A Death in the Gunj – A striking debut

Directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, 2017

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Konkona Sen Sharma’s A rated debut film is a chamber drama, unfolding dreamily in the mystic light of a forestry Anglo-Indian settlement in Jharkhand of the 70-s. It starts off with two men (Nandu and Brian) peering down a car’s trunk, thinking aloud of how best to tuck in a “body”. A summer-sky blue car of the yesteryears then travels along the wintry paths to a holiday retreat- the mansion of the Bakshis in McCluskiegunj. The narrative by then has jumped a week backwards and plays out like a journalistic account with numbered days.

Right from the party’s arrival at Anupama and O.P.’s household, the exchanges in English with a few Bengali greetings and phrases thrown in, acquaint us with a mélange of characters suffering the cultural superiority of a colonial hangover.  The dominant mood is that of banter and the inner tensions of all vacationing members seem to concentrate on Shutu- a withdrawn 23 year old.  In fact the film could have been all about Shutu, the eternally hurt and abused ‘softie’ in the family whose meekness equally entertains and irritates others. His elder brother tries to ‘man’ him up the tough way, flicking him on the head and insisting he drive a car even when he clearly refuses. Reeking of machismo- Vikram bruises him during a game of kabaddi; Anupama disapproves of the mean-mindedness in the clichéd one-liner- “boys will be boys” at the dinner table. But we soon see that the women are no less when it comes to bullying, Mimi (played by the vivacious Kalki) calls him “pretty”, has drunk intercourse with him- riding him on a rocking chair in a very intelligently detailed scene that builds up your anticipation through suggestive tropes, and then leaves him.

Irresponsibility runs through the film like the haunting background scores that mix Indian folk songs with Tagore’s ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’ and Burn’s “Auld Lang Syne”. Shutu is absconding from his home; he has turned up at his maternal aunt’s house for retreat, keeping his guilt at bay from his mother’s weary voice that makes its way into the film through letters and a terribly one-sided telephone conversation. He has failed his post-graduation exams and is hung up on his father’s death. Tilottoma and Nandu, while clearly dismissing Shutu as an “imbecile”, still leave their daughter- the eight year old Tani under his care. So that when she goes missing, the blame is clearly on his imbecility. Tani, in turn, is super excited to adopt a puppy whom she names Fluffy but soon loses the will to care and it ends up straying around.

In a tenderly amusing moment, the film shows Fluffy sharing an idyllic family dinner with the servants; the housemaid hand-feeds him a plate of rice as her husband has his meal by their side.  In the family’s visit to Ms. Mckenzie’s place for lunch, we hear her dishes being highly praised as the camera covers them in detail but, immediately we are offered a glimpse of her in the kitchen- licking the ladle with which she stirs and serves the food. We are nudged awake to her lack of hygiene. Equally tickling is the servant’s lack of concern when he discovers Shutu in a ditch- very matter-of-factly he exclaims that it is strange of him to slouch in a ditch when the whole family is looking for him. The film is replete with these wry flashes of humour.

Also, the servant’s discovery of Shutu in the ditch comes after minutes of agitation over the lost child. The narrative drops red herrings like Miss Curney stealthily visiting the grave of her daughter who died an infant and Tani reciting a poem where she wishes to be six forever, making you flinch for the worst when Tani goes missing. In an exceptional stroke, Sharma returns the child unceremoniously home while having moved on to Shutu’s trepidations in the ditch he falls into on his search for Tani in the woods at night.

We see glimpses of suppressed rage in Shutu all along (as he is wronged time and again) but pass over just like the film’s cast does till all goes berserk in the final moments. The death happens as announced right in the title (which thankfully was not a red herring!) but there again, the director makes visual poetry out of the gore. In an arresting shot, the blood splatters all over the bark of the family tree where their names are etched (Tani and Shutu trace the names on the first day of the trip) and trickles down in slow motion. A couple of minutes later, we see Shutu- wafer-like and haunting in the backseat of the car (which also carries the corpse) as he is driven back to the city.

Needless to say, Sen Sharma’s debut which has been critically acclaimed for its “assuredness” deals with human psyche in a charming way. Even while Shutu runs the risk of being reduced to a trope (for campaigning) precisely because the narrative never wanders far from his basic predicament, the story balances it out. The other full-bodied characters, the games and gaiety, the suspense and humour come together to give you a comprehensive experience of watching cinema. For me, one of the most warm takeaways is the friendship between Shutu and Tani (Shutu’s only true bond), and the hurt when the former acts forgetful about it.

– Barnamala Roy

The search is all that matters: A note on Ashish Avikunthak’s ‘Kalkimanthankatha’

For a young research student, working on the works of Samuel Beckett, Ashish Avikunthak’s Kalkimanthankatha is an important lesson on reading methodology. I wonder, when I first read Waiting For Godot almost seven years back around the time I was graduating from high school, what did I find so pertinently interesting about the text. Is it the obscurity or the abstraction? Is it poetic sensibility expressed through prosaic precision? These questions have lost their relevance over the years as I re-read the text and realized that they not matter. The text has borne its own relevance every time I have gone back to read it and it continues to change. What could have been the intention of the author is not as important to me any more as the various problems and possibilities the text poses to the reader.

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In Avikunthak’s film I find the same spirit of a growing distance from the author that eventually brought the film closer and closer to the Beckettian spirit. Contrary to the Beckett text: the setting continuously changes, even though the location remains the same; the clothing of the characters also keep altering and in the end serve as an important symbol in the film when finally abandoned; and instead of four, the film has only two characters waiting for the arrival of ‘Kalki’— the last avatar of Vishnu. In fact the characters do not wait, rather they use the word ‘search’ that perhaps justifies their movement across the space instead of staggering around a confined spot.

In the film, Beckett’s text is read into Mao’s statements. The confusion over language and philosophy that is one of the thematic facets of the text is thus interwoven into the film as the characters read out from the little Red Book in mundane monotonous module. One wonders if it is a Beckettian reading of Mao or Maoist reading of Beckett, but in the end it is neither since the film tries to fall  back upon the political via an act of abandonment of textual language carried out by the characters as their bodies turn to absolute bareness much like the setting in the Beckett text itself — ‘A country road. A tree. Evening’.

The bareness of the bodies stands in between continuous attempts at looking backward to an ideology that has largely failed, and is heading toward a future of indifference. And it is at the face of such crises of memory and hope, past and future, that the characters live out their present in search of someone who has made a promise. If the political is imbued within the act of search itself, the bodies in their absolute bareness, become the space and means of politics. Instead of being read as metaphorical exposure of the political confusions and indifference of our times, they should be recognized as materialization of the anguish that politics proclaims, and constitutive of the materiality of politics. Hence, the identity of Kalki, like the identity of Godot, is no longer relevant here — the search being undertaken by these characters is all that matters while being together, like comrades like lovers, two shadows walking bare in the allegorical mist.

The element of the absurd propounded by Beckett’s text lies in the method in which the film is executed. The dialogues are composed in an unexpectedly refined and lyrical Bengali delivered by the characters that wear very ordinary contemporary outfits; or the sudden shift in colour and tone of the screen are various instances contributing to the sense of absurdity which is if not always Beckettian, very cinematic. Beckett had often expressed his discontent with the cinematic medium when it came to the adaptation of his dramatic works meant for the stage. He was not sure if the screen space was suitable to explore the architecture of his plays. Therefore, the filmmaker has to distance himself from Beckett while abiding by the Beckettian spirit nonetheless, only to rethink the plot in cinematic terms. Perhaps Avikunthak’s reading of Beckett into film would be a fitting tribute to the master and his opinion — but what one takes back from the experience is that reading itself, at once political and cinematic, sustained through the potent performances of Joyraj Bhattacharjee and Sagnik Mukherjee.

– Samudranil Gupta

Moana: Under the Deep Blue Waters.

Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, 2016.

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It is not every day that we get to see a film like Moana, which is not just a triumph of the art of filmmaking but also a celebration of the journey that we call life-of man’s eternal quest for meaning in life. Disney uses the old crucible, the same ingredients- but in a varied proportion – and adds a few new spices, to cook up a startlingly fresh recipe that has become a yardstick by which the quality of its future productions will be judged. Based on a Polynesian myth, the story of Moana travels space and time to become a universal tale of adventure and self-discovery which would definitely be enjoyed by generations to come. The film is a product of a great team’s hard work and dedication which gets reflected throughout the film ranging from the beautiful Polynesian islands, to the detailed development of the characters and obviously the soulful numbers which linger in one’s mind long after the film has ended.

The character of Moana (played by Auli’ i Cravalho) is a very welcome addition to the legacy of Disney. In an important inversion of convention, Moana is notone of the anorexic princesses who have stick figures for bodies; hers is a rather rotund figure. She is very brown, and not at all one of the damsels in distress unlike her predecessors. She knows it from the very outset that she will have to shoulder the responsibilities of her island Motunui after her father, who is the Chief of that island. She leads an idyllic life in her island surrounded by her people and knows that no one goes beyond the reef, yet at times, her heart sings a different song. Whenever the sea calls her she cannot control herself and she desperately wants to explore beyond the reef and discover “how far it [the ocean] goes” (‘How Far It Goes’).

The film opens with the mythological tale of Maui’s act of transgression which resulted in the birth of a “terrible darkness”, narrated by Moana’s Grandma Tala (Rachel House). Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the heart of TeFiti, the Mother Goddess, a thousand years ago in an attempt to please the Immortals who would then be able to procreate life with the help of the heart. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned by Maui and he had to pay for his act by losing his magical fishhook and had to lead his life as an exile stranded in an island until the “chosen one” came and grabbed him by the ears, made him board her canoe, cross the great ocean in order to return the heart of TeFiti. The name ‘Moana’ roughly translates to ‘deep waters’ or ‘ocean’ therefore it’s fair enough that the ocean will be inextricably related to her. Thus, she was the ‘chosen one’ who would have to complete this daunting task. Everything in her island was going just fine until one day the predictions of her Grandma came true- a dark disease had afflicted their coconut trees and all their fish were chased away by some uncertain reason. When she proposed to go beyond the reef in search of some catch, she was forcefully silenced by her father. But, no one could silence her inner voice and she set sail and moved beyond the reef accompanied by Pua. But her initial attempt at exploring was thwarted and she almost accidentally survived. It is at this critical juncture that her Grandma tells her the tale which the authority had tried to erase from the collective memory of their people as it posed a deep threat to their safety. This tale revealed that their ancestors were voyagers but after the rise of the darkness, many ships were lost and many men died which made these adventurers permanently settle down. Her Grandma then returns the heart of TeFiti which the sea had given Moana years ago. Time and again Moana is confronted with choices and every time she chooses the road less travelled by and that makes all the difference. There seems to be a deep sense of understandingwhich the women characters share in this tale. When everybody is refusing to believe Moana, her Mother and her Grandma are the only people who reassure her and provide her with the necessary strength to carry on with her quest. This is in stark contrast to the earlier fairy tales where women were portrayed in two colours-either black or white- she was either the paragon of angelic beauty and virtue like Cinderella or Snow White, or the evil stepmother figure.

Thus, Moana sets out on her own to fulfill the task assigned to her and answer the call of the sea. Thestorytellers toy with the expectations of the audience as Heihei-the curious rooster (and not Pua) gets to accompany Moana in heradventure. Heihei is a very interesting figure who likes to walk with his eyes covered in a coconut husk and is disillusioned every time Moana removes the coconut husk from over his head. Heihei fails to come to terms with reality and appears to inhabit a different world altogether. It makes no difference to Heihei if he is pecking on a piece of wood, stone or real food but he goes on pecking enthusiastically. His act of pecking is perhaps an act of desperation which helps him attach some meaning to his otherwise uneventful existence. Heihei is also probably a dehumanized version of every unthinking  individual who accepts whatever he is given unquestionably and overlooks the tyranny of the world by covering his eyes with a coconut husk not realizing what he is capable of and never trying to realize his true potential. When one of the villagers proposes to roast Heihei as such a stupid chicken is of no use to anybody, Moana retorts saying:

“Sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface… but I’m sure there’s more to Heihei than meets the eyes.”

In our quest for perfection we often bury parts of ourselves not realizing that they are equally important to our being. In this context, it is interesting to note that the person playing the voice of the villager who had proposed to roast Heihei is the same person who has given his voice to the rooster. Therefore, there is definitely more to Heihei than meets the eyes. Heihei also has a critical role to play in the final sequence when he saves the heart of TeFiti instead of gobbling it up proving that he is not stupid after all and surprises everybody just like Moana had.

The ocean is also a very important character in the story. It is the source of chaos as well as order. If there is darkness in its shadowy depths then it also provides the characters with the necessary strength to fight and end the darkness. The ocean might be a friend of Moana but it does not help her until she tries to help herself or asks for help.

                          “The sea doesn’t help you, you help yourself”,

said Maui. Maui might be a demigod but it was his original sin and he had to pay the price for disrupting the balance of nature by stealing the heart. The heart might be a stone which maintains the balance of nature but on a closer look it might also stand for that primitive force which keeps each one of us from falling into pieces, the force which helps us fight our inner demons and emerge victorious in that strife.

In his eighth letter “To a Young Poet”, the great poet Rilke says,

“We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world…. If it has terrors, they are our terrors,… if it has dangers, we must try to love them…. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Moana teaches us that we are a conglomeration of TeFiti and TeKa and only when we acknowledge the chaos inside us will we be able to muster the courage to invoke order out of it. Moana’s quest is therefore every man’s quest for meaning in life.

                                                                                                                 -Aishwarya Das Gupta

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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The tale of the Bamboo-cutter is like a tale as old as time. The very recent animated adaptation of this famous folk tale ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (2013) is no less mesmerising and spellbinding on the big screen. The movie is directed by the legendary animator Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. The hand-drawn pastel and water coloured animation brings back the memories of the illustrations that used to come along with such oriental folktales in the children’s books. The story is more or less known to all. A bamboo-cutter found a small and little doll-like girl while cutting bamboos in the woods and brought her home to his wife. Next day, he found gold nuggets in the stalk of bamboo. The childless couple brought her up as their own believing that she is a divine boon and named her Kaguya (meaning, “radiant night”). As she grew up into a woman of extraordinary beauty, men from around the countries came asking for her hand. But she kept refusing their proposals. She put five of her suitors into test but they failed to please her. The emperor himself came asking for her hand but her answer remained the same as before. He kept on proposing to her and she kept on refusing him; telling him that she belonged to a distant realm and that is why she cannot marry him. When the summer came, she often used to stare at the full moon with her tear-filled eyes. When being asked, she told her parents that the people from the empire of the Moon would come to take her away as her days on the mortal realm are going to end very soon. And finally on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month the Moon people came as promised and gave her the elixir of life to drink and put the robe of the Moon or the Feather robe on her, making her forget all the memories, sorrows, joys, and experience that she gathered on the earth. And thus she was gone.

The movie stays true to this original tale of the bamboo-cutter. But a 21st century rendition of an ancient story must serve something new on the plate. And the movie doesn’t fail to please its eagle-eyed audience. The movie turns out to be ‘delicately’ cynical as it starts dealing with the efforts of the nouveau riche parents to cling on to the conditions of being accepted in an elite society and the patriarchal nightmare that Kaguya faces as a result. The bamboo-cutter who used to live in the woodland, found his fortune flourishing after he found the princess and plenty of gold coins and multiple robes afterwards. The bamboo-cutter decided to build a palace in the capital city for his daughter’s betterment. But what really takes place at the city is her imprisonment. The father is gradually engulfed by the urban patriarchal system that sets a nightmare for Kaguya. His sudden act of appointing a tutor and maids for her daughter or arranging an extravagant banquet for the naming ceremony- all these seem to be nothing but vague efforts to blend in with the surrounding aristocratic, elite families. At one point, he seems quite infuriated with Kaguya when she tells him to invite her old rural friends into the banquet. But her mother, although she never really raises her voice against the husband, does not let the system corrupt her. We see her settle in an attached wooden cabin like the one they had back in the mountains and nurture a beautiful small garden as if to nurture the microcosmic pastoral paradise they have left behind. The mother-daughter relationship, however, did not get ruined by the poison that the wealth and the ambition brought. Settling in the capital became tougher and tougher day by day for the Princess as she grew up. Unlike the original tale, the daughter is named Kaguya in a naming ritual in the palace only after she came of age (Her friends used to called her “li’l bamboo” while her parents called her by “my princess”). The hypocrisy behind the norms of the elite society begins to unfold in front of her eyes when she is told to sit behind the curtain for hours and hours in the banquet of her own naming ceremony…doing nothing. Her life goes through hell when Lady Sagami, her tutor, tries to tame her in order to change her into an elite lady from a rural girl. The movie becomes directly satiric towards the ancient Japanese society and tradition as the training session begins. The more Kaguya is told not to move, not to run, not to smile, not to speak, not to laugh, not to scream, not to cry, the more disruptive she becomes. She gets frightened when Lady Sagami comes to put traditional make up on her face, and blacken her teeth. She refuses to live like a “doll” and also announces boldly that if an ideal noble princess is meant to live like that then there is no chance that she is a human being. She only finds her peace in the thought of her rural haven where everything ran wild, where she could breathe freely. The nostalgia plays a very important part in the flow of the entire story. Her inability to go back to the wilderness makes her realize that both the palace and the city are prisons and there is no escape whatsoever. She asks her mother for a small part of her garden as a memoir of her wild and free childhood. In the end she wishes to go back to the mountains that she calls “home” for one last time before leaving the realm of the Earth; her mother does not hold her back. There we see her feel the air, the soil, the trees, the long lost love of her long lost childhood friend Sutemaru for one last time.

The reality hits her hard when one of her five suitors dies while trying to pass the test she had put him in. She understands that she has always been an ‘outsider’ and always will be. Her pain was unbearable and all she could want was her lost freedom. And so she could not help but pray to the Moon to take her back from all the pain when the Emperor grabbed her forcefully even after she refused to be his wife more than once. She confesses to her mother that her curiosity to feel the mysteries of pain and sorrow and happiness of human kind is the reason she was sent to this mortal realm from the empire of the Moon. But her prayers cannot be unheard and she bids farewell to the ones she loves: her Mama, Papa (who realized his mistakes in the end) and Sutemaru and the mountains of her childhood. The 15th day of the eighth lunar month came at last and so came the Moon people. Their arrival is marked by the beautiful oxymoron of the joyous music and the tears of goodbye. A figure of Buddha leads the procession with a promise of peace and harmony. Kaguya has no choice. She says a final goodbye to her parents and as soon as the Feather robe is put on her, all the sorrows, pains, aches, toils, anguish, joys, laughter, smiles and memories take peaceful refuge into oblivion. She disappears beyond the horizon.

The artifices of civilisation have been weaving the web to catch freedom, candour and innocence for centuries. And when the lashes of the social chains are on the verge of destroying the independence of an unblemished entity, isolation offers a safe shelter. Oblivion, eventually, becomes the ultimate destiny. Surely, the time has grown old, but the tale hasn’t.

– Subarnarekha Pal

Silent Film, Sound Optional

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In the course of the last few years, everything has started to move into smartphones. Online activities which were previously accessible or executable only in the web browser on a computer, can now be done from a mobile phone screen with equal ease. As processing power of mobile phones increase by the day, even the UIs have started to match up with their full-fledged browser versions. No longer are they simplified, aesthetically disappointing light versions of the original.

With the smartphone market essentially ruled by two big players – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, app developers have found stable markets to develop and share their products in, and as a result, each OS app store now houses hundreds and thousands of apps that can execute virtually any task that can be carried out by the supporting hardware. But arguably, the biggest migration from computer to smartphone has been in the fields of social media and e-commerce platforms. Most e-commerce websites have their own dedicated apps for both iOS and Android, India’s Flipkart has even gone a step further to make their mobile-based browsing and transactions app-only, and some other websites have followed suite. As PC sales have dipped for the first time and smartphone sales have outstripped them, large digital corporations like Google and Facebook recently for the first time have reported that customers have consumed more data on their smartphones than on more traditional machines like a laptop or a PC.

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Another interesting speculation, made by Facebook, is that all media is essentially moving towards video, and soon enough video would be the ruling mode of media consumption. What this essentially means is that all media – be it news, editorial articles, personal blogs, whatever, would be in the form of video content. And if we notice carefully what comes up in our Facebook feed, we can already see this happening. Instead of the image-intensive feed that was the Facebook homepage even a year or two ago, it is quickly becoming a video-intensive one. Almost every channel publishes the majority of their content in the form of video; be it a short clip on the recent faux pas by Donald Trump produced by a news channel, or a video on ten moments when Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling were too cute to be handled, put out by a fashion and lifestyle channel, or a video clip on a half-million-dollar semi-automated mason robot put out by an architecture channel.

Now, it is well-understood that form is not independent of its medium. Technology, its strengths and limitations, both shapes and defines the way media is produced, and consumed. When Marshall McLuhan wrote the essay “The Medium is the Message” in early 1960s and later followed it up with The Medium is the Massage (the typesetter made a simple mistake which much amused McLuhan, and he decided to keep it), he was hitting the nail right on the head of the digital age media revolution that was to come about four decades later. The content, in many ways, serves and is shaped by the medium through which it is presented. Ideas change at a glacial pace, but changes in the medium are radical, and tectonic. And with every new change in the media landscape and technology, the content must reorganize and reshape itself to fit into the strong and weak points of the medium. The style of the content must always be determined by the medium.

It is undeniable that since YouTube introduced in-stream ads (these are the annoying little buggers at the beginning of your YouTube videos that you cannot skip for a full five seconds), the narrative format of digital advertisements, especially ads meant for YouTube, has changed. As most users are likely to skip the ad as soon as they can, it is crucial to get the message across in the first five seconds. Narrative development, advert humour, build-up – all these take a backseat. This also becomes important from a financial point-of-view. Most ads on YouTube are cost-per-view (CPV), and the advertiser is not charged unless the user reaches either the 30-second-mark of the video or the end of the video if it is shorter than 30 seconds. It makes sense if you can put your message across in the first five seconds and minimize payment. It does not matter if the user views the ad in full, or any of the medium’s aesthetic goals are fulfilled. Recently, though, I have started noticing ads on YouTube that are only 5-seconds-long. Mostly, these are ads that have been trimmed to fit the 5-second mark. Google’s ad for its Pixel phone, which was originally 1.22 minutes long, has been trimmed down to a mere 5 seconds (YouTube tried to force-feed its users the complete ad for a while, but I guess that was not working out very well for them). And why would this not happen? Once your brand has gained some visibility, a 5-second-ad is a complete win-win situation, combining the best of both worlds. We are in the age of speedier, shorter, crisper; hit and run, point and shoot.

Facebook videos are another, different but more obvious, case in point. Most users would be aware that by default, audio is turned off for all videos in the Facebook app. And as experience and observation suggests, that setting tends to stay as it is. The makers of Facebook videos (I am not too easily inclined to call them films yet, for no good reason) have been quick to catch up on this. Almost all videos on Facebook now come with subtitles or close-captioning in some form or another. Since audio cannot be taken for granted on this app, makers must rely on communication through text accompanied by the images. With optional sound, film is again becoming a purely visual medium, like it was a hundred years ago in the first few years of cinema. And limitations breed innovation. From regular subtitles to innovative use of intertitles, a combination of both, use of cue cards as subtitles (most probably to avoid more work during the creative process, but that Bob Dylan and Love, Actually vibes cannot be so easily ignored), creative graphic transitions… if you look carefully, it is all quite impressive. Harper’s Bazaar has ditched audio commentary altogether and has replaced dialogue and sound with upbeat music tracks.

Why is this important, or even interesting? It is difficult to say that at this point. All evaluation worth its salt needs a certain distance, a vantage point. But what can be said with some degree of certainty is that this marks a significant movement away from traditional film aesthetics of the sound era which has developed and dominated almost all forms of film for the last eight or nine decades. We are once again at the birth of a different cinema, made for a different medium and for a different purpose. And this new cinema shall have its new audience, perhaps a little less isolated than headphoned commuters. Shut your ears; are you watching closely?

Disclaimer: I could be completely wrong, who can tell…

– Souraj Dutta

Raees : Much Ado about Stardom

Directed by Rahul Dholakia, 2017.

img_20161207_185553I was looking forward to Rahul Dholakia’s Raees’ release like any other popular film lover would do. A film set in Gujarat, generic in nature and a Muslim bootlegger as protagonist is something that surely catches one’s interest. In the time of ultra-nationalism and Hindu rightwing upsurge, of which the director has been perennially aware about in almost all his earlier films, Raees promised a lot. All the central characters – the hero, the heroine and the villain – are played by Muslim actors (the lead actress is from Pakistan). But, when we are done watching the film, one tends to ask whether, as promised, the film provides the same critical feeling against mainstream politics or its uses, as any other run-of-the-mill Bollywood super hit, or does the film exploit liberal politics to lure a certain audience who otherwise would have remained indifferent to the film. I think in this context, Raees fails miserably. While saying so, I also acknowledge the fact that never for a moment did I feel that the film is being dishonest to its `cause’, but it suffered from poor execution; something that you don’t expect from a competent film-making platform backed by the market.

To my belief, the film had two obvious formal options to follow; firstly, that of following standard generic conventions of gangster movies and fitting things into place and secondly, showcasing the stars in a way that if the generic thirst doesn’t get quenched then the audience would at least have some take-home value in terms of performances. Taking a cue from Bollywood’s earlier manifestations of socially outcasts, gangsters and marginal male characters, the film consciously reminds us of Amitabh Bachchan starrers from 1970s. The film also uncannily resembles Mukul Anand’s 1990 film Agneepath where Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and the title character of Raees shares almost similar life events: a rebel kid who gets hired by illegal organizations turning into an uncontrollable gangster-messiah who is constantly chased by the state and its machinery, finally meeting his inevitable death.

Raees quite intelligently places itself in the league of earlier popular classics and also tries to revamp the angry young man persona with more relatable contemporary swag and style. The film works flawlessly on Shahrukh Khan aka SRK’s star persona. In its promotions,from its first look to the trailer, the film has been showcasing miyan bhai ka daring (the ‘muslim’ man dares) image of the male star by fetishizing his body and stylizing his gestures. But the problem is that, such fetishizing tendencies end up overinvesting in the fetish object more than the historical reality, which is the context. My problem with the film precisely lies there. The overexposed star body – created out of stereotypical ideas of clothing, makeup and mannerism – kind of reduces the politics of the films to the religious identity of the star.The Pakistani actress, Mahira Khan, with no exceptional acting skills remains just a female consort and the archenemy police officer, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, becomes the statist moral center.

As far as the plot is concerned, the film offered us something fascinating. The Robin Hood bootlegger takes one ethically wrong step and falls, typical of a gangster film. But a film is not only its plot. The script has four writers and it seems as if they were responsible only for their sections, the parts don’t gel into a whole. The humour and the drama of the first half just vanishes the moment Raees grows up. As if the sheer presence of SRK made the writers so sure that they deemed further character development unnecessary. They perhaps forgot that apart from narrative progression, writing a script also calls for a character arc. The grown up Raees as the miyan bhai needed something more than ‘dare’ and stylistic display.

The writer responsible for the romance scenes has also failed miserably. The moment you lose interest in the romance scene of a SRK film, either the film is trying something new without being sure or they have just lost it or both.

The only scene I think I will remember is when Raees stops the rightwing political leader’s rath (chariot), a moment when the clash of religious identities and stardom of SRK seemed to gel so well.

However, one could still appreciate the effort, which shows – for example – in the much-publicized song sequence where Raees enters the opponent’s den to commit a reluctant massacre. The moment of transformation – Raees apparently has not committed murders before – will inevitably lead to self-destruction. But the poor editing, shot-taking and other technicalities failed to deliver the pathos. The sequence borrows the song, only song of the film that one might remember, from Feroz Khan’s 1980 film Qurbani and tries hard to objectify Sunny Leone, the sex starved Indian public’s current porn fetish, and fails.

Raees is a long film; too long to make you feel ‘I know he’ll die at the end so let’s get over with it’. The times we find Raees in a soup, he comes out of the mess triumphantly but the moment he dies is almost predictable and unlyrical. A fallen hero always demands an epic goodbye and the moral and ethical archenemy needs better reasons to kill him than merely unidimensional obsession.

To me, Raees is a faulty exercise of scriptwriting though it started with positive political intentions. Whatever my criticisms are, could have been not there had the film been better crafted. The actors did their job, the director did his and so did the screenplay writers but none of their output worked together on the screen. And we ended up with a much-promised mainstream political film reduced into a star spectacle and nothing else.

-Shenjuti Dutta

Extreme Russia: Teen Model Factory

Reggie Yates’s Extreme Russia, produced by BBC, 2016

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Teen Model Factory of Russia is the third installment of a three-part documentary film series produced under the banner of BBC. It looks at the modeling industry of Russia with respect to model-making as a form of lucrative business and how that business functions on various levels. Although the documentary explores a number of different aspects surrounding the industry, what comes up as most interesting in this whole journey is the position of the models.

I have not watched the previous two episodes of this series, but the theme of Otherization is quite strong in this episode, or film. Reggie Yates’s narration, coupled with frequent images of vehicles and the train running along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway drive home the idea of venturing into a foreign land of unknown mysteries and curious differences. As a whole, the series begins at a time when Vladimir Putin is well into his third term as the president and reflects the life of the youth in the country twenty-four years after the fall of Soviet Union. Yates goes around the different parts of the country and looks into the lives of the young girls aspiring to the next Natalia Vodianova.

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Natalia Vodianova in Dior Magazine by Peter Lindbergh

Vodianova, born to a poor family in the obscure city of Nizhny Novgorod, is the quintessential Russian rags-to-riches success story. At the age of 17, picked up by a model scout from her country, she signed a contract with a Parisian agency and soon rose to modelling super-stardom. Even today, at the wrong side of 30, she is one of the most well-known and sought-after faces in the European and American fashion industries. Ever since, international scouts have been pouring in from all over the world to scout for their preferred faces from a huge group of young girls. The search for the next Natalia Vodianova is on.

In the first few minutes of the film, Yates’s states that in UK girls under 16 are not permitted to walk the ramp, but there are no such restrictions in Russia, or countries in far East which regularly send in their agents to scout for new girls. Yates meets a couple of such scouts from Tokyo in the Trans-Siberian Railway. In their conversation it comes up that they try to get as many teen and preteen girls as they can, children of 13-14 years of age, as the demand for them back home is quite high. One female scout says, “Our clients like young girls”. This scene sets up the moral overtone of the film, with heavy allusions to language associated with sex trade, human trafficking, and pedophilia.

Yates’ journey includes interactions with the young girls who aspire to take up modeling as a career. He meets three such girls—Anya, Vika, and Katia—from different communities in Russia and looks into their daily life and the motive behind such an aspiration. Their stories and lives give a picture of the reasons behind the craze of choosing modeling in the country, especially as a means to move and build a career abroad. We see brief glimpses of the three girls’ backgrounds, and what comes up as a common context among them is the dire need to move out of Russia and the feeling that no other career is as viable or lucrative as this one. This could be a means to end all their financial troubles. The stakes of making it to the top are too high, but these girls seem to be quite ready for it. What comes as a shock though is their age. They are mostly as young as thirteen. Often they start their model training classes as young as four or five. Anya shows Yates around her house, points towards her paintings and says that she would love to be an artist. But she also mentions the lack of opportunity in the field of art as compared to the chance she would get while working as a model. Vika, on the other hand, survives on a diet of buckwheat thrice daily to lose two extra centimeters for the castings. Katia’s parents have to go through the stressful decision of whether their daughter, who is only 15, should go to China for a modeling contract at such a young age all by herself.

Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen are a common sight in the scouting rooms. The process includes standing almost naked in front of complete strangers, holding a board specifying one’s name, age, height, place of origin, and a short general intro. The approach of the agents and scouts towards the girls is so mechanical that at one point, the head of the agency compares the girls with Ferrari cars. He says, the girls in Russia who audition are mostly like cars without engines, it’s only when they start working that the agency puts engines in them.

In preparation, girls as young as five in Russia attend classes for modeling which teaches them how to walk, pose, and do own their makeup. The girls are raised under harsh conditions where modeling is often one of the very few potential careers where they can move out into the world and lead a comfortable life. But the dreams that fuel such enthusiasm is often betrayed by reality. Often what these girls fail to realize is that the sum of money they would be earning as a model is not what that they will have for themselves at the end of all transactions. In most cases these models are left with almost no money, and more often than not they live in debt. The film also throws light on another much more sinister alternative industry that thrives under the shelter of these modeling agencies. It is quite a common practice for the agents to set these girls with a  rich boyfriend. In worse cases, they end up as high profile escorts. Often failing to make ends meet, or sometimes just for the glamour of high society lifestyle, these girls do take up such a choice.

Teen Model Factory looks into the lives of young impressionable minds trying to find a better standard of living. The documentary tries to find out the percentage of girls who stand a chance in succeeding; while the fashion industry persists in selling its fairy tale – for fairy tales always finds its believers.

The search for the next Natalia is still on.

– Arpita Sinha

Rachel Getting Married

Directed by Jonathan Demme, 2008.

 

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Those watching the latest offering by director Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married (2008), cannot help but be reminded of the well-known and oft-quoted opening statement of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What is captured on film is a slice of real life as lived by the Buchman family while its members prepare for the wedding of Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), one of the daughters. Kym (Anne Hathaway), the other daughter, is released from her court-ordered drug rehabilitation programme for a few days so that she can attend her sister’s wedding. Their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), and their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), are divorced and have their significant others.

Right off the bat, the audience is made sensitive to the unstable and disturbed dynamic that informs the familial relationships. The sisters often trade subtle though barbed comments and compete for their father’s acknowledgement and attention, which seems more focussed on Kym, her whereabouts and well-being. As the film unravels, we are made privy to the tragedy underlying the family’s strained dynamic. Sixteen-year-old Kym had been responsible for the death of her younger brother Ethan who had been left in her care. While returning from the park, Kym, in a drug-induced stupor, had lost control of the car, driving over a bridge into a lake, where Ethan drowned. Though all of them have tried to move on with their lives, appearing to have acquired a modicum of normalcy, this progress is clearly fragile even now, and the ghost of Ethan, and Kym’s responsibility for his death are issues that keep intruding like the Freudian unconscious, threatening to dismantle the cover of regularity and routine that shrouds their lives in the present. Instances such as when Kym stands before Ethan’s old room, momentarily hesitating before nonchalantly enquiring when she would meet Rachel’s fiancé, or when Paul breaks down in the kitchen, in the midst of a friendly competition with his impending son-in-law, at the sight of Ethan’s dish, clearly suggest that a part of the Buchman family members are still rooted in the past. The divorce between Abby and Paul was also a consequence of the tragedy, and the relationship between Abby and her daughters is marked by strain and distance.

The narrative of the film, it appears, is constructed on a foundation of binaries. Demme very skilfully employs Rachel’s fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and his family as a contrasting device that thrusts the skewed Buchanan family dynamic into constant limelight. The open and spontaneous love shared between Sidney’s family members, and the congenial, mirthful atmosphere created by the wedding festivities and preparations, serve to emphasize the tensions that colour the Buchman family ties. The perpetually simmering tension that suffuses their day-to-day conversations and behaviour, often flares up into fierce arguments and bitter, hostile confrontations, particularly between Kym and Rachel, with Paul struggling to keep his family together. One of the most profound scenes in the film is the verbal, and consequent physical altercation between Abby and Kym, when Kym pleads with her mother to accept partial responsibility for the death of Ethan, on account of Abby’s having been aware of Kym’s addiction. Overwhelming, almost violent in their intensity, these scenes would have left the audience high-strung in their wake, had it not been for the intervening moments of celebration and joviality that Demme intersperses the narrative with.

Rachel Getting Married has no formal musical score, but in keeping with the identity of some of the characters (Paul is a hot-shot in the music industry, while Sidney is a record producer), and the over-arching theme of marriage, Demme has live music playing throughout the film. The music reflects the play of dark and light that the events in the film portray, and quite often, the keen listener is able to detect the undertones of the sinister or the melancholy in a melody that is meant to celebrate love and new beginnings.

Each of the actors cast perform their job exceedingly well, including those cast in the role of supporting characters. Anne Hathaway shines as the vulnerable, needy, recovering drug addict, who is struggling to live with the guilt of the death of her brother. Her sunken eyes, thin frame, brashness, a certain twitchiness in her actions – all display her need for expiation, for reassurance and re-acceptance into the family fold, free from the taint of guilt. Rachel DeWitt delivers a top-notch performance as the sister who wants a day for herself, determined not to be outshone by the other sibling. Debra Winger and Bill Irwin are a treat to watch, the cold distant mother with little maternal warmth or concern balanced out by the hen-pecking father, agonising over the rifts in his family, and desperate to keep it together. Even Anna Deavere who plays Carol, Paul’s second wife, leaves her mark. Despite minimal dialogue, she encapsulates the character of the second wife succinctly, staying in the background, but a comforting supportive presence nonetheless.

The performances of the cast, combined with the unique cinematographic technique employed by Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, make the film an absorbing watch. At times, the shots are traditional, and at others, the film resembles a home-made video, situating the audience at the scene. Even as the characters move about their space, we follow them around, or look in through windows, familiarising ourselves, the perpetual observers, with the large cast of characters, despite no real knowledge of them. This technique lends an element of immediacy and authenticity to the film that keeps the audience absorbed in the characters and events. It also ensures that the characters are invested with a lifelikeness that makes them both identifiable and somewhat uncomfortable to watch. In the film, Anne Hathaway as Kym unhesitatingly spouts racist stereotypes even as her family prepares for a union with an African-American family, and we are compelled to acknowledge that the term “political correctness” does not really apply to our daily realities. The underlying binarised structure of the film’s narrative thus has another component – the apparent multiculturalism depicted in the film, questioned by its own irruptive instances of otherisation.

The film’s successful evocation of life-like emotions, characters and circumstances, and its wave-like pace makes it an exhausting watch, but a riveting one nonetheless for it captivates the audience’s full attention. It presses us to confront our fears, to face our grievances and insecurities, and leads us to the unsettling cognizance that it is, or may, quite possibly be the story of our lives being played out on celluloid.

-Apala Kundu

“Embracing Life”: The Quest for Self-Fulfillment of a Woman in Dear Zindagi

 

Directed by Gauri Shinde, 2016.

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When we look at the representation of women protagonists in mainstream Hindi cinema we note an abundance of stereotypical characters: the coy beloved, the helpless damsel in distress, the evil femme fatale, the conservative mother-in-law, etc. Very few commercial Bollywood directors have managed to subvert or challenge these stereotypical representations of women characters. However, in recent years representations of women protagonists are changing with women directors making films which feature strong female characters. Gauri Shinde is one such director. She made her debut four years earlier with English Vinglish (2012) which depicted a middle-class housewife’s struggle for self-esteem. Shinde returns to the screens with the story of another woman’s search for self-fulfillment in Dear Zindagi.

Dear Zindagi revolves round the character of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) who is a cinematographer with the ambition of wanting to shoot an entire feature film of her own. Kaira is talented as a cinematographer, is very good at her job, and refuses to conform to the traditional norms governing a woman’s life in India. She chooses to live a bohemian life, moving from relationship to relationship, letting life take its course. However, as the film progresses we learn of Kaira’s difficulties. As a professional photographer she wants to be valued for her talent but in the chauvinistic patriarchal domain of the cinematic world her looks tend to become more valuable than her work. Kaira is rendered vulnerable in her anxieties over the reasons for the work opportunities she gets; often wondering whether her professional skills matter to her male bosses. Furthermore her landlord asks her to vacate the house as “she is single” and in her confused and, turbulent emotional state, she decides to shift to her hometown, Goa, where she meets the maverick psychiatrist, Jehangir Khan, affectionately called Jug by all (Shah Rukh Khan).

The film continues its story through the unusual medium of the therapy sessions between Jug and Kaira, where we see Kaira sharing her problems and resurrecting her fractured self esteem through the cathartic sharing of her experiences. By revolving a large part of the film around Kaira’s sessions with her therapist, Shinde challenges stereotypical cinematic narration in Bollywood. By delving into the emotional turmoil of her protagonist Shinde subverts the traditional depiction of the coy, beautiful heroine who remains a mere prop in a male-centric story. Kaira emerges as a humane female character with her fears over her professional and personal life. More importantly, she is a bold woman who does not shy away from confessing to cheating on her boyfriend or walking out on her prospective lover. In the final climatic scene, Kaira confronts her parents about abandoning her as a child.

Through her meetings and chats with Jug, Kaira starts to emerge from her shackled prison of fears. Jug makes her see that fear of abandonment leads her to fear her present relationships as well as professional successes. Alia Bhatt renders a brilliant performance as Kaira, portraying naturally the evolution of the insecure, fearful woman into a confident, assured cinematographer who produces her first short film. By the final scenes of the film we see a gradual transformation in the character of Kaira: she evntually grows into a self assured person, making efforts to have reconciling talks with her parents as well as finishing her film project. The film ends with the shot of a viewing of Kaira’s short film, where she meets a furniture dealer who may or may not be a prospective lover.

Kaira eventually finds fulfillment through acceptance. What is most positive is that she reaches this self assuredness through her own efforts, helped by a professional psychologist, not, as is the usual norm in commercial cinema, through the assistance of a masochistic lover. The end of the film is open ended, with Kaira able to look forward to a fresh relationship but not in compulsive need of one. Shinde challenges the ‘happily ever after’ endings of conventional Bollywood where the heroine has to wed her ‘knight in shining armor’. Shinde takes the trope of the slice of life tale and uses the ‘lessons’ to reveal the pragmatic challenges faced by present day professional women in India. Shah Rukh Khan gives a memorable performance as Jug: his rendering of the therapist is elegantly charming, and his witty wisdoms often generate poignantly ironic humor.

What the film lacks, perhaps, is subtlety of execution. The need for constant articulation of every message spoils the smooth development of the plot, with many of Jug’s and Kaira’s exchanges seeming enforced. English Vinglish never preached to us; Dear Zindagi sometimes does lapse into preaching mode. However, Kaira is a character to root for, and her final triumph is a joy not just for her but for every woman who has confronted questions of self esteem, professional doubts, and personal relationship turbulences. Kaira reaches self fulfillment through living life, by playing with the waves on the beach, by taking long bicycle rides, by “embracing life” to the fullest. Dear Zindagi as a film celebrates life; it traces the journey of self hood of a young woman and concludes with the woman able to view herself with calm confidence and assurance. In a cinematic culture that glorifies and reinforces melodramatic machismo and patriarchal hegemony, a simple tale of a troubled woman’s quest for selfhood is indeed a pleasant departure.

-Somrita Misra

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