Archive | film review RSS feed for this section

CIA : A Review

18 May

A Malayali can speak many tongues – English, Tamil, Hindi.  And a Malayali can speak none of them properly.  At times a word can reveal as much as about a world as an encyclopedia.  The magic of this demands a magical writer such as Borges, in “The Book of Sand”.  The improper tongue of a Malayali tells us about the many journeys she is forced into.

Last week I watched the latest Amal Neerad offer, CIA which, ironically, stands for Comrade In America.  This naughty title is a clever mix of the various motifs of the film – this is the story of a comrade who desperately should reach America and who should beat the most advanced surveillance technologies to it.  The protagonist is a communist party worker and in the first half the movie plays on some of the established images of the party over Malayalam film history, such as the fallen worker who keeps the red flag standing (also seen in Adimakal Udamakal, Janam, Arabikkatha, etc) the taunts in the domestic space which mixes the personal and the political (Sandesham), etc.  While the first half thus plays on a familiar stylistic line with some high voltage Amal Neerad exuberance thrown in to it, it is the narratively weak second half which is more interesting inspite of its shortcomings.

CIA narrates the story of Ajippan, of a Roman Catholic family from Pala in Kerala, a south Indian state.  Ajippan is a hardcore communist and an active member of its student wing who in his moments of inebriation has Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara for company.  Ajippan’s communist enthusiasm is not shared by either of his parents but the latter are fond of their son and overlook the political differences.  The motor of the narrative is Sarah – told in flashback – the Malayali girl from the USA who has come to pursue her undergraduation in the same college as Ajippan. Concerned about their daughter getting married to a to-no-good communist, Sarah’s parents call her back to the US under false pretense.  Ajippan comes to know of this and is soon informed by Sarah that her parents have fixed her marriage against her wishes and the marriage is to take place in a few days.  Ajippan wants to desperately get to the US but is aware that with nothing to show, he will not be granted a visa, and even if he is, it will be too late given the very days he has before Sarah gets married off.  Ajippan is soon informed by his cousin in the US that he could try another, and a very dangerous, route – from Nicaragua, Indians have visa on arrival, to the US, via Mexico, as an illegal immigrant.  Ajippan finds himself with a motley crowd of illegal migrants – a Spanish speaking south American family (we do not know where they are actually from), a Chinese, a Pakistani, a Sri Lankan Tamil, and a Malayali female.  They now have to find their way across the Mexican border, each for their own different reasons. This adventure forms the second half of the movie.

South America is a familiar territory for Kerala as far as movie reception is concerned.  South American movies are a regular fare at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).  But for a few exceptions, like the south American influence in TV Chandran’s movies, and the familiarity with south American national football teams, the region usually draws a blank.  It is in this context, and inspite of many drawbacks including a total blindness to everyday life south of the US, and hardly anything straying away from the highways (the movie plot moves through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico), that the movie can still be billed as a tiny step towards a new decolonial imagination.

The decolonial project has been pursued with much vigour by south American universities who look forward to concerted intellectual efforts from global south to sidestep unmindful applications of Eurocentric thoughts and building organic response to one’s own locations. One of the objectives of decoloniality has been to establish a dialogue among the global south which will help us imagine a past and a future which does not require the mediation of the global West (what is also called the North Atlantic).  Projects with different temporal and spatial orientations make up this project of global south.  Some of these projects, for example, study the cultures of Indian Ocean imagining (placing it in our consciousness, rather than conjuring) the pasts that seemingly far flung places share with each other.  Thus we have studies of individuals traversing these regions (Sugata Bose), of the literary networks spanning the region (Sheldon Pollock, Ronit Ricci), the diasporic movement in the region (Engseng Ho).  Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land is a brilliant literary bringing together of this Indian ocean past with the contemporary, spanning the region from the Nile to Mangaluru via the Arabian Gulf, revealing our shared pasts and the geopolitical realities we are locked in now, even as we are so far placed from each other through ignorance and prejudices.

The second half of CIA, a road movie, is a conscious placing of Kerala in the context of the global south.  It is definitely not the first movie to do so.  PT Kunju Muhammad’s Garshom (1999), Lal Jose’s Arabikatha (2007), and Kamal’s Gaddama (2011) have done it in the context of Arabian Gulf.  But CIA does this better on three counts.  Firstly, Gulf is associated with low-skilled migration and their harsh living conditions in popular cinema, and it is somewhat commonsensical to make the connection between the working class of different nationalities. The relationship continues to be in the register of class struggle.  The US is on the other hand associated with richness and the managerial class. South America, on the other hand, except in relation to football and occasional mavericks like Hugo Chavez, is an uncharted territory for Kerala.  Secondly, the earlier films established personal connection between nationals of the global south – such as with the Palestinian in Garshom, the Chinese hawker in Arabikatha, the Indonesian housemaid in GaddamaCIA, on the other hand, makes a connection of history and ideas, of movements in historical time we hadn’t really given much thought to – through the images of statues of the Christ, the cross, the graveyards, the communist party office, etc.  Thirdly, CIA does all this very much within “New Generation” fast pace, intercuts and splash of pop art without recourse to the social realist style that characterized the earlier films, the advantage being the novelty of the treatment itself.

CIA takes communism away from the ‘global’ movements of Europe (remember that oft-repeated dialogue from Sandesham: ‘Dare you say a word about Poland’ – ‘Polandine kurichu oraksharam mindaruthu’) and places it on the one hand in the very local – Malayalam-speaking Stalin, Marx, Lenin and Che – and on the other hand with that of South America.  At the same time CIA also plays on the motifs that establish the other connection that ties this region in south India to the south Americas – Catholicism.  One hopes that the cosmopolitanism of below that is at display in movies like CIA gets mapped on to the lived culture within Kerala which is a destination for internal migrations in India.


3 Days of the Condor : a review

14 Mar

The wet streets, the smoke emanating from a corner of the frame in a desolate night, the breath vapour, the cigarette(s) (though the number is quite few) is all there, but if you expect a run-of-the-mill noir from Sydney Pollack’s 3 Days of the Condor, you are about to smash against the windshield.

There are too many small, quaint, and big and bold statements in the movie, it subverts many of the stylistic expectations of the noir, and yet is very much part of that stylistic family.  Consider these following facts: our protagonist here is not a Private detective, not attached to the environs of the street, not a lonesome figure out to rub against the world and doesn’t care about its hard edges – no, he is that sample of the romanticized exquisite good life – a reader of fiction.  And not just that, he works amidst books, and he reads detective stories (ok, so not quite the high taste) from around the world.  If film noir is studied as a stylistic quality which fascinates us with the fascination of watching (Oliver Harris’s [see Citations] example is Robert Siodmak’s 1946 movie The Killers, one can also think of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, or Psycho), the fascination of 3 Days of the Condor, and this is the second definitive distinction, is with reading itself – reading fiction, reading photographs, reading the weather… It was the French New Wave which fed on American noir and spoke of camera stylo.  In 3 Days of the Condor we have a homecoming of a profoundly influential style.  Thirdly, the central question of the movie (and I avoid spoilers) is about the unseen politics of publication itself – the protagonist notices that a very ordinary detective fiction in Spanish published from Venezuela is getting translated to languages which cannot boast of prolific translations – like Arabic and Dutch.  He smells something odd, and soon the cleaners come calling.

The feel of the movie – its slow paced melancholy with occasional bursts of action is still resonant and one cannot help but be reminded of such contemporary (and decent) cold war thrillers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, dir. Tomas Alfredson) Syd Field [see Citations] mentions 3 Days of the Condor as “one of the unheralded great movies of the 70s”(p.116), and this is what led me to watch it.  In many ways the movie is a complementary of the other 1975 great: Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon – this is where the personal intersects with the political, and a political order almost receding to the past, while in 3 Days of the Condor we have the world politics barging into the unsuspecting personal life of the protagonist.  And I cannot immediately think of a more prescient movie when it comes to world geo-politics.


Field, Syd. 2005. Screenwriting: Foundations of Screenplay. New York, Delta.

Harris, Oliver. 2003. “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically so”, Cinema Journal, 43:1, pp.3-24


The Salesman review

12 Mar

With The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi is back with the stories of the Iranian middleclass, and for the second time he has made waves and dared to breach impenetrable Academy walls.  At the centre of the drama is again another traumatic act of violence, one which the characters should live through; all the more painful because they should also deny it while not being in denial.

Reminiscent of About Elly (2011) not just in the repetition of the lead actor Taraneh Alidoosti but also because of the playfulness and spontaneity that mark the establishing sequences of the film, Farhadi has however turned over from thriller to drama. The Salesman is a deft interweaving of the superbly technicraftive American play, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which the couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are playing parts in, as Willy and Linda.    The dysfunctionality of the family in the play is contrasted with the functionality of a robust middleclass life which comes with the normative elements of semblance of gender neutrality, geographical mobility, and consumerism. As violence finds its way in to the private life of this couple, the dysfunctional family of the play breaks down and the breakdown of middleclass normalcy is signified by the substitution of colours and spaces in the film.

The movie opens with a scene of emergency.  The apartment in which Emad and Rana stayed until then is giving way thanks to the work of heavy machinery outside.  This then requires them to move elsewhere in the city.  This enforced mobility is also a celebrated mobility.  The film opens with indoors but soon moves to spaces that gesture infinite continuity outside the frames.  The city, the set of the play as seen from above, the passageways that denote more rooms on the way in the new flat they occupy, all of these point to a liberation from the confinement of the space which was trembling and soon to be grounded.  This implied infinity of space outside the frame is complemented by the material richness caught in the frame.  The colours of the movie turn lush through the bright red and velvety black of the theatre, the soft tones of the green room, the many cartons, pairs of shoes, clothes, shampoos and lotions, and face mask that linger on the screen declaring to us the irony of an unseen Iran where the bauble trying to pass off as understated is in a hysteric symmetry with the irony of the fully clad woman, Miller’s Miss Francis, having to say that she is improperly dressed thus implying Willy’s infidelity.   Farhadi’s middleclass is a tactile reality even as it plays out its aspirational irony in the theatre.  It is the breach of the personal which bridges the gap between the public and the private in the film.  One by one we see the richness of the screen replaced by steady intensifying affect of frugality.  The infinite space return to the closed ones, those of the parking lots, dilapidated homes, darkened classrooms, etc.

What is remarkable about the film is that it conveys a crucial bind of living out (rather than in) the modern, that the distinction between the private and public is also a distinction between plenitude and scarcity of language in these two spheres.  The crucial drama in the film is about maintaining a knowing private life and a repressed public life.  The ingenuity of Farhadi is not in exploring ever new ways of entering the space of the public but of anguishing over the ways to keep it away.  And the audience is neither the bearer of knowledge nor the one who is kept at tenterhooks, but that very epitome of modernity, the doubting subject.

Klapisch’s Erasmus Children

8 Mar

Last week I attended a workshop on internalization of education at Manipal, organized by Manipal University and funded by the EU and a speaker there quipped, but also wanted to be taken seriously, when he said that one of the lasting contributions of the Erasmus programme to the integration of Europe has been that this programme, which is now thirty years old, has also given rise to one million Erasmus babies, i.e. those babies who were born out of couplings of Erasmus students as they were in the programme.

The moment I heard this serious joke I remembered that I know three of them, two born out of the coupling of Xavier and Wendy, and one between Xavier and Isabelle; but not when they were all sharing, with several interesting others, a flat in Barcelona, but a few years later after both of them had gone through their own individual heartbreaks.

I am speaking about the Spanish Apartment trilogy here, beginning with The Spanish Apartment [L’Auberge Espangole](2002), and followed by Russian Dolls [Les Poupées russes] (2005), and then the final instalment, The Chinese Puzzle [Casse-tête chinois] (2013), all written and directed by Cédric Klapisch.

In the first of the three we have Xavier in pursuit of the edge that would fit him in the world of suits and long corridored offices enrolling himself for an Erasmus programme and travelling to Barcelona.  As we reach the second one, the characters are inordinately long past their fun years.  They were chirpy and energetic once, running, cycling, exploring their way through the bright sunlit streets of Barcelona, even as they waged their small battles over the space in refrigerators, the flat, and in each other’s lives.  As we travel to Russia, the atmosphere is gloomy.  We go there for a wedding, but it’s dank everywhere.  The grey exteriors are matched by the motif of deliberation, hesitation, and of finding grandeur in systematic nature of the dragging everyday rather than the spontaneity, the randomness and the wildness that characterized their lives back in Barcelona.  Many of the characters are missing in this second edition and even those who are there put up a painful sense of having left one phase of life behind.  In other words, ageing.

The third edition, the Chinese Puzzle, seem to say that forties is the new youth.  Once again, Klapisch makes some bold sweep of colours and presents us with a New York yet unseen.  The Chinatown here is not the threatening place of alter-law of the noir days.  The conspiracies here are now are merely the workings of a benevolent coincidence.  The third installment brings back the raw energy of the first, its playfulness – including the playing around with representational modes – is as entertaining, and it recasts the hallucination of Xavier from its gloomy environs to pleasant ones even as they are still driven by the same sense of insecurity he lives through.

If The Spanish Apartment is characterized by crowded interiors and sparse exteriors, the outdoors are jam packed in the New York edition.  And when Xavier gets too lonely indoors, he always has the company of German philosophers.  Had the sequel to The Spanish Apartment come to an end with in the bleak and deserted suburb in Russia, one would have never gotten over the hiraet of returning from a foreign exchange programme where you could feel the world once again in all its sense of wonder, and then look back at it after a few months with the certainty that you will never live those days again, except as some kind of sublimation.  Thanks to the last one, Chinese Puzzle, at least one can age with some sense of life intact.  You know, Hegel is right, and he has explained so simply  – all nothingness is the nothing of something.