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Tag Archives: Ritwik Ghatak

My “World” Is Blu

world

My first exposure to “foreign films” came as an adolescent during the VHS era. After I had already acquainted myself with many of the staples of the classic Hollywood cinema, a friend introduced me to a book that featured essays on the “top 100 movies of all time” as voted on by international critics in the 1982 Sight and Sound/British Film Institute poll. Sure, I knew Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, and Vertigo, all in the top 10, but what were all of these other titles that I had never even heard about before (The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, etc.)? I made it my goal to see every single film on the list and I was delighted to find that my local Blockbuster Video store had many of them in their previously daunting-looking “Foreign” section. Looking back on that time now, I think that my budding cinephilia must have been an extension of my curiosity about other countries and other ways of life: what better way to learn about the world — to “visit” places I couldn’t yet travel to — than to watch movies that were representative of the specific cultures that produced them? I mention this because, while poring over the contents of the Criterion Collection’s splendid and ambitious new DVD/Blu-ray box set entitled “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1,” I was reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

marty

In 2007 Martin Scorsese, a cinephile-filmmaker who has long been a champion of film preservation/restoration, founded the World Cinema Project whose mission statement is “to foster cooperation among filmmakers world-wide and to identify, preserve and restore endangered films representing diverse cultural heritage.” Among the 20 movies that the WCP has restored so far, six have been bundled together in the new Criterion set. As Scorsese himself notes in an interview included among the supplements, it used to be common for American movie lovers to equate entire countries with a single filmmaker (or sometimes two or three): India was Satyajit Ray, Sweden was Ingmar Bergman, Japan was Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (and later Yasujiro Ozu), etc. In the 1990s, the advent of DVDs and the internet combined to make it easier for American cinephiles, especially those not living in urban areas, to educate themselves more thoroughly on film history from an international perspective. In this age of increasing globalization, the WCP has deliberately cast its net wide by focusing on Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, often restoring movies from “third world” countries that lack the money and resources to carry out the restorations themselves. The six films in Criterion’s set are Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes (Mexico, 1936), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (S. Korea, 1960), Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964), Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1971) and Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (Morocco, 1981). The rest of this post will be devoted to capsule reviews of these titles.

redes

Redes, released in 1936, is a passionate cinematic plea for social justice that was commissioned by the most progressive government that Mexico has ever known. It is also a film with an unusual number of “auteurs” — it was shot by the well-known American photographer Paul Strand who also co-wrote the script with many other hands; it was co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (who had made just one movie previously in Germany, the terrific People on Sunday, but would go on to mainstream Hollywood glory with High Noon and From Here to Eternity); and the original score, destined to become one of the most famous in Mexican film history, was composed by Silvestre Revueltas. With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s small wonder that none of them were pleased with the final product but the end result remains both fascinating and vital: what started off as a documentary about a community of poor fishermen ended up as a fictional narrative about the importance of working-class solidarity in the face of capitalist oppression. Redes, which translates as “Nets” in English, is probably of most interest today, however, for the masterful fishing montage that serves as its centerpiece, proving this is essentially the missing link between Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. The World Cinema Project’s restoration of Redes is the least impressive in the box set in terms of image quality (it looks a little soft), though this shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s also the oldest of the films included. This is probably the best Redes will ever look, so we should all be grateful that we can see it at all.

hanyo

The absolute highlight of the entire World Cinema Project box set for me is The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s mindblowing 1960 hybrid of domestic horror and lurid melodrama. Made during a brief window of opportunity when S. Korea was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeoisie whose brief affair with his young maid threatens to tear his family apart. Shot in gorgeous high-contrast black and white, The Housemaid exploits its chief location of the family’s home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, and the distance between them highlighted by fluid tracking shots. The way the story touches on fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal but fans of contemporary S. Korean cinema will especially recognize its kinky and transgressive aspects as hugely influential on the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, et al. And this is to say nothing of how the twist ending will knock you into next week. The Housemaid looks immaculate in the World Cinema Project’s restoration, which was based on the original camera negative, except for two reels of much lower quality that had to be taken from another source.

dry

Turkish cinema prior to the current generation (Fatih Akin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, etc.) is virtually unknown in the West; it was therefore particularly surprising for me to learn that this erotic Turkish melodrama from writer/director Metin Erksan won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Erol Tas, a legendary actor famous for playing bad guys, is Osman, a greedy farmer who dams the spring on his property and thus prevents the irrigation of his neigbhors’ crops. Political conflict and murder ensue, and when Osman’s good-hearted brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), agrees to take the wrap because he will face a lesser prison sentence, Osman then conspires to seduce the brother’s wife. The erotic imagery, occasionally symbolic and occasionally more explicit (including the unforgettable image of Osman sucking milk directly from a cow’s udder while gazing lasciviously at his sister-in-law) would be eyebrow-raising in a Hollywood film from 1964 and is therefore shocking to see coming out of a movie from that era in the Middle East. As the critic Peter Labuza has wryly noted, the water-rights scandal plot would make this the ideal second-half of a double bill with Chinatown. Criterion’s superb-looking transfer is based on the World Cinema Project’s photochemical restoration, which involved both the original camera negative and an interpositive print provided by the the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

river

In A River Called Titas, the great Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak adapted a popular novel by Advaita Malo Barman for a powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. This art film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms. Satyajit Ray once said that Ritwik Ghatak’s films could have been made even if Hollywood never existed. There is certainly nothing in American cinema that feels anything remotely like A River Called Titas. The black and white cinematography here is deliberately much grayer and lower-contrast than the crisp images seen in, say, The Housemaid but, aside from some minor damage inherent to the source material, this transfer is excellent.

touki

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant, angry and occasionally surreal picaresque-adventure movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three features in the career of Senegalese master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary director Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with complex social criticism (in which neither Senegalese nor European characters are spared his harsh eye) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike. The World Cinema Project’s new restoration and 2K transfer of Touki Bouki‘s original 35mm film elements is the most impressive of all the films included in this set: Mambety’s use of bright primary colors, the kind one tends to only see on movies shot in the Sixties and early Seventies, really pops on Blu-ray. The eclectic soundtrack, featuring everything from local music to Josephine Baker, is likewise a delight.

trances

Trances, a wonderful music doc that originally premiered at Cannes in 1981, was the first film chosen to receive the restoration treatment from the World Cinema Project and, given Martin Scorsese’s own proclivity for using popular music in narratives and documentaries alike, it’s easy to why. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s portrait of the supergroup Nass-El Ghiwane (sometimes referred to as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of Morocco) combines electrifying concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing, interviews with the band’s individual members, and archival documentary footage of Morocco through the decades to help illuminate the specific social issues addressed by the band’s songs. But, like all great music docs, the primary virtues here are visceral: the best scenes involve the band’s highly interactive live shows where audience members dance onstage among the musicians while in a trance-like frenzy. Trances was shot on 16mm color film stock and, as with some of the 16mm movies included in the Eric Rohmer box set released last November, its marriage with the Blu-ray format results in images that are frequently stunning. The grainier texture of 16mm in high-definition can look like a beautiful water-color painting (in contrast to the oil painting of 35mm). Like all of the releases in the World Cinema Project No. 1 box, Trances is essential cinema.

Although I didn’t pick up the World Cinema Project No. 1 until after the new year (and thus didn’t include it in my list of my favorite home video releases of 2013), this is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray sets of recent years. I plan on screening all six films as the backbone of a future “Global Cinema” class, and I eagerly await the release of the World Cinema Project. No. 2.

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A Bluffer’s Guide to Indian Cinema

India has – and has had for most of cinema’s history – the second most prolific film industry in the world behind the United States. I confess, however, that I don’t know very much about Indian movies, in large part because any enthusiasm I’ve felt towards Bollywood, the insanely popular mainstream Hindi-language film industry known for their epic musicals, has always been tempered by a certain befuddlement. Something in me is always baffled by their unique and nutty combination of extreme melodrama, strict censorship and 15-minute song-and-dance numbers; some culture gaps, alas, feel well-nigh insurmountable. Nonetheless, I am a fan of Bengali art cinema and I have seen just enough Hindi movies that I do admire that I was able to put together not so much a national cinema primer but what is probably more appropriately referred to as a bluffer’s guide to Indian film. I can wholeheartedly recommend the following dozen movies, the best I have seen to come out of one of the world’s most celebrated and interesting film industries.

Awara (Kapoor, 1951)

Raj Kapoor both directed and starred in this outrageously contrived Dickensian melodrama, considered one of the essential Hindi films of the Fifties. There are elements of Neorealism, Surrealism and Hollywood-style star-crossed romance in this story of a judge who disowns his pregnant wife, believing her to be unfaithful. The child grows up to a be a charismatic, Chaplin-esque thief unaware of his true father’s identity. Eventually he meets and falls in love with Rita (the sensual Nargis Dutt), a beautiful young female lawyer who turns out to be – you guessed it – the judge’s adopted daughter. My favorite sequence in the film’s three hour-plus running time is a wild musical number/dream scene featuring massive sets depicting heaven and hell that look like they could have been designed by Salvador Dali. But all of the scenes between Kapoor and Dutt delight in their eyebrow-raising eroticism.

The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955 – 1959)

Satyajit Ray began his film career by creating this celebrated trilogy of films released over a span of five years. It consists of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparjito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), although the movies work so well as a whole it is arguably more meaningful to consider them that way as opposed to stand alone works. Over the course of these films we witness the coming of age of Apu, a little boy in a rural Bengali village, his growing awareness of both death and the outside world, his unlikely success at school, his blossoming career as a writer and, eventually, his own experiences with marriage and fatherhood. As much as any great work of art, these humane, wise, ultra-realistic and heartbreaking films capture the very essence of what it means to live. The soundtrack for each also features an excellent original score by Ravi Shankar (RIP).

Pyaasa (Dutt, 1957)

One of the key films of the golden age of Hindi cinema is this dark melodrama/musical about an unemployed alcoholic poet named Vijay and his relationships to two very different women – the college girlfriend who left him for a man with better financial prospects (and thus inspired much of his poetry) and the prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold who supports his burgeoning literary career. Director Guru Dutt, who certainly must have identified with his tortured-artist protagonist, is credited as the first director of Hindi musicals to seamlessly integrate songs into his storylines (not unlike what Vincente Minnelli did in Hollywood). Stylishly shot in black and white, this shows a better grasp of film aesthetics than any Bollywood film I’ve seen in more recent decades.

The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)

Next to Satyajit Ray, the most prominent exponent of Indian art cinema is the Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak, whose film The Cloud-Capped Star is generally regarded as his finest work. It tells the story of a family of Pakistani refugees living on the outskirts of Calcutta. The protagonist is Nita, the beautiful youngest daughter of the family, who sacrifices her education, her fiance and, eventually, her life, to ensure the well-being of her brothers, sister and parents. This study of female suffering and self-sacrifice is like an Indian version of one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s mature masterpieces – minus, of course, the prostitution. In other words, an overwhelming emotional experience.

Mughal-E-Azam (K. Asif, 1960)

This impressive period drama is based on a popular Indian folk tale about a 16th century Hindustan prince who falls in love with a slave girl (well, more like a lowly “court dancer”) over the objections of his Emperor father. This conflict eventually causes the prince to incite his father’s army into rebellion, causing a full-blown civil war. While all of the narrative ingredients of this film are familiar from Hollywood, what really makes it noteworthy is the ridiculously epic scale: opulent set and costume design for which no expenses were spared, a battle scene with thousands of extras that feels like something out of Eisenstein, and, best of all, ravishing Technicolor sequences for some of the musical numbers. Director K. Asif only directed one other film besides this and it’s no wonder; it took him the better part of a decade to complete. A milestone in Indian cinema.

Charulata (Ray, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

A River Called Titas (Ghatak, 1973)

Ritwik Ghatak adapts a popular Bengali novel by Advaita Malo Barman for this powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. The film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this film so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms.

Sholay (Sippy, 1975)

I would characterize most of the Bollywood films I’ve seen as hokey, sloppily made and just downright bizarre (and I say this as someone who thinks the populist Hong Kong cinema of the late 20th century arguably represents the greatest era for any regional cinema ever). However, even I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor. This has it all: endearing protagonists, a memorably hateful villain, broad comedy, a love subplot, terrific action set pieces that boast impressive stunts, crisp editing and slow-motion, as well as vibrant color cinematography and, yes, musical numbers. For anyone curious about yet unfamiliar with Bollywood, this is the movie you should see first.

Purana Mandir (Ramsay/Ramsay, 1984)

Made by the famous Ramsay brothers, this batshit crazy horror/comedy/romance/musical hybrid begins with the origin story of an ancient curse placed on a royal family by a demon. The curse prohibits any of the family’s female heirs from marrying lest they die in childbirth. The film then flashes forward to the present where a recently-engaged female descendant travels with her fiance and another couple to the old temple where the demon, Samri, is buried, in an attempt to break the curse. This ridiculous concoction mixes low-comedy with big scares (Samri’s make-up is genuinely creepy), and features, yes, many musical numbers besides. Think of a Bollywood version of The Evil Dead and you’ll have some idea of what the Ramsay brothers are up to – though the filmmakers also manage to improbably shoehorn in plot elements borrowed from Sholay and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Ajit Singh’s musical score, which alternates between romantic ballads and atmospheric horror movie music, is a consistent delight.

Lagaan (Gowariker, 2001)

lagaan

In the late 19th century, British colonialists strike a deal with the impoverished Indian villagers under their rule: if the natives can defeat the Brits in a game of cricket (a sport heretofore unknown in India), they won’t have to pay “lagaan” (i.e., land tax) for the next three years. But if the Indians lose, they’ll have to pay triple the amount they usually owe. It is up to Bhuvan (producer/lead actor Amir Khan), a humble but courageous farmer, to teach his fellow villagers cricket for the big match to be held in just three months time. This is considered one of the best Bollywood films of the 21st century and it’s certainly one of the most accessible to non-devotees: there are no abrupt tonal shifts or out-of-the-blue climactic fistfights that mar so many films from this industry. What you have instead is a rousing, three-and-a-half-hour underdog sports drama – think Rocky with musical numbers – crossed with the rousing, anti-colonialist message of something like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China.


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