a revolution in itself. Everyone who has a book within them can bring it out without going through all the soul-sapping rigmarole of finding a literary agent, pitching to publishing houses etc etc. It’s a different thing that most books within most of us need to be asphyxiated. But for those who really deserve to be read now have a genuine outlet.
So this deep-seated romanticism of printed words is a futile exercise. That said, I wouldn’t want anyone to completely shift towards the Kindle. A book is as much an accessory as a belt or a watch is. 

That opening scene in Before Sunrise is turbocharged with the books that the lead characters are reading. If you’re reading a Kindle I wouldn’t know if it’s a Dostoevsky or a bodice ripper that you’re enmeshed in. You can’t get a book signed by an author. The joke in Brooklyn literary circles was of how someone arm twisted Jonathan Franzen, a Kindle hater, to sign the Kindle version of Freedom. A Kindle can resemble an iPod with you cramming it up with truckloads of books and never getting around to reading them without getting any guilt pangs.

My personal record is that I read a solitary one out of every ten books that I buy. I still read that one book because of the plaintive looks it gives me from the corner of the room. We still need bookstores. They are the arbiters of taste not some brain-dead Amazon if-you-like-this-you’ll-like-this-as-well algorithm. But of course the bookstore people need to behave that they cannot sell shoes with similar ease. Treat Kindle as a convenience device and that should keep you in good stead. I mean, the air hostess can’t ask you shut down the book because the flight is taking off while the electronic devices need to be asleep at that moment.

Chinese check

If you don’t think China is the biggest story of the 21st century, I’ll have what you are having. My cheekiness stems from plain, cold facts: the rest of the world is retreating from economic expansion, but China is investing, building, acquiring as if there’s no tomorrow. Some experts reckon it will overtake the US as the global superpower by the end of this decade. I am told that one glimpse at Shanghai skyline, and New York suddenly looks provincial. The Communist nation has the largest monetary reserves, cheap labour, cheap capital and voracious appetite for the world’s resources. China’s three big state-owned oil companies have become the largest investors in Africa, taking stakes in energy and infrastructure ventures. In his recent Newsweek column, historian Niall Ferguson said China should get proactive and seek an end to the bloodshed in Syria because it has more at stake than the US does.

However, circumspection is the need of the hour, says Jonathan Fenby in his new book, Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading. The tenebrous aspects of Chinese prosperity – blatant human right violations, Internet censorship, rampant corruption – cannot be hidden even behind the Great Wall of China. And we are not even getting deep into recent specifics like train crashes, shoddily built schools crumbling during an earthquake, Bo Xilai and his family, Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, Tibetan repression, Foxconn, etc.

Mr Fenby, a journalist for the last four decades, who also had a five-year editorial stint at South China Morning Post, draws his assiduous compilation of facts and figures from experience and farraginous journalistic sources. Mr Fenby starts with a quick assessment of Chinese economic expansion and what it augurs for the country and the rest of the world. In a terrific chapter titled “Mega-China”, Mr Fenby explains the malevolent nexus between First World companies and Chinese sweatshops. In 24 pages, Mr Fenby masterfully reveals how the Chinese boondocks are emerging as bottomless pits of misery and stress disorders. And there seems to be no end to these hideous practices.

A couple of days before the launch of Apple’s blockbusting iPhone 5, there were newspaper reports of how college students masquerading as interns were made to work long hours in order to expedite deliveries. Earlier this year, Steve Jobs’ successor Tim Cook paid a visit to China to pacify the nuts and bolts of the Apple wheel. Mr Fenby exposes how China’s heroic claims of financial inclusion are part true and part illusory. The fruits of the progress appear to be reaped by the 300-strong Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and their lackeys. Those living in cities are well off, but villagers are bearing the brunt. The Chinese are prodigious savers because the country’s health system is one of the most expensive in the world. The demographics are slated to fall exponentially, thanks to the Party’s myopic one-child policy. This is being called the 1:2:4 syndrome: one child will have to take care of two parents and four grandparents.

Mr Fenby dedicates the middle part of the book to China’s history over the last two centuries and how things came to such a pass. Right from the First Opium War to the Tiananmen massacre, Mr Fenby crams in too much for the reader. Oxygen is really at a premium in a chapter titled “Shadows of the Past”. Whether he is talking about the trials and tribulations of Chiang Kai-shek, the rival in the mid-20th century to Mao Zedong, or the Rape of Nanjing or the Great Famine perpetrated by Mao, Mr Fenby shows a journalistic brilliance few can match.

In the last one-third of the book, Mr Fenby discusses where China is heading. The facts are so chilling that you might want to have a hot shower after reading them. Chinese double standards on the global stage are charted out well and are a lesson in realpolitik to whoever wants to deal with this largely opaque nation.

With a transition due later this year, China’s presumptive next leader, Xi Jinping, will have his task cut out. The post-Deng Xiaoping consensus of devising policies on which everyone can agree will only harbour more torpor in the nine-person Standing Committee.

That said, Tiger Head, Snake Tails is not unimpeachable. Mr Fenby hardly touches on how foreign companies are treated to Chinese paranoia. And this is where he falters because that continues to be a blind spot in Western journalism. Also, the Google fiasco doesn’t attract Mr Fenby’s attention that much. “Reading the economic pronouncements of the Chinese government is like kremlinology,” lamented one UK-based hedge fund trader in the Financial Times. Yes, China sidestepped the 2008 crisis pretty well, but a massive housing bubble is waiting to burst. In the past decade, China has invested $4 trillion in housing, but 65 million homes remain vacant.

Mr Fenby offers wishy-washy remedies at best. More than lifting the draconian hukou system, which Mr Fenby advocates, what Mr Xi would have to do is raise energy taxes and cut military spending, instead of playing to the gallery — as the current fracas with Japan over South China Sea amply displays. Still, do read this book. It isn’t every day that you get to read something that would help you to cheat your way through a degree.

China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading
Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster; 418 pages; Rs 599