Column in Business Standard, April 24, 2015
Always the hedonist, I go to the cinema like most people for pleasure first. Entertainment is the film industry’s primary staple anywhere: song and dance spectaculars, star glamour, well-scripted comedy, high-octane drama and the promise of being transported to other worlds and times.
2015 has dawned with some great themes for Indian film-goers: from Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha, a sharply observed domestic melodrama about a video-seller in Haridwar who’s married a better-educated but overweight wife, to Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, a World War II crime thriller set in Calcutta, based on famous fiction, that edgily juxtaposes the city’s underworld with contemporary rock music. Both these films were financed by Aditya Chopra of Yashraj Films, which suggests how far Mumbai’s movie moghuls will risk their cash. Then there’s Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming Bombay Velvet next month, a 1960s retro-chic ode to the city, based on Princeton professor Gyan Prakash’s writings, that owes as much to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as to Bollywood noir (with a sexed-up Geeta Dutt number from C.I.D., circa 1956, inventively remixed by Mikey McCleary).
But we also go to the movies to be astonished and moved in other ways, to be confronted by problematic realities that offer no escape. By that standard April 17 must count as a red-letter day, for the coincidental theatrical release of two provocative independent features, brave ventures that show that Indian cinema has the gumption to go where others fear to tread. Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court have been the toast of the international film festival circuit; it would be easy to classify them as art house cinema except that, made with great struggle by the film makers, they have not only got past a retrograde censor board, but found excited audiences at home.
Margarita is a fictionalised account of the director’s cousin’s life, a young disabled woman in a middle-class Sikh household in Delhi, and her sexual awakening. It takes us into the difficult terrain of the emotional and physical longings of a wheelchair-bound protagonist, in relationships both gay and straight, which are handled with self-assured subtlety and restraint. Bose’s treatment, based on her own script and backed by a bravura performance by the Indo-French actress Kalki Koechlin, is neither overly dramatic nor sentimental. Its heartbreak and tragedy are suffused with warmth, humour and the redeeming power of love. The film’s appeal lies not only in breaking through barriers of gender, class and ethnicity but also language and locale: it moves between New Delhi and New York, and between Hindi, English and Punjabi, with seamless fluency.
Set in the same court room in a sessions court in Mumbai for much of its duration, Chaitnaya Tamhane’s Court could have been both stifling and self-serving. It is anything but that. The case being heard by the district judge, like so much worthless litigation, is baffling and bizarre: a sewer cleaner from a slum, who is a drunk and wife-beater, has perished in a manhole. Was it an accident or an abetment to suicide by a Dalit activist? The slow grind of arguments by the female government prosecutor and male defence lawyer, the endless adjournments, the boredom and torpor pervading the court could send you racing for the exit, but you stay glued to the seat. Like Shonali Bose, Tamhane made Court, largely in Marathi, from his own script. Amazingly, the film was almost entirely privately financed by theatre actor Vivek Gomber, who also plays the defence counsel.
The director’s technique is startling: long, lingering fly-on-the-wall shots compel our attention. He deftly sketches the after-hours lives of the two lawyers and judge – the prosecutor is an exhausted housewife who cooks and cleans at home, the judge on holiday is trapped by middle-class social mores – but adopts no moral standpoint. Even when it gradually becomes clear that the police want to lock up the accused on flimsy grounds with no concrete evidence, Tamhane does not emphasise the point. His unruffled view – aloof and inexorably non-judgemental – forces the audience to take positions. At a superficial level, nothing much is happening in Court, but, in fact, everything is. The film is a harsh endorsement of the much-bandied phrase, “the law will take its own course”.
No two films, in subject and style, could be as different as Margarita with a Straw and Court. Together they represent a brave new cinema and a new age of film makers that must be celebrated.