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Rangoon India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2017

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The nearby Odeon programmes Hindi language films or ‘Bollywood’ as it is popularly known. In the last week they had the above title, described in their publicity leaflet as follows:

“Romantic war drama film … a period film set in World War II and supposedly portrays the life and times of Mary Ann Evans aka Fearless Nadia, Bollywood’s first original stunt-woman still remembered for her fiery role[s]…”

I am a fan of classic Bombay cinema and I have seen and enjoyed a couple of the titles starring Fearless Nadia. There was the added prospect of recreations of the Bombay Wadia Studio of the period. To my surprise my pleasure was enhanced when the film opened with black and white footage and stills [mainly in the correct ratio] of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Bose led this army of Indians living in the captured Japanese territories or Indian prisoners of war in the conflict alongside the Japanese army and against the British occupation of India.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Appropriately the original was in Sanskrit.

I have seen references to Bose and the INA in other films but this is the first [for me]  in which they played a substantial role in the plot. So this romantic melodrama offered over two hours of Indian song and dance, war-time recreations and a political and anti-colonial strand. On screen titles explained the situation of the INA, fighting under the umbrella of the Japanese: and the limitations of this situation for them. The film also drew attention to the female members of the army organised into the Jhansi ki Rani (“Jhansi Queens”) Regiment.

Bose and the "Jhansi Queens")

Bose and the “Jhansi Queens”)

The film’s central narrative opens as a Viceroy commissioned officer [i.e. an indigenous Indian] Jemadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is captured by the Japanese. We then moved to a Bombay film studio where Miss Julia (the Fearless Nadia character played by Kangana Ranaut) is performing a action-packed sequence for her latest film. The producer, an ex-film star and Miss Julia’s lover, is Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). The two characters, Nawab Malik and Miss Julie, will meet later in the film and commence a romantic relationship.

The villains in the film are the British occupiers, personalised in the character of Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). His is an Indiaphile: he speaks fluent Hindi and can play the harmonium whilst singing a classical Indian raga. He is however also a ruthless upholder of the Raj in its battle with the Japanese. He pressurises “Rusi” to let Miss Julia tour the front line, enthusing the troops; his weapon is the withholding of the rare film stock from the studio.

Harding and "Rusi"

Harding and “Rusi”

Much of the first part of the film, [which has an interval] is taken up with Miss Julia being parted from the military convoy. when Japanese fighter strafe the column, in which she is travelling to the front-line. She is rescued from Japanese soldiers by Nawab Malik. These two along, with a Japanese prisoner, travel through the jungle and are finally re-united with the British convoy. It is in this time that romance blossoms between Miss Julia and Nawab Malik.

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In the second part of the film we see Miss Julia’s concerts to the troops, who are enthusiastically dazzled by the star. At the same time ‘moles’ within the convoy are planning to smuggle a valuable sword to the INA troops; who need funds to buy military equipment. It is the latter plotline that leads to the climax and resolution of the film. The plot has to deal with the historical realities of INA failure. So the ending is partly tragic, but Harding is outmanoeuvred by the INA supporters and the film ends with a celebratory still recording that the INA actually occupied Indian soil and hoisted the flag of Independence in 1944.

Rangoon is a typical product of modern Hindi cinema. There is high melodrama, songs and dances, and the plot is interlaced with partly comic support characters, such as the Japanese prisoner Horomichi (Satoru Kawaguchi). The plot also twins a typical Hindi film romance with a period drama including the conventional Hindi hero. So whilst Miss Julia is a feisty heroine, at one point she carries out a dramatic train rescue clearly modelled on a Fearless Nadia film, at key points it is the male characters who wield the gun. The film seems to be more explicit in terms of sexuality than is common: we see “Rusi” and Miss Julia sharing a bathtub [with plenty of bubbles] and in bed together [though properly clothed]. The film finally essays an Indian unity over against the British in its resolution; all the key Hindi characters come together in support of the INA. A trope that I have encountered in other Indian films.

The songs and dance numbers are bravura sequences. there is an early number on a moving train that seems to have been inspired by Mani Ratnam’s film Dil Se (1998). And there are several exhilarant performances by Miss Julia for the front-line troops. in keeping with the techniques of them period we see Miss Julia performing to ‘playback’ singer, who appears herself to an actual playback artist. The dance and choreography seem more typical of contemporary cinema than the films of the 1930s and 1940s when Fearless Nadia was a star.

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The film was directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. I had seen his earlier films and enjoyed Maqbool (2003) adapted from ‘Macbeth’, and Omkara (2006) from ‘Othello’. He has also adapted ‘Hamlet’, Haider (2014), which I have yet to see. Bhardwaj started out as a composer and progressed to direction. He composed the music in this film and two of his regular collaborators, the lyricist Gulzar and the playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj, feature in this film. The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar  is excellent. I had already seen Kangana Ranaut  in Queen (20140, an impressive and slightly unusual film for which she won Best Actor at the National Film Awards. Miss Julia in Rangoon gives her a great part which she plays to the full. There are action sequences, great dance numbers, moments of high melodrama and moments of intense romance; all of which she performs with real aplomb. She is the key to the film.

The reworking of Fearless Nadia, not that close to the actual star and her films, works very effectively. It seems that the contemporary Wadia Studio took out a legal action because of the resemblance to their one-time star. They seem to have lost this suit. It also seemed ill-judged: one would think this film could/would arouse fresh interest in Nadia. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the focus and time and space that it gives to the Indian National Army. As noted the film both opens and closes with footage of the INA. And whilst the film is a romance the motivation of the protagonists, both heroic and villainous, revolves round the INA fight against the British occupation . The title of the film, Rangoon [Yangon], the old capital of Burma, only features in the dialogue and seems to be a reference to the INA command being based there during the campaign. Apart from documentaries I have not seen of another film that devoted this much attention to the INA. It seems that the forthcoming Raag Desh will deal with the trials of INA members by the British at the end of the war. Wikipedia has a number of references to both documentaries and feature films that include the INA.

In its espousal of the anti-colonial struggle the film clearly expresses an Indian Nationalist discourse. Given its mainstream conventions this would place it in First Cinema. Presumably for Indian audiences more familiar with the issues around the INA and with memories or awareness of Fearless Nadia’s stardom, the film is partly nostalgic. But as we also approach the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence there is the prospect of moments of increased consciousness.

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The film is in colour and 2.35:1 ratio with English sub-titles. Unfortunately the UK release seems to have been cut by about twenty minutes.

 

Posted in Indian cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Invictus, USA / South Africa 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2015

 

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Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin. In Technicolor and in 2.35:1; 133 minutes.

As the Rugby World Cup is currently on display in Britain it was predictable that this film would turn up on television: ITV4. It is a drama set round the 1995 Rugby World Cup which took place in South Africa: this was at the time that the new post-apartheid government led by Nelson Mandela was attempting to make the transition to an open, democratic society.

Despite all the talent involved I found this film ponderous to watch: weighed down by all the good intentions. It is also ideological in the proper sense of the word: addressing the surface appearances rather than the underlying social contradictions. The basic plot follows the South African Springboks [rugby team] as they attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Key to their victory, in the film and apparently in real life, is the newly elected black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). He develops a bond with and provides inspiration for the Springboks captain, white Afrikaan Francois Piennaar (Matt Damon).

The film opens on a road with a convoy of cars carrying the just-released Mandela from prison. On one side of the road is a grassless mud pitch where black youth in ragged gear play football. On the other side privileged white South Africans practice under the tutelage of their school coach. Black people run to the fence to cheer Mandela whilst the white coach expresses his contempt. Immediately the film visually presents the gross disparities that fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle. Unfortunately, this image grows dimmer as the film progresses. The Springbok team clearly have to win the cup: the question for Mandela [and viewers] is can do they so do on behalf of all the countries 42 million citizens, white and black.

There are early important scenes. We see Mandela taking up his office as President and carefully inviting the staff from the previous apartheid administration to continue to work ‘for the nation’. The key example in the film is the security team, now composed of both black and white staff, who only grudgingly learn to work together.

The issue of the Springbok team, who have a traditional green and gold strip, surfaces quickly. An ANC dominated Committee decides to change both the name and the colours, which are associated with the apartheid era and the Afrikaan society. Mandela rushes to the meeting and manages to persuade a slim majority to reverse their decision. His black secretary suggests that this might appear to be autocratic. Mandela’s response is that this is his responsibility as Leader. Several times in arguments around this issue he suggests that the person opposing him does not have all the ‘information’.

Later, when Mandela has developed a relationship with the Springbok captain and met and impressed the rugby team, we see them tour the now empty Robbins Islands which is in the process of becoming a museum. During this tour Piennaar ‘imagines’ Mandela in his time in the Prison.

On the eve of the World Cup Piennaar manages to persuade the team to actually learn the words of the new national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God/Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa). And Mandela sends Piennaar a hand-written copy of the poem Invictus.

The final, [apparently held in Durban rather than Cape Town), offers glorious affirmation of their success in their project. 60,000 fans roar on their team whilst nearly every other South African watches on television or listens on the radio. The sole exceptions are a young black boy and a dog. The former is collecting trash and is gradually drawn into the game’s commentary played over a police car radio. Victory sees the young man and the white policemen bonding. The dog is shown wandering through a deserted township: he is clearly baffled [as I am] by the potent attraction of such sporting events.

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The victory celebrations end on a road outside the stadium, as both black and whites celebrate in the streets. But it is an urban centre road rather than the township road that opens the film. As Mandela drives by the celebrating crowds we hear his voice reading the poem. Then as the credits appear, we do see a field of young black men playing rugby. And the field is greener and better equipped than that of the opening, though not up to the standards of the white school playing fields. But there are no young white men playing rugby with these black youth. I sensed no irony in this final image: in fact Eastwood admitted in an interview that he caught this event as he was leaving at the end of filming and could not resists stopping to record it. .

In an article on the sports film, Joe Queenan (The Guardian 12-02-10) commented that: “The fact that such stirring victories almost never occur in real life is the reason that sports films exist. … It can reasonably be argued that sports films exist to provide audiences with a glimpse of a parallel universe in which the weak outmuscle the strong, good triumphs over evil …. Sports films are thus a substitute for reality, perhaps even an antidote.” On Invictus itself he writes: “[it] uses rugby as a metaphor for national spiritual rejuvenation ”. The Springboks did win the Rugby World Cup. However the national community the film celebrates is yet to materialise. The poverty, the extremes of affluence and deprivation, the experience of violence predominantly by black people are a different reality from the celebrations that close the film.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Chester Williams [the black member of the 1995 Springboks’], 20 years on, stated that the changes that he had hoped for have not occurred. A sports commentator stated that the Springbok team was still largely recruited from a small pool of elite schools favoured by the white population.

In fact the focus of the film is not on the ordinary black working class South Africans: it is on the two leaders, of the government and the national team. Most of the plot focuses on Piennar’s growing admiration for Mandela. The latter’s stature is summed up in the title of the film, which refers to a C19th British poem, Invictus (Unconquered). The poem was given to Mandela in prison: a fact rehearsed for the audience at least three times in the dialogue. We also hear the final verse twice: once when Pienaar and his team mates visit the now empty Robbins Island Prison; and once more as Mandela sits in his car as it drives through the celebrating South African fans.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the Captain of my soul.”

The author, William Ernest Henley, wrote the poem in a hospital bed where he struggled against illness and disability. One can see that the theme of personal struggle could resonate with a man in long-term prison. However, poet and captive seem to represent rather different situations: the poem was dedicated to a successful flour merchant. His equivalents in South Africa were the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, both exploiting and oppressing the black majority. Perhaps a more appropriate British poet for a leader in the struggle against Apartheid would be Linton Kwesi Johnson. His 1970s poem Yout Rebels ends,

“young blood

yout rebels

new shapes

shapin

new patterns

creatin new links

linkin

blood risin surely

carvin a new path

movin fahwod to freedom.”

The film is an expression of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalist societies. Whilst the rugby provides the motor for the plot the film’s central focus is Mandela. In that sense it is as much a biopic as a sport film: an example of recent biopics which, rather than setting out the life and career of a personality, take a particular event or period as an expression of their life and work. Mandela became an icon for the Western bourgeoisies: in manner similar to Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he was often compared. Mandela and the fraction he led in the ANC were prepared to accept a compromise solution to ending apartheid. This involved a deal with international capital rather than its expropriation. At one point in the film we see a series of television excerpts in which Mandela travels the world seeking investment for the new South Africa.

This, of course, perpetuated the underlying social relations for which Apartheid gave a particular racist expression. The Witness film screened on Al Jazeera on the Marikana Massacre shows how unreformed the major state institutions like the police remain. And there are other examples of the continuing exploitation of of the black majority by international corporations. Unfortunately, the majority of films coming out of South African adhere to this ideological standpoint, e.g. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (2013). This is a film from dominant cinema with traces of the auteur or ‘second cinema’, but it shares many values with the films that come from South Africa’s national or ‘first cinema’.

Mandela actions regarding the Springbok’s can be seen as shrewd public relations in a divided country. And for a brief moment, as displayed in the film, it had its effect. But it made no changes to the predominant social relations. And it was an expression of the overall political direction of the government that he led.

The original review at release posted on ITP World.

Posted in Auteur cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Theeb, Jordan / UK / United Arab Emirates / Qatar / Switzerland 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2015

theeb-2-filmloverss

This film was shot in anamorphic colour in Arabic with English subtitles. It was also shot on 16mm, which does not show on the big screen. The cinematography by Wolfgang Thaler is excellent and enjoys the at times breathtaking landscapes. The sound design by Dario Swade is also very fine, though I thought some of the music by Jerry Lane was, at times, intrusive. But the films also make good use of indigenous North African music and songs.

This is essentially a rite de passage and journey film. The protagonist, Theeb (Wolf) is a young Bedouin boy, not yet in his teens. He is played by the non-professional Jacir Eid and he is completely convincing in a role that has little dialogue. The rest of the cast, mainly non-professional, are also very good.

The journey arises when the Bedouin offer hospitality to a travelling English Officer and his guide. Theeb’s elder brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is to guide them to a well, the first post on their journey. Theeb accompanies them, but they are soon in bandit company and the travails of the journey start.

The plot line is deliberately sketchy. So it takes time to realise that we are in the middle of World War I. Also that Edward, the Englishman (Jack Fox), is journeying to meet Arab irregulars who are attacking the Ottoman railway. One aspect presented in the film is that this conflict predates the war, as the railway has disrupted the traditional ways and work of the Bedouin.

I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House and afterwards joined in the Film Club discussion on the film. The consensus was that this was essentially a genre film and much of the plot was immediately familiar. I did think the production and the acting generated a sense of the desert world in this period that was more authentic than the western equivalents.

What also struck me was that I was constantly reminded of that western epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Theeb was filmed in the Hejaz area of Jordan, where much of Lawrence was filmed. Many of the settings look familiar and hark back to the earlier film. A host of parallels: the Bedouin hospitality, the English officer, his revolver circulating amongst the characters, the explosive plunger in a box, the rocky defiles and valleys, the accentuated padding of the camels hooves, the wells, the Arab irregulars, the railway, and late on the Turkish officer and troops – all made me think that these were deliberate.

The director Naji abu Nowar, is a Jordanian, but born in the UK. Many of the production group are European film technicians. Whilst it is predominately a production from Arabia I felt that it was made with an eye both to local audiences but also to international audiences for foreign language films. It certainly has a sense of indigenous culture that is often lacking from western [or Dominant Cinema] films. But in terms of plot in particular, it is recognisable to western audiences. The director described it as a ‘Bedouin western’. One could categorise it as somewhere between a National [or First] Cinema and an auteur [or second] cinema. For me it was entertaining but lacked the dynamic of a film like Timbuktu (2014).

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Auteur cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »