Films & Feni: India Unplugged

Posted on November 29, 2009


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NOV 29, 2009 – WHAT, OUTSIDE OF THE UNIVERSE OF Monty Python, is the Meaning of Life? Is it the sight of a woman retching out the contents of her stomach as her male companion launches, casually, into the opening bars of O sole mio? Is it Hitler popping out, like a jack-in-the-box, of a trash bin and proclaiming that all women are sluts and exist simply to satisfy the great, horny, German willy? Is it the image of a sunlit proscenium, with Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and Hansel and Gretel scampering across, chanting, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” Or is it a man and a woman discussing, well, the meaning of life, on an inflatable raft (with its own inflatable palm tree) bobbing in the sewers? Pondering the Big Question, German director Roland Reber throws all semblance of conventional narrative to the winds, and his My Dream or Loneliness Never Walks Alone comes across like the most experimental entry in the International Inscrutable Film Festival (also known as the Make-What-You-Will-Of-It Film Festival).

ABOUT HALF THE CONSTITUENTS of the theatre screening Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals trooped out after fifteen minutes. It wasn’t difficult to see why. The title promises gore and scandalous mayhem, while the film is a high-pitched romantic melodrama filmed in the fashion of an opera-recitative – not a word is spoken, only sung. But those of us who persevered through the miasma of melisma were richly rewarded about fifteen minutes before the end, when everything erupted in high absurdity, as if a performance of Tosca suddenly got an infusion from the last act of The Barber of Seville. And yes, the title is amply (or rather, lip-smackingly) justified as well.

EARLY ON IN THE FIRM LAND, the director Chapour Haghighat introduces a city slicker preying on the folksy innocence of a villager – and his docu-verité feature carries this theme through as a group of villagers sets forth, wide-eyed, to the big, bad city. About the only element of conventional suspense is why they’re there, but Haghighat is more interested in slice-of-urban-life vignettes that aren’t exactly groan-worthy Exotic India diversions but overfamiliar (to us) nonetheless. (There’s even a Jalsaghar-inspired finale, with the matriarch of a haveli organising one last musical feast.) But the filmmaking is fine – unshowy and unhurried – and patient foreign eyes will likely be well rewarded.

I FINISHED THE FRIDAY with my first-ever Armenian film, Albert Mkrtchyan’s Dawn on the Sad Street, the story of a mother with two sons she’s determined to shield from the warfront. The elder one rebels and leaves, the younger son cowers in a corner – the father, meanwhile, plays soulfully on the violin, undercoring the sadness of a region outsiders possibly cannot begin to comprehend. The film has its share of too-folksy, too-sentimental moments – an attempt to appease crowds that otherwise wouldn’t come? – but the mother’s battle against The Motherland does, ultimately, carry a potent charge.

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