Indian filmmaker Gurvinder Singh’s poignant tale about the legendary Sikh farmers caught in post-Bluestar Punjab

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Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.

Every once in a while, a film is made that attempts to break the general rigour of conventional storytelling. I watched Chauthi Koot by Gurvinder Singh at the Un Certain Regard Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. As the story of a farmer caught in post-Bluestar Punjab unfolds to the audience in a classic storytelling format, a second voice evolves which subtly takes over from the first one in an almost hurried and nervous way. The second voice is that of the animals in the farm that the story is set in… and primarily the dog Tommy who is all up to guard himself and his family because his instinct says so.  The farmer Joginder Singh is caught in a nowhere land between the terrorists and the police. As the tension between the terrorists and the police escalates, the lives of hundreds of innocents take meandering segues through violence and post terrorism stress.

Director Gurvinder Singh has crafted a poignant tale set with the backdrop of the legendary Sikh farmers. But the farmers in Chauthi Koot, young and old have a lost look in their eyes, one of sorrow and dejection. They are hardy men stuck in a hopeless situation. And that air pervades the rest of their dwellings and farmhouses. This desolate situation is more disturbing to the animals in Gurvinder’s story. Tommy, the dog wants to instinctively protect everyone. He is confused when he is asked to keep silent when he senses the enemy. If he barks, the terrorists on the prowl are annoyed and the police are tipped. So farmer Joginder Singh wants to keep him silent. But he fails. The chicken on the farm are a nervous lot… even the general scenes with chickens have a slaughterhouse quality about them. And sometimes one chicken or another just flies making the energy even more nervous. The cackling nervous energy seems to echo the general mood of the film. Their constant unsteady movement and disturbed behavior also work like a subtle foreboding throughout the film. The random bull that goes astray, the stray dog that follows Tommy’s caravan and some other scenes with animals keep the tension on throughout the film. All through this animal-speak, the filmmaker has captured some very uncanny insights.

A Still from Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot
A Still from Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot

Gurvinder’s storytelling style is minimalistic and he conveys more through sound throughout the film. This practice of his goes back to his student days at FTII and also later when he experimented with sound in his projects. He has showcased passing time with the help of ambient sound on one project. He has worked with the likes of  Rabbi Shergill and Jasbir Jassi. He has worked extensively with Punjabi folk music. So it is only a natural extension that a film like Chauthi Koot uses sound as a voice in the film whether it is the dog instinctively barking or the lone bullet being randomly fired far off or the impending monsoon thunderclouds. Nature and the natural forces is where he has tapped into completely to augment this film.Gurvinder Singh’s first movie Anhe Ghore Da Daan won him national and international awards including the 59th National Film Award in India for Best Direction and for Best Feature Film. He has developed a complete auteur style of storytelling focusing completely on the textures of the moment as the driving force for the story. Space and its constructs seem to be important for him as the farmhouse standing solitary in the middle of the cornfields clearly signify. It is home in the most meaningful way for the farmer and his family but as the grandmother tells a passing visitor that their decision to leave their village and come reside in the middle of the farm was not the best decision. Yes they have more space but loneliness has also crept it. Director Gurvinder Singh has managed to again visually express this almost solitary confinement the family faces in the middle of their cornfields.

A Still from Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot
A Still from Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot

Apart from sound, Gurvinder keeps his camera movement classic and unobtrusive. The film just unfolds as beautiful minimalist cinema. The shots linger, conversations happen with no hurry and when these conversations happen, faces are studied again with no hurry.  The camera and the edit work are done in complete tandem synchronicity. Scenes last longer, edit cuts are in complete art house cinema style. This helps one to delve directly into the characters in the film and remain in them as long as the story lets one be. In fact because of this style of edit, I as the audience found it very comfortable to sit and enjoy some good storytelling knowing fully well that the scenes would not start jumping.

At the press conference that Gurvinder Singh had given for Chauthi Koot at Cannes, he mentioned that he was hugely influenced by the works of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Moshen  Makhmalbaf. He said that he would watch these filmmakers to see some of their local stories. On asked how he could take a small story from Punjab and show it to the world, he said that the story is the basic content but the director’s job is to evoke poetry through his storytelling of this particular story. This is where he strikes a chord with the global audience for a local story. He hopes to have achieved it with Chauthi Koot.

I would like to conclude by saying that I would highly recommend this film for anyone who likes a certain gritty feel to the theme that is more texture driven than plot driven. It lays down the greatest of human emotions – of love, longing, security and betrayal with a tender and loving albeit minimalist hand. Gurvinder Singh has a film that is raw yet flowing with the understated elegance that is so typical of the Sikh community. Therein lies the greatness of his work. He does indeed weave the poetry that he hopes too.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s treatise on familial bonding with underlying themes of identity and memory.

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Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.

L
ouder than Bombs is Joachim Triers’s entry in the main competition at Cannes this year. This is a film about familial bonding in the midst of infidelity, insecurity and the banalities that accompany family structures. Set in America, this story is about Gene (Gabriel Burns), wife Isabelle (Isabella Huppert) and their two sons, Conrad and Jonah. Isabella is a war photographer who dies in a freak car accident near home.  Gene is left to take care of his teenage son Conrad while older son Jonah has just become a new father. What follows is a family saga that slides into teenage eccentricities and adult oddities. As if fanning the flames to this fire, there is a rumor that Isabella may have committed suicide.  An extra marital affair that she had is also brought to light.

Joachim Trier’s prior two movies Oslo, August 31st (2012) and Reprise (2006) have won many awards including Toronto, Istanbul, Rotterdam, Milano and Karlovy Vary. This led him to be named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2007. Oslo August 31st premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film festival 2011. The film received critical acclaim and was featured in many top ten lists for 2012.  Identity and memory are what he considers the two main themes for cinema and he focuses on these two primarily.

Gabriel Bryne in Joachim's Trier's Louder Than Bombs (2015)
Gabriel Bryne in Joachim’s Trier’s Louder Than Bombs (2015)

Joachim Trier has essentially portrayed a slice of suburban family life in the US going through the pangs of bereavement and has injected marital infidelity into it. Isabella is dead and we all grieve for Gene and his family. But as we discover that Isabella also had an extra marital affair, we instantly toss out all semblances of morals and ethics as we start this journey through Joachim’s film. He adds to the drama with an awkward teenage son Conrad who is all out to swear profundities at his dad or just be a sullen angry teenager. Themes of shame, anger, hurt and guilt play on and on throughout the film. There is internal acceptance of the lies but life just goes on with more lies and covers.Louder than Bombs is set up in the first few minutes with one of the main characters, brother Jonah, outrightly lying to an ex-girlfriend who he bumps into in a hospital corridor where he just had a baby with his present girlfriend. This scene sets the tone for the movie where truth hardly matters and eccentricities and profundities rule for everyone. Gene tries to keep finding his own way while the truth is revealed about the extra marital affair of his dead wife Isabella.  The fact that she may have also committed suicide looms over the family though younger son Conrad is unaware of it. And all this occurs within the boundaries of a somewhat normal family.

Memories are also something that he has extensively worked with in this film. Externally, Isabella was a different person to each of the other three characters—sometimes a good mother, sometimes absent, and sometimes slightly depressed.  Internally even her memory graph kept changing as she was constantly playing different roles for different people including her lover. Joachim straightaway questions identity through his meandering into the memory graphs. And as she keeps questioning herself, she is led into severe questions of identity because of which she may have taken her own life. Or did she really? We never really know.The film is non-linear and the scenes with Isabella are constantly woven in to unfold the story. Joachim builds empathy for all the characters even if the midst of their lying. This lets him take the film to the next level of storytelling where he questions whether there is any real reason to tell the truth.  If this family’s universe functions fine with some truths being held back, then so be it. Morality and human judgment is not his to seek in this story.

A Still from Joachim's Trier's Louder Than Bomb (2015)
A Still from Joachim’s Trier’s Louder Than Bomb (2015)

The younger son Conrad (played by Devin Druid) is the awkward, silent, lurking American teen who aspires to hangout with the cheerleader and also writes and collates random literary and non-literary articles. His randomness injects humor into the film of the dark teenage variety. This keeps the film afloat through an almost zany eerie sort of wackiness. In Joachim Trier style we also get to see some literary montages done as Conrad’s expression and flights of fancy.  These small scenes add a certain piquant poetry to this otherwise melancholic slice of life film.

And Eskil Voght, scriptwriter says: “Family is such a complicated structure in so many ways… and more so when it is inter-generational. We chose the theme of grief. This gave us a direction to explore the inside of a family”At the recently concluded press conference for the film, Joachim Trier said: “We are interested in human stories, we don’t start with a plot that we can pitch in two lines, different voices of the family creates one true line for a story”.

All in all, Joachim has managed to create characters that are flawed but heroic. Infidelity and falsity run rampant throughout the film but so be it. It is a virtuous but dissonant familial tie that binds the father and the sons together. Their internal self-deals with the conflict but it is muted, subtle and serene.  Silence in its totality is hence louder than noise and louder than the bombs.

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Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.

SummaryFred and Mick, two old friends, are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children’s confused lives, Micks enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.

Youth is a gentle breeze, youth is the petals of a flower, youth is walking softly on dewdrops, youth is smooth alabaster skin, youth is lithe, youth is buxom, youth is… a pining.          

Youth is a noun, a verb, a metaphor or a simile.

Youth is everything and more to the two central characters in Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘Youth’–Retired British music composer Mr. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and film director Mick (Harvey Keitel).

Set up in the grandest tradition of majestic Italian cinema in the footfall of the maestros Fellini, Bertolucci and Rosselini, Sorrento weaves us a magical tapestry of pining for youth. In this film, both the pining for youth and youth itself stand facing each other. The pining and the reality stare each other in the face and often question and tease each other.

Fred and Mick are vacationing in a Swiss medspa with Leda (Rachel Weissz) who is Fred’s daughter. Leda has just been let go by her husband—Mick’s son for a woman ‘who is better in bed’. And then we have the rest of the ensemble cast in the hotel—a young actor (Paul Dano) prepping for his next role, a completely out of shape football star (Maradonna, anyone?) and the reigning Miss Universe who is given a free stay at the hotel as part of a bag of goodies for winning the crown. Youth is very similar stylistically to Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film ‘The Great Beauty‘ which also revolved around the trial and tribulations of an ageing man who lived in the spotlight. Sorrentino’s operatic and stylized treatment of his work has become synonymous with his films and this film treats on the same ground with exuberance and flourish in its style.

Caine as Fred has been asked to play one of his significant pieces—one of his earlier masterpieces ‘Simple Songs’ for the Queen of England but he refuses because he wrote it only for his wife. She can perform no more. So he turns down the Queen’s invitation.

And then the imagery and visions start… into a Fellini-like world we enter—the symmetrical elderlies in the hot tub and sauna, the sensuous masseuse in her abundance, the solarized images of old male guests getting young girls or the lack thereof, the Miss Universe catching all unaware by her nudity, the failing football star practicing football with a tennis ball… the list goes on into the territory of the freak and the bizarre as just as a grand Italian maestro could do. And the relentless music score that just about levitates every freak visual to the extreme.He starts questioning Keitel’s involvement with a girl named Gilda whom they were both fond of as youngsters. Never mind that they are both now nearing eighty and discussions of teenage intimacy are beyond any relevance. He just has to know whether Keitel got to have a more intimate relationship with Gilda. It just bothers him and stays fixed in his mind. The nostalgia for youth and his constant quest to find the most invisible moments that ever existed leads him to constantly meander through obtuse territories of teenage love, early marital love, virility, alertness, and, yes finally bodily functions.  At every step of the way, he is a pained soul who lives completely in the present and hopes to find the past in it. His is a disillusioned face breaking into a taciturn smile, grandfatherly in his approach and almost always serenely happy when he encounters a young beauty. Subliminal he is every passing moment.

Sorrentino plays in a mindscape, which juxtaposes desire versus the real deal. The real deal of youth is raw beauty but it is shallow and inconsequential. After all the hype of the Miss Universe arriving, she gets a full frontal nudity shot and is then almost banished from the film. The young actor is good company but he is more spent and tired than the old ones, the young lovers are still trying to outdo each other in the department of amour. Sorrentino keeps revisiting the masseuse in her dance studio where she is more style than substance. The sudden visions of youth are angular, jarring and grotesque… the swooping camera shots add to the allure… what plays on in Caine’s mind is just some fragments of a flight of fancy.Keitel’s character seems to be more laidback and just a tad confused. He is writing a film with a new cast of scriptwriters who are all young bumbling idiots. But everything falls apart when Hollywood diva Brenda (Jane Fonda) visits him and tells him that she cannot act in his films and gives her monologue about the state of Hollywood. Sorrentino pegs the monologue in a surreal, exaggerated and fantastic manner albeit with some truth.

Sorrentino layers his film with his perspective that our own relationship with the future is a relationship we develop with ourselves. The future gives us freedom and freedom gives us the feeling of youth. The more we stop thinking about the future, the sooner we age.  And then we look back at what we lost never to get back again. Caine finally comes to terms with the fact that show must go on and he has to perform for the queen at her invite. He surreally visits his paralyzed wife and spends a few tender moments with her telling her everything. This is perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in the film. The vision of the wife is one stone cold paralyzed person… we don’t really know if she heard anything. But Caine is all effusive and gushing… as young as one can imagine him to be… and absolutely vulnerable too. This is one brilliant piece of acting from one of the biggest actors of our times.

By some quirky semblance of homage to an alter ego tradition, the film touches upon two genres that seem to fade in the contemporary world… music (as represented by Caine) and cinema (as represented by Keitel). But then they both reinvent and renew and live on for more time to come. This is exactly the scope of the characters of Caine and Keitel who are fading from their former glorious selves but still seem to come back. Caine and Keitel seem to be almost a composite for Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s albeit with less of a megalomaniac touch. Their best is clearly behind them but they were significantly attempting to carry on with their work.

A Still from Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
A Still from Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth

Caine finally decides to sing for the Queen at her special ceremony. Thus in the grandest flush of a multi-piece orchestra complete with a soprano singer, he delivers his piece of music ‘Simple Songs’ which ends up like a bad rehash of the Spice Girls meets Miss Fifties pulp. 

Sorrentino has played largely with the surreal images in the film. A dreamscape for Leda where former husband and his lover have a video mash up hurtling down a highway on steroids or the St Mark’s Square in Venice, all underwater, and a soulless spa with weird figures swimming around, he has managed to captured what we think is the fantasy of youth or being young. Youth is simple yet conniving, sweet yet terrifying and most importantly probably inconsequential. This is the absurdity of Sorrentino’s film, an absurdity that almost obstructs us when we start having empathy for the characters. A work that stands to show us the simple power of youth and yet the totally inconsequential and transactional nature of this power. This in itself is probably the high point of Sorrentino’s Youth.

A story set in Assam in the days of yore with four overlapping tales of women
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Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.

Summary: Four folk tales from Assam re-imagined as a narrative about four mothers, each facing demons of her own.

Mother-in-law: “Where is my son-in-law facing?
Wedding attendant: “I do not know which side he is facing.”

(Dialogue from Kothanodi: The River of Fables)

Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Psychotic, bizarre women that defy stereotypes of sexuality and gender in this gripping tale of magical realism woven together beautifully by director Bhaskar Hazarika. Based loosely on Burhi Aair Sadhu (Tales by a Grandmother) by noted Assamese writer Lakshminath Bezbarooah, this is a dark Assamese tale of sordid lust and macabre desires, some of which are anthropomorphic in their form and excess.

A story with four overlapping tales of women – Tejimola, a young girl with a travelling father played by Adil Hussain and a wicked stepmother played by Zerifa Wahed; Dhoneshwari (Seema Biswas), who wants to marry her daughter off to a serpent for the riches she thinks will come to her; Ketaki (Urmila Mahanta), a weaver who gives birth to an outenga (a sour Assamese fruit); and Malati (Asha Bordoloi), who kills all her newborns at the request of her superiors, and her husband Poonai (Jatin Bora). All of this is set in Assam in a bygone era.

A Still from Bhaskar Hazarika's Kothanodi - The River of Fables
A Still from Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi – The River of Fables

The lust and greed of vermillion-smeared married women contrast with the frailty of a little girl with one parent and one step parent; the issue of giving birth in the proper context and to the right kind to inherit this world contrasts with lovers caught in the lunacy of a moonlit night; all weave into the visuals to take us through a sordid storyline where spiders, leeches and serpents share screen time with the characters. If a serpent that suppossedly brings riches is good enough to be married off to a daughter, so too a blood-sucking leech is apt food for a hungry stepdaughter. All’s fair in this game of love and lust that is being played onscreen!

Women in their various avatars – as a mother, stepmother, lover, daughter and stepdaughter  all come under the scanner in this blended concoction of witchy logic and dark magic. A mother who only greeds for her daughter and wealth, a stepmother who is busily trying to unshackle herself from the chains of a stepdaughter, a daughter who pines for her travelling dad and mothers who are giving birth to all life that does not seem right. Women shown in all their images that are not the epitomes of the ideal. But this helps in the crafting of a story which has its roots in Assam where the worship of Shakti, aniministic forms of worship and black magic still reign supreme. 

The sound of the traditional Assamese instruments bhor taal and taal reverberate through the film and bring in an eerie vibe to the sound. The surrealism of the plot heightened by this instrument adds multiple nuanced layers to a story where the women are already in a disturbed world.

Taking folk tales that have been around for years, mixing them with a dose of surrealism and then blending it completely into the landscape of Assam, director Bhaskar Hazarika has crafted a story that questions the stereotypes of women in a nineteenth century landscape… of the roles they play, of their domination over the males in their clans, of their sadistic and masochistic behaviours ensuring their own survival.  Special credits need to be given to Assamese writer Arupa Patangia Kalita for the minimal dialogue, cinematographer Vijay Kutty for taking a serene landscape and giving it just the right treatment for making it sinister, and editor Suresh Pai who keeps the suspense and surrealism going on through to the end of the film.

As Spanish director Pedro Almodovar once said: “When I was very young, I was already a fabulador. I loved to give my own version of stories that everybody already knew. When I got out of a movie with my sisters, I retold them the whole story. In general they liked my version better than the one they had seen.

This is essentially what Bhaskar Hazarika has done. He has retold a few stories about Assam in his own unique way. Kothanodi – The River of Fables is a minimalist gripping work by him that will set the benchmark for  good storytelling in film and would be an inspiration to the budding talent in India.