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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 5: Sholay (“Flames”)
1975, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
The best masala movie ever made. A masala movie is a subgenre of Indian cinema created by enterprising producers to cater to all the diverse tastes of an audience in a single film. Masala is Hindi for “spice,” and refers to a blend of multiple flavors (as in “curry” powder). In movie terms, this translates to a musical romantic-comedy/action-adventure that offers everything - fights, laughs, love scenes, dance numbers, and family melodrama - all in the course of three-and-a-half hours.  Warning: First-time viewers may find the masala movie slightly indigestible—a cinematic sensory overload. But if you want to get a taste of the most popular type of movie in Indian commercial cinema, start here: two conmen on the run are recruited by a village landowner to hunt down and capture the ruthless bandit that murdered his sons. In essence it’s a musical spaghetti western set in rural India. The movie made a star out of its hero, Amitabh Bachan, who is so beloved even today, that when he was hospitalized a few months ago, hundreds of Indians flocked to the temples to pray and light candles. Watching Sholay, you can’t help but wallow in its elemental pleasures: the joyous chemistry between the two male leads, Bachan and 70s matinee-idol, Dharmendra and their uproariously bad-ass behavior (like the scene where they help the village-belle gather mangos by flippantly shooting them off a tree with their pistols), the sassy, Jean Harlow slapstick of Hema Malini’s village-belle, and the delicious satisfaction we feel at the demise of the bloodthirsty villain, Gabbar Singh (played with sadistic panache by character actor Amjad Khan). Sholay is an unpretentious classic. It reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained.


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Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 4: Mughal-E-Azam (“The Great Mughal”)
1960, recently restored to color, Hindi.
Dir: K. Asif


Bollywood’s definitive historical film. The war of wills between the late 16th century Emperor Akbar and his son, Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir) over Salim’s love affair with a palace slave girl, Anarkali, is the source of endless fascination in Indian cultural history. Bazaars and streets in North India are even named after the lovers. Accuracy and truth plays a modest role here, with the story of a slave girl who sought the love of a prince and dared to defy the Emperor having an irresistible, romantic allure, like the love triangles of the Arthurian legends. Not mention, the Mughal court was a haven of such opulence that it couldn’t help but unlock the imagination. This is why many directors before Asif refused to even touch a story set in such an expensive period. Asif’s meticulous attention to detail cost the studio three million dollars at the end of 1960, a time when the average Indian film cost $200,000 to make. The awe surrounding the movie’s overextended budget persists even today.  In the Indian film industry, the joke goes that whenever a movie takes longer than six weeks, the producer berates the director by asking, “What the hell are you doing here? Shooting Mughal-E-Azam?” The movie’s name has become the code word for “epic.” And epic it is. Filled with bejeweled interiors, paradiscal gardens, and sprawling battle scenes with chain mail clad warriors astride elephants, Mughal-E-Azam almost seems like a comic book fantasy of Eastern exoticism, like Disney’s Aladdin. But the strength of the film lies in Asif’s respect for a bygone era and his direction of the three charismatic stars, Prithviraj Kapoor (Akbar), Dilip Kumar (Salim), and Madhubala (Anarkali). All three breathe humanity into the fabled characters.


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Tuesday, Aug 15, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 3: Mother India
1957, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Mehboob Khan


Mother India is Pather Panchali’s commercial counterpart: a sweeping epic about a poor, beautiful village woman struggling to raise her crops and feed her family. A box-office blockbuster in its day. Mother India is a mélange of Sounder and The Grapes of Wrath. The movie, an ode to the hordes of rural laborers who make up the backbone of the economy, was a matter of pride for post-Independence-Nehru India and became the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s socialist director, Mehboob Khan, used the narrative as a platform to advocate the central beliefs of his party. Forty years later, in an India fat with success, the leftist ideals of Mother India seem dated. But only ten years before its release, the partition of Pakistan sparked a series of devastating communal riots across the subcontinent, leading to the murder of thousands of Hindus and Muslims. It seemed that in a country obsessed with belief, the only way for its disparate peoples to survive alongside one another was without religion - organized religion, that is.  Faith as a primal vehicle for life and ritual is very much alive in Mother India, and the visual symbols and references to Hindu mythology and practice is what gives the film its raw, emotional power: the eternal wheel of life echoed in the roll of the plough from the beleaguered oxen, as well as the film’s title, the nation embodied as Mother, the pagan sacred goddess of life and death, articulated with quivering intensity by the film’s radiant star, Nargis.


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Tuesday, Aug 8, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 2: Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”)
1955, B&W, Bengali.
Dir: Satyajit Ray


If Raj Kapoor is the master of Indian commercial cinema, India’s art-house maestro is Satyajit Ray.  Lionized in the last fifteen years by critics and filmmakers like Pauline Kael, Louis Malle and Martin Scorsese, Ray is India’s most well known director in the West.  See Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film, and you’ll understand why.  Ray takes the story of a young boy, Apu, and his family in a remote village and elevates it into an epic narrative of loss and survival.  The grainy realism of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, served as an inspiration for Ray’s filmmaking style. But, his unique visual documentation of the character’s environment, the dense, sultry jungle of rural West Bengal, its tranquility, its rain, its heat, remains the most palpable experience of the film. The shot of Apu’s sister playing in the midst of the monsoon rains, twirling round and round in delirious excitement, her long hair flying across her face, her drenched sari clinging to her wiry body, is one of the most painterly visions ever put on film. But Pather Panchali is a story about poverty, and Ray understands that nature, for all its beauty, is equivocal. The Apu Trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—unfolds like a Greek saga, where each of the three phases of Apu’s life, boyhood, adolescence, adulthood, is marked by the death of a loved one, a woman.  After each stage we see him struggle, harden, and ultimately, accept what life has left him. In a country that clings to the concept of karma, Ray’s films resonate with haunting clarity and sadness.


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Sunday, Aug 6, 2006

For a little over 10 years, Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror and other world shock cinema to a desperate for something different Western mentality. Offering the unusual, the brazen, and the unique, the festival specializes in both full-length features and an amazing array of short films. At last year’s (2005) celebration alone, over 100 of these truncated talent showcases were presented. Now, in conjunction with Synapse Films, the festival is offering up Small Gauge Trauma, a collection of its most novel and creative contributions. And believe it or not, it’s one of the best film packages of the year.


The 14 titles present on the single DVD presentation vary from minor (Tomoya Sato’s study of suicide, L’ilya) to the masterful (a pair of brave entries from Britain—Robert Morgan’s stop-animation The Separation, Sam Walker’s human abattoir comedy Tea Break). All take the notion of the short form narrative very seriously, and strive to make the most out of the limited time frame. In several cases, the results are astounding. In three particular instances, the movies made are better than most of their long form brethren. Director Salvador Sanz uses a drawing style reminiscent of anime mixed with socialist poster art to tell his tale of a pop band that becomes those mythological snake-haired monsters of Greek lore. Gorgonas is great, not just because of the mixture of martial artistry and the macabre, but because Sanz allows the unlimited palette of pen and ink to fully realize his repugnant aims.


Similarly, Miguel Ángel Vivas breathes new life into a hackneyed horror ideal—the zombie film—with his wickedly perverse I’ll See You In My Dreams. Like a Sam Raimi/Coen Brothers take on Lucio Fulci, this lively living dead thriller is so smartly scripted and masterfully directed that you barely miss the blood and guts. Thankfully, Vivas doesn’t skimp on the sluice. The most interesting entry, however, has nothing to do with monsters and menace. Imagine Trainspotting with show tunes, or Requiem for a Dream with its own melodious narrative breaks and you’ve got some idea of director Diego Abad’s amazingly mischievous music video Ruta Destroy!. The story is rather simple – a group of junkie friends looking for thrills… and pills—but the execution is out of this world, with Abad allowing his mostly tone-deaf actors to sing-speak their songs. The result is as hilarious as it is harrowing.


There are other moments of cinematic brilliance here—Phillip John’s nunnery sick joke Sister Lulu, Dennison Ramalho’s demonic possession tone poem Love from Mother Only, the Dario Argento inspired directorial flair of Chambre Jaune‘s Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Occasionally, a misguided moment like Tenkwaku Naniwa’s Miss Greeny (nothing more than a green blob pouring down a canvas) takes away from the overall presentation. But astounding efforts like Paco Plaza’s Abuelitos—about a surreal nursing home where elderly patients are kept alive via a very gruesome diet—more than make up for the occasional artistic overreaching. For anyone looking for something completely out of the ordinary, DVD distributor Synapse Films has a compilation treat for you. Here’s hoping the efforts of the Fantasia International Film Festival—and the wonderful works they represent—find the audience they so desperately deserve.


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