Full Metal Jacket

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987

v1-btsxmte2odayottqoze3mjq4oziwndg7odawozeymdaIf you want to fall in love with Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket (1987) might not be the movie you want to start with.

If you want to know about the Vietnam War, this again is not the movie to start with. That said however, this movie about a war is a must watch in the times that we live in. In an era where we have little creative output and enormous criticism of the society and its paraphernalia I must say, I kind of loved this film and I will tell you why.

I don’t know why Wagner’s Valkyrie comes to my mind while I write this because of course, when it’s about Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now springs readily to the mind. If that movie is a standard 10 then, this one will score around 7.4 in my ratings. Apocalypse Now is a piece of awe-some reality that benefits from falling back on a great piece of literature; Kubrick’s Full Metal has no such claim.

The opening shots of the film struck me the hardest. The training school on Paris island where the marines are forced to submit to an excruciating routine pushing themselves to the limits of their physical stamina and its ensuing mental repercussions is the birthing place of the homogenous corps. Rarely ever are the sedentary writers, sitting behind typewriters, able to achieve such insight into the transforming psyche of military trainees (Haruki Murakami does, but that alone is insufficient for a Nobel). Lee Ermey is delightful in his role as the over-bearing, obscene sergeant Hartman who dictates every aspect of the lives of his young trainees. He picks them up and drops them at will, shuffling them around, incorporating sexual metaphors into their relationship with their guns or composing rhymes for the morning warm-up exercises that equate war with sex (or, rape): nothing parallels the creative obscenity in the way the training rhymes were made. He prepares them to be murder weapons, with the only living desire to annihilate the enemy. It is this statement that resurfaces in the film over and over again. But you would expect that from a film on war.

As you would indeed expect a reluctant soldier not entirely convinced by the rhetoric of kill or be killed. So Private Joker (Matthew Modine) scrawls ‘Born to Kill’ on his helmet and pins a peace button on his uniform lapel as he goes to investigate the war effort of the Marines. Predictably, he is catechized not just by a superior, but by a fellow Marine who refuses to admit him into the precinct of military glory without having ever been a part of actual ‘fighting’.  Instead of the Vietnam War however, the film is at its brightest in the scene of confrontation between Erney and Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Leonard Lawrence and is nicknamed Gomer Pyle. Pyle’s slow mental breakdown is traced from the night when his fellow trainees beat him up (they had to submit to an extra round of punitive exercise right before bed-time because he had stolen food from the mess) to the night when he waits in the toilet with his gun. You prepare yourself for an odd but characteristic response; you prepare for a showdown. Kubrick, however, controls the scene completely; there are no excesses and there is quiet terror in Joker’s eyes as Pyle shoots Hartman and then commits suicide.

Pyle is a case 8, and as the camera stills into a close-up of his eyes glowering beneath his eyebrows, you recognise Kubrick’s signature: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as The Shining, both better-made and more acclaimed films than this.

But the film drives its point home early on: the Mariners are human weapons, trained and meant to kill, living and dying in the anonymity of the Corps. This ruthless desire to destroy is what most sedentary people behind the computer often fail to understand.

It somehow seems real yet outworldly, and I can go on about this part of the movie which keeps you hooked and you don’t even realize if it’s a war film or a film about some army school. Then the shots cut to Vietnam, where the soldiers are irritated with the locals who keep on attacking them despite the fact that they were ‘[t]here to help them, right?’ The irony is immense (Mission Kashmir?) and speaks a lot about the contemporary world with its military interferences. Kubrick, a master of satire, depicts this rather beautifully.

In his Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frenkel writes that even in the bowels of the concentration camp, the saintly acted like saints and couldn’t be degraded no matter how the situation was. If we recall the ending of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) a similar situation comes to mind- the ‘boat bomb test’ by the Joker is an acid test on human morality in a time of crisis. All of that shows how even the worst of situations swings the compass of some people’s inner angels. Considering the fact that this is a war film, Kubrick had a lot of similar ground to explore; only, he never does.

There are some intense moments of cinematography however, especially the one with the sniper, albeit a war movie cliché (personally I preferred Saving Private Ryan). The real surprise is when you look at the face of the ‘one’ who was behind the mask of the sniper. The unmasked agony on Joker’s face had greater cinematic potential but the film ends abruptly, telling a few disconnected stories with shots which don’t really add up. You have the Vietnamese prostitutes, one of whom refuses to serve an Afro-American soldier for racial prejudice, the serial masturbator marine, the helicopter marine who shoots anyone who runs, and a few others. I blame Kubrick for not telling a few more stories or engaging with his subplots — always bordering on the abstract instead — but that is perhaps his style of filmmaking too.

It is not possible to address any single character from the film for they all seemed like tools of war in this movie. Kubrick does not seem to dwell on their humanness, and yet they are humans — people with their own stories, afflictions and desires. No single character was explored much in this film. Perhaps Kubrick was subtly mocking the people, the outsiders who take the realm of war for fun.

This is a film made around thirty years ago. It isn’t even Kubrick’s finest at that. What touched me the most is Kubrick’s honest attempt to try. If you are new to Kubrick, and wish to love him, start with Dr. Strangelove (1964), or The Shining (1980), or A Clockwork Orange (1971); or start with Eyes Wide Shut if you wish to hate him. Full Metal Jacket may not elicit the full range of reaction to Kubrick, yet it is still a film worth watching, if you can let your judgements go. Admire it, if you may, for the creative brilliance that flashes in parts punctuating the truncated storyline as a whole.

– Sounak Biswas

Barbed Wires and Broken Lyres: A review of a Photography Exhibition on Kashmir by Amit Mehra

Amit Mehra has been travelling all over Kashmir for a while and has tried to capture the valley in all its essence, away from the haunting memories of Insurgency, words like “crackdown” entering common parlance, and Curfew tearing across the evening sky, in the Photography Exhibition being currently held at Alipore, Kolkata. The pictures are haunting in themselves, as it would be of any place with so much history and wound festering in its nook and corners of its cities. But to his credit, Mr. Mehra tries to look beyond the prism which has so far tried to paint, colour, codify Kashmir as a Paradise Burning. The culprit in question has to be Bollywood, which since Kashmir Ki Kali to a very forgettable Mission Kashmir has plastered the state with stereotypes. Only recently, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider and the controversial Kaafiron Ki Namaaz has somehow projected Kashmir better than it had been all along, like the spectral images at a photographer’s studio. Amit Mehra tries to do the same: his photographs on display try to capture the day-to- day realities of a torn state. People are seen gathering for the Azaan, Balloon sellers with their wares, Loudspeakers tied on top of buildings, Private and Government, the famous Dal Lake and flower sellers. For a moment, walking down the gallery, one might want to dismiss newspaper reports, the stories of horror, of young men, unarmed at that, being killed/ murdered, brides being raped and the supposed human rights abuse by the Indian Army. What strikes the viewer is the absence of any photograph of the Army Personnel, No Indian flags, or nothing pertaining to the clamour for self- determination.

But some ghosts refuse to die. And no one can ever look at Kashmir at the same way ever again. Not from the edge of the poet’s nib, nor from the tip of the gun’s bayonet, and definitely not through the lens of a camera. Barbed wires, lonely roads a foot deep in snow feature prominently. Solitude runs like a signature tune whispering the sad plight of the people between the framed photos. There are graveyards, tombstones sleeping not so peacefully side by side, with feline creatures and dogs manning the emptiness that surrounds the space. Photos of children haunt you, they are pensive and their bodies taut, seemingly standing in front of an army gun and not a chronicler’s lens. This is Syria all over again. This is Palestine. We see young men on the opposite side of the wires, we see autumn leaves stuck between them. Lambs have been assembled for slaughter, possibly for a Friday feast or Eid celebrations. But we know, don’t we, what the metaphor stands for?

This is an exhibition that one must visit. And preferably not just once. Go a second time, stand in front of the images, and cower in shame. Come out of the gallery only when your hands smell of blood. But come out with the image of a certain Ghulam Nabi Bhatt, standing in front of the Shiva Temple that he has build. That’s the Kashmir that we have lost. That is the greatest tragedy. That syncretic culture of inclusion is what we have lost. It is that we have to protect. There are still some good brave causes left.

-Sayan Aich

Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings

Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings by Vibhuti Narain Rai, published by Penguin Books, 2016.

hashimpura-hero-image

Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings is a chilling reminder of that pervasive matrix of communal hatred, inhuman violence and gross miscarriage of justice which has systematically corroded the secular foundations of the Indian polity over the last few decades. Vibhuti Narain Rai’s memoir, translated from Hindi by Darshan Desai, provides yet another instance of injustice that ends up exposing the bloody underbelly of agony and outrage which the vaunted rhetoric of democracy strives to conceal.

V.N. Rai was the Superintendent of Police for the district of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh in 1987, at a time when communal tensions were running high, owing to the growth of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and various parts of UP, especially Meerut, were up in flames. It is during this strife-torn context that on the night of 22nd May, 1987, that a group of individuals, belonging to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), led by Platoon Commander Surendra Pal Singh, picked up forty to fifty young and able-bodied Muslim men from Hashimpura locality of Meerut city in a truck and then took them near the Muradnagar Canal and Hindon Canal where they were indiscriminately shot at, leading to the death of 42 innocent citizens of secular India. The book offers a vivid and detailed portrayal of the massacre itself, especially from the accounts of survivors like Babudin and Zulfiqar, and Rai’s own involvement in the search and rescue operations that he undertook that night as well as the subsequent twists and turns in the ensuing investigation, culminating in the shambolic verdict of 2015 which exonerated all accused due to lack of evidence.

But the verdict itself did not really come as a surprise, even though it was both shocking and severely disheartening. While delivering his verdict Judge Sanjay Jindal observed,

“The defects in the investigation are of such a nature which go to the very root of the prosecution case and if ignored the same can cause a serious prejudice to the accused persons, and such ignorance may result in the miscarriage of justice…It is very painful to observe that several innocent persons have been traumatized and their lives have been taken by the state agency, but the investigating agency as well as the prosecution have failed to bring on record the reliable material to establish the identity of the culprits” (156-57).

Rai’s scrupulously mentions the nature of such defects which were deliberately indulged in to weaken the investigation and hush up the truth. Why did it take the authorities to confiscate the truck in which the PAC men carried off the murdered Muslim men, which meant that no worthwhile evidence would be recovered from it? Why did the report of the investigating officer of the CID, not signed by the survivors, refer to jawans in deep green uniforms when both Babudin and Muzibur Rahman (also one of the survivors) had referred to the perpetrators as men in khaki-uniforms in their original FIRs and statements given to the court? Why was it that the CID even listed among the accused a Muslim named Sami Ullah, even though it is quite absurd that he would have been part of the gruesome murders of his own community members? Why was it that the CID insisted from the start that Surendra Pal Singh and his associates were exclusively responsible for such a horrible massacre and that no senior officer was in any involved, even though there were reports of meetings regarding potential raids in Hashimpura and Maliyana, involving superior officers of both police and the local battalion of the army? Why was it that Major B.S. Pathania and others steadfastly refused to cooperate with the investigation and even denied what they wrote in the reports they had submitted to their superiors? Why were army officers actively involved in controlling the law and order situation in Meerut in the wake of communal violence from 18 May, even though there were no specific orders for the involvement of the army? What was the role of Major Satish Kaushik, whom several eye witness accounts placed in Hashimpura on the day of the massacre even though he was not posted there? Was there any link between the massacre and the death of Prabhat Kaushik, Major Kaushik’s brother and nephew of local BJP leader Shakuntala Sharma? The investigation, if carried out properly, should have offered answers to most of these questions. But as Rai confesses,

“Since I had been connected to the case and had monitored it from the beginning, I can say without any hesitation that the investigators were making every attempt to help the accused, right from day one” (154).

Such consequences are the result of an ingrained communalism which not only vitiates the mind of the enforcers of law, but cripples the administration and renders the political establishment altogether incapable to redressing the demands of justice. Neither the erstwhile Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh nor the Prime Minister’s Office took any concrete action, despite being completely cognizant of the events, especially against the PAC. Such deliberate inaction which exposes the sheer vulnerability of the minorities within the nation-state of India threatens to undermine the secular basis by creating an ambience of utter unbelongingness. This is further compounded by the unmitigated agony of the relatives of the deceased who might not only lose faith in the state and its institutions but could well be converted by fundamentalist ideologues into potential terrorists bent on avenging the wrongs inflicted on their families. In fact, the absence of any punitive action against the perpetrators only confirms the notion that people like Surendra Pal Singh, either voluntarily or under orders, will time and again “show the Muslims their place” (60) and go scot free. Any society that fails to prevent such subjugation of a particular section of the population is bound to be riddled with untold violations of humanity that would eventually unleash monstrous countermeasures. As Rai states, “I don’t want the wounds to fade. I want to reiterate in the eyes of the Indian state that it did not bother to do what it was supposed to, rather did everything that our painstakingly created constitution does not allow them to. If we forget one Hashimpura, many more will happen” (179-80). Reading and writing about it are attempts at such reiteration.

At a time when men may be killed for suspecting that they had eaten beef, something the constitution allows them to do, or undertrials may be killed in shoddy encounters to save the expenditure of the state in feeding them or a Muslim mother may be jailed for protesting against the callousness of the administration which fails to locate her “disappeared” son, books such as these become indicators of entrenched maladies we have failed so far to cure. As my earlier reviews of Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora? or Gujarat Files, also substantiate, every section of the Indian state remains besmirched with countless instances of blatant injustice, horrible crimes and heinous distortions of truth and no institution seems capable of redressing these foul atrocities.

The Hindu myths are replete with instances of monsters who keep extending their reigns of terror before finally falling prey to their own evil or being destroyed by some incarnation of divinity. I wonder who keeps track to the gross atrocities of the Indian state and what forces of destruction lurk in our futures. The answer is nowhere in the wind.

-Abin Chakraborty

 

 

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson, 2007

poster_thedarjeelinglimited

In the hill towns and stations hastily established along the hills and valleys in India, the colonial masters transplanted their architectures, education systems and religion as a way of life. While the architecture proved too expensive for the locals to copy effortlessly, religion and education struck roots into the mountain soil. Coming across The Darjeeling Limited, I expected stereotypes about India’s poverty and concomitant spirituality. Even with Anderson’s reputation for inventiveness, India’s proverbial stature as the spiritual capital of the world is difficult to skirt around, especially for a foreign filmmaker shooting a story of three brothers journeying to Darjeeling to ‘find [them]selves’.

The opening scene in which Bill Murray and Peter Brody (Peter Whitman, in the film) race on the platform to board the train, comes across as a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the iconic scene in DDLJ. There are obvious differences, of course: DDLJ’s Simran was being hoisted to the presumable happily-ever-after life with Raj while TDL’s Peter was merely escaping the trappings of his marriage in responding to his elder brother’s call for a reunion and a trip to Darjeeling.

On the train, Peter (Adrian Brody), meets his brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson). For the latter, this trip stands in for his ideal of a ‘life changing experience’ that would rejuvenate and restore their fraternal bonding. Indeed, the brothers rarely communicate. The younger brothers are surprised at the sight of Francis’ heavily bandaged face and pronounced limp: they did not know that he had met with a near-fatal accident. Peter does not want Francis to know that Alice, his wife was pregnant and Jack continues to pass his autobiographical writings as ‘products of the imagination’. Despite their introductory ‘I love you’s, the brothers come across as oddly mismatched, with little direct connection.

They bicker almost continuously. Francis is jealous of Peter’s possession of their late father’s sunglasses and shaving kit and incites Jack to join him. Peter insists that the possessions are a symbol of their father’s immense love towards him alone. The ensuing fight causes them to be thrown off the train by a scrupulously honest Sikh conductor who is tired of their antics.

The unbelievably luxurious train compartment seems to correspond visually to the theory of oriental grandeur. The brothers visit the temple of Thousand Bulls to sanctify the beginning of their journey. Following the Orientalist paradigm, the camera pans across rooftops with cooing pigeons to the crowded marketplace in front of the temple where Peter buys cheap leather sandals and a poisonous snake. Predictably, Francis has one of his expensive leather shoes stolen by a shoe-shine boy. There are also references to a mystic who had given Francis three peacock feathers with detailed instructions about a small ritual which would help them transcend their current problems.

The film also has nuanced subversions however. The sweet-lime server is an Indian woman Rita, who speaks perfect English and has no qualms about conducting a sexual affair with Jack, who in turn, continuously gulps heavy doses of Francis’ tranquilisers. At the dining table, the brothers are accompanied by an old man reading a newspaper: it is entirely possible that he understands every word passing between the brothers, but conducts himself silently throughout the conversation.

Nevertheless, the brothers soon discover that the temple visits have not benefitted them in any way. Right when you expect them to abort the journey and fly away, they encounter an accident. They encounter three drowning boys, one of whom dies in Peter’s arms. Inducted into the poor family, they recognize and empathise with the intense sorrow of the bereaved father (Irrfan Khan). The vibrant red-orange-yellow colour palette changes into one of whites and greys against the backdrop of brilliant blue walls and desert landscape. Even the clutter of the frames is reduced significantly. The emotional baggage carried around by the brothers seems to have reduced somewhat in their first hand experience of the tragedy, which receives more of an artistic than a melodramatic treatment.

While they had jostled with each other and burrowed into their selves, the tragedy serves to free them up a bit, till Francis reveals that the journey was aimed at meeting their mother (Anjelica Houston) who lived at the Himalayan foothills as a nun. It emerges that she had abandoned her boys and husband to respond to her calling. She is not ecstatic at the sight of her grown-up children and is as overbearing as Francis. At the end, she chooses to disappear again. As her staff at the monastery inform, even without the danger of the tiger lurking over the monastery, her periodic disappearance was quite common.

It is a pleasure to watch Darjeeling Limited precisely because of its meandering course. It is never possible to pinpoint what follows what in the narrative. While the narrative is definitely not a series of upsets, it’s not a tale of high-flying optimism either. If Anderson’s films always have an aura of the wonderful and magical, the deep despair and frustration of the brothers is palpably on the surface. Though the frames are crowded with expensive belongings, signifying the chaotic state of mind and confusion of the Whitmans, there is also a nagging suggestion of the emotional emptiness of the brothers: these are three children who lost their father in a sudden accident and were abandoned by their mother who continues to refuse to receive them.

The Darjeeling Limited is scarcely a touristy exploration of the wonders of India or the humanity of its people. It is more of a gradual attainment of selfhood through the location of the wonder that is the self. Without discrediting India, as a locale, in the slightest way, Anderson posits the source of self-identification in the possibilities for disaster in every way of life. As the brothers race onto the final train in the film, without their bags, their emotional trappings seem to have been divested and their imaginations  are represented through a tracking shot in which Jack’s ex-girlfriend Natalie Portman, the businessman played by Bill Murray, the snack girl, Rita, Francis’ fired secretary and the hidden tiger stalking the monastery all seem passengers on the same train. Whether one could call the Darjeeling Limited a metaphor for life, is open to interpretation.

Satyajit Ray’s films provide a major section of the background score to Anderson’s film. It seems to be an oblique acknowledgement of his limitations in the portrayal of humanism achieved almost effortlessly in the works of the former.The Darjeeling Limited is admittedly less pulsating. It remains a wonderfully effusive, magical little piece of cinema nonetheless.

– Pritha Mukherjee