Tuesday, December 15, 2009

IFFK 2009: Sickness in the Quiet Kingdom

The Indian Coffee House has all the acoustics of a wind chime. Everything inside seems to go ‘clang’. The waiter serves the water with one, brush against a neighbors table and ‘clangg clang’, and from the kitchen, a continuous tumble of clang, clang, clang and yet another, clang. The redoubtable Doctor and yours truly sit across a table amidst so much cling-clang and from the condition of our persons as is evident from our hangdog doorstop postures and glazed faces, expressions stuck at a go-between illumination and ignorance, that the proceedings of the IFFK 2009 have attained a critical disorientation.

And we were yet to see ‘AntiChrist’. Clang.

The Realm of Fortune

My first visit to the IFFK had resulted in a run-in with the films of Glauber Rocha. After the movie, I went right outside and threw up my lunch and spent the rest of the day hungry and sober. Last year, I was introduced to the cinema of Fernando Birri and promptly passed out in the theatre. This year, the tropical malady comes with the name of Arturo Ripstein. For all those like me and the good doctor who have so conveniently clubbed Latin American cinema somewhere between Buena Vista Social Club and Ammores Perroes, the IFFK usually serves up some obscure, bitter medicine that will burn the senses on its way down, torching all beliefs and pretenses, ratting soul against bone and on its way out will be coughed away in bile and phlegm.

All the way, we thought we knew what we were getting into. The festival brochure described Ripstein’s cinema as the ‘art of pain’ and seemed to cheerfully mention an exploration of the ‘aesthetic of hunger, destitution and decline’. ‘Why not?’ said I to the doctor. ‘But of course’, said the doctor to me and the cavalier duo began their descent into ‘The Realm of Fortune’ forarmed and forwarned. We knew Arturo Ripstein was a prodigy of sorts. We also knew that he had served as Buneul’s disciple before directing a Gabriel Garcia Marquez at the tender age of twenty one. So far so good.

The film begins with a howl screamed into a mirror in the early hours of a morning. The howler is the town’s messenger, a man who stands in a town square, beats his drum and screams out advertisements and messages for the people. He lives with his mother, an old hag. Within the first ten minutes, Ripstein systematically unmoors you from your sense of living and life and comfort and beliefs and plunges you into a parched Godless world. You are cast into a world that runs on the evil that men are capable of, where power rules with no limits of control or decency, where the weak are at the will and use of the strong. There are also people weaker still who are under the command of the mere weak. The town howler, Pinzon, even then at best a grey character, given to selfishness and delusion, seems to be our only guide through this vicious world.

A carnival comes to town and Pinzon comes into the possession of a wounded cock from the cockfighting arena. The cock becomes the source of all of Pinzon’s aspirations. Even as his mother succumbs to a slow death, he only seems to want to tend the bird back to health so it can go back into the arena from which it once barely escaped. The mother’s funeral is a protracted scene, tinged with the poisonous gallows humor supplied only by the depravity of humans that runs through the film. Laughter is evoked and stifled at the same time and the tumult is disturbing to behold. His mother buried, Pinzon returns to his bird to whom he feeds not just bread but also, pieces of fried chicken. The cock recovers and returns to the ring and Pinzon gets his first taste of success and power. As he continues to amass his fortune, we see his initial guileless gradually morph into cunning.

He falls in love with the beautiful carnival singer La Caponera who has already been claimed for by Don Benavides, a powerful man around town. The Don initially takes Pinzon under his wing, teaching him how to rig cockfights and card games. He learns quickly and the relationship, like all others, based solely on business thrives. La Caponera finally warms to Pinzon. The erotic sequences are bestial, charged with fervor and frenzy. The cock finally becomes the obvious symbol. Pinzon faces off with his old master The Don in a gambling duel charged with machismo and money that Ripstein terrifically satirizes and the tides turn as the erstwhile slave cleans out and turns his old master destitute.

The cunning now turns into cruelty. Don Pinzon now sits in his mansion and gambles with his friends. His wife is now forced to sit beside him at all time, she being reduced to a mere totem, what he calls his ‘lucky stone’. The second act leaves the audience helpless as the vicious cycle threatens to continue moving into darker realms of malice and for the weak, there seems to be no redemption in sight.

In true surrealist fashion, the labyrinth of the movie’s ingenious structure is pinned to our psyche. As the images get progressively frightening and depressing and the laughs get stifled further, a strange sickness takes hold of the mind. Even the silences begin to howl. ‘The Realm of Fortune’ begins to sprawl with a wicked will, now all its own. The humans begin to lose themselves, blinded by the excesses of hubris, pain, luxury, apathy in a maze whose foundations they themselves laid on the sunburnt soil. The tower of folly grows towards the stars in a grip of delusion, declaring itself the tallest structure ever built in a desert, never aware that it is coming apart at the corners. And that dust will return to dust.

There is no deliverance promised for the living; only the inevitability of finding ourselves in yet another labyrinth of sand and illusion that we build like it were our kingdom to keep.

Previously, the closest I had ever come to experience an aesthetic similar to Ripstein’s ‘Art of Pain’ was in the films of Marco Ferreri. Like Ferreri, Ripstein stages a slightly skewered reality where symbols come together to inform a prophetic allegorical truth. But where Ferreri’s apocalyptic humor is broad and witty, Ripstein’s ‘aesthetic of hunger, destitution and decline’ is the entrails and abscesses of the world.

Ek Tho Chance & Harishchandrachi Factory

Earlier in the morning, I had grappled with a minor case of loss of faith. The bad news I bear is that Saeed Mirza’s first film in fourteen years in an embarrassing washout that compares with the worst travesties of Bhandarkar. The problem with ‘Ek Tho Chance’ is the similar one that afflicted Shyamaprasad’s ‘Seasons’ that I had written about yesterday. Why do our auteurs who deal in cinema have to bend over backwards and concern themselves with the morons amongst the youth of today? We have music channels to do that. It is disheartening to see such august company dealing in trivialities of pop culture when they should be doing what they do best-make cinema.

So after the crushing disappointment dealt to me in shape of ‘Ek Tho Chance’, the much-talked about ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ was all it took to restore my faith in Indian cinema. It is a film in vernacular but absolutely Indian in spirit. In the spirit of Chaplin and Tati and with the infectious vibe of young Marathi theatre, the delightful little movie not just rescues and reinvents a lost part of our cultural history but in the manner of ‘Valu: The Wild Bull’ offers digs and satires on history, etiquette and tradition. It is laugh-out loud funny, it embraces politics and most importantly, in the age of puke-puke-multiplex-cinema-puke-puke restores to the medium the dignity and magic that was in the danger of being forgotten.

Rest assured, if I had ever complained about the wholesomeness of the film, ‘The Realm of Fortune’ gave me more than I ever asked for.

With Valu and now, Harishchandrachi factory and other flawed yet interesting entries like Dombivali Fast and Devrai and Restaurant, Marathi cinema truly looks set to enter the proverbial ‘purple patch’.


It’s all a bit said and done. And especially after Ripstein, Lars Von Trier’s prank cinema looks very much like the work of a huckster. There are interesting bits. There is enough provocation. But at the end of it all, it still feels like a very minor work of a contemporary master. Damned if I want to give my two bits. As far as all the reels and reels of dialogue and debate and breath spent on the film is concerned, it’ll just go ahead and add a few more ‘clang clangs’.

(Cross-posted at www.passionforcinema.com)

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