Tuesday, August 24, 2010


('Babel',2006,Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu , written by Guillermo Arriaga, Music by Gustavo Santaolalla )

A desert is where it begins. In the arid dryness of Morocco , two boys Yussef and Ahmed, herd their goats and shape out their own little freedoms in their entrapped vastness. However, life turns oblique, when events crisscross comfort zones and death intervenes. The cozy urban domesticity of a couple is displaced in time and space , fragments shorn across a desert of the unfamiliar.As Richard and Susan Jones (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet) try hard to warm their cold relations in an ironic landscape, their tourist air conditioned bus, like a fragile bubble treading in the middle of nowhere, is punctured in an instant by death . Cate Blanchet finds herself , a victim of a bullet shot and a whole world around her comes crumbling down to its knees in its bid to fight against the ultimate leveler, death.

And the film cuts to Japan. With Manga comics,neon landscapes and stereotyped crowds, the texture of this urbanism is a stark contrast with the Moroccan landscape. Yet, the desert exists. It exists inside the mute girl, a frustration and famine of the loneliness of an urban lifestyle. The metropolis of the orient dances on the screen in montages of human vibrancy. And yet it is an oasis with its own mirages.

Meanwhile across continents , the American couple’s children, a son and a daughter are displaced from their familial place to a strange exotic land of the ‘dangerous’ Mexicanos, when their nanny, a Mexican migrant , has to attend her son’s wedding and cannot leave the kids behind alone. The fulcrum of this track is the little children and their vulnerability. As they are driven into the Mexico of the vibrant red , instinctive and earthy ,amidst another kind of people , they are dwarfed , intimidated and awed.

Mexico is shown like a red hot chilly, and made so tangible, it exudes the warmth and dust off the screen. At the wedding , the strange Mexican uncle (Gael Garcia Bernal) , in a game among the kids, twists a chicken by its neck and snaps its head off. This act has a jolting effect on the young boy. The grossness of the whole act is felt only by the tender boy, while the other children take it all as play. It is a fear psyche playing out of the civilisation's head.

Swapping back to the tourist bus of the desert, struggling between life and death is the Susan Jones . Amidst all the chaos, one people is not able to understand another people , and language steps in as the major hurdle of communication. The narrative at various levels, invokes Babel, the biblical tower of the confounded , through the reality of today.

With an assorted mixture of men and their peculiarities, the film has skillfully chosen assorted worlds and shattered their exclusivity by displacing their plots both in time, narrative, and juxtaposing textures. With a non – linear looped narrative, the film , gently yet in a pointed manner, unfolds and oscillates between the various plots. One could say that Innaritu takes a bullet that travels through the globe, and rips open people’s masks, prejudices and ideas.

‘Babel’ is a critique of the whole desperate human condition that has bound itself into language, created boundaries between each other, and then finds itself helpless with this disposition. Biblical literature talked about the tower of Babel, where the Yahweh is supposed to have confounded the language of the people , in order to destruct their monopoly over each other, and thus, no one could understand each other. The film, brings out the frustration that linguistic differences creates ; but the film has a further point to make, that there is an unsaid between man that needs no language and the same pulse runs through everyone.

“Jews and Christians say that man was created by God in his own image. And what that sentence clearly suggests is that there is some relationship between the nature of man and the nature of God ‘created in his own image’ . Islam says the opposite. Islam says that God has no human qualities. While Ibn Rush’d argued that language is a human quality and that God would be expected to speak God and not any human language.” Salman Rushdie says in a recent interview .

“To defend the freedom of language as a universal human right is justifiable not by appeal to this or that cultural tradition but simply to the biology of the beast.”

Innaritu in his film, streams forth a dialect of such a kind of universal language, the language of death. Death speaks to all, in the same tone, in the same voice and with a single meaning. It is also the one threat that makes man shed all his superficial discords, and deal with his core.

By mish mashing the timeline and plot narrative, Innaritu works with the fear that comes with de- familiarization. The unfamiliar territory that the children and their nanny ultimately find themselves in, brings them face to face with total desperation and lends the viewer into sharing it with the screen characters.

Babel, strips bare the human, and plays out an extremely intricate mesh of human bonds , the unspoken and the explicit, the fears, trusts , and insecurities of man, who has tried to make good his existence in his own little way. As the Mute Nude standing in the balcony of an apartment of a city dissolves into the multitude of many more apartments and many more windows, we know that , ultimately , we all speak human.

Monday, August 16, 2010

'The illusion of reality'

(after reading the essay 'An aesthetic of reality' by Andre Bazin , 'What is cinema?' vol 2)

‘Inception’ – our latest nailing point at the question of reality verses the realm of the dream. Emerging out of a philosopher’s satchel, the word reality seems very fragile, quite devoid of the concrete solidity that it is attributed to.

To incept from the idea of the movie Inception(Directed by Christopher Nolan) , reality has got a heavy contender - The Dream. The dream catchers, delve into dreams within dreams within more dreams, fiddling with sub consciences of people , expanding in space and in time. Real time expands exponentially into dream time on screen and into reel time off screen. As the audience sits riveted, keeping track of the tight paced events, one always wants to keep track of which is the real and which is the dream. The fact remains that his two and half hours inside that dark cinema hall, is probably the most real of all the realities he is trying to grapple with. End credits roll. The totem is still spinning in the viewers mind. Jump cut. He (the viewer) comes crashing into an existence outside of the cinema theatre ; another disconnected reality from the reality of the dark room. Squinting his eyes , he walks out into the sunny street. He then makes his way home, unknowingly intersecting into the realities of the hundreds of people around him in the city, and finally taking refuge into the notion of his own reality in his home.

This business of reality is really evasive. Just when we round up on one real thing , it slips and dissolves into another. And this evasiveness could be the food for all of cinema.

According to Andre Bazin, the acclaimed French film theorist, who speaks on the aesthetic of reality, “ Realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice.” When an aesthetic aims at creating the ‘illusion of reality’ , this sets up a fundamental contradiction, both unacceptable and necessary.

“The ‘art’ of cinema lives off this contradiction. Reality is not to be taken quantitatively. The same event/object can be represented in various ways, either retaining or discarding various qualities, thus the initial reality has been substituted by an illusion of reality of complex abstraction, convention and authentic reality”, writes Bazin in his essay.

“Some measure of reality must always be sacrificed in the effort of achieving it.”

This close duel between reality and fiction brings me to mention Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film Close-up.

In his signature docu-fictional style of filming, Kiarostami takes a real situation and weaves the necessary frame around it to hold it tight. Sabzian ,a commoner , is so enamored by his idol film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf that unknown to his psyche, he begins impersonating his idol and in the course of time, is tried in court for it. The director has filmed the trial as it happened. And this forms the narrative bed for the various connected , re-enacted events in the movie to elucidate.

“Close up is a key film in understanding Kiarostami’s fascination with cinema as a trompe l’oeil* medium, at the same time reality and illusion, creating uncertainty about what one sees with one’s own eyes . Film as a means of capturing reality both in ‘process’ and as reconstruction, is juxtaposed with a reality based on illusion and the suspension of disbelief” , writes Laura Mulvey in her article, ‘Kiarostami’s Uncertainty principle’.

(*Trompe l’oeil is French for ‘deceive the eye’. And referred to the style of painting wherein the painter created a likeness to reality in two dimension by making it appear three dimensional)

A precariously thin line lies between what is and what could be, given that, with our average aspiring minds, we tend to fill in the blanks of a statement, and always are eager to put the full stop point after a sentence.(Eisenstein took full advantage of this attribute.) An even thinner line exists between complete sense and complete absurdity. Try repeating a completely sensible word at random , such as say, ‘door’. After a few dozen times, your mind is sure to start detracting and abstracting the word till a stage comes when the word is a stranger to you. It is like a process of rediscovery through de-familiarization. When the familiar gets so familiar that you no longer see it as familiar.

The centre of gravity of reality topples heavily from dream to dream. From Familiarization to de-familiarization. Like the dodging doll ; however hard you hit it, it always tries to get back straight.

“You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don't know for sure. But it doesn't matter”. The more we try to focus on the sense underlying this line from "Inception" , the less we understand.

It belongs to that haze , between the state of sleep and wakefulness , when your kin wakes up from a realm completely unavailable to you and smiles , a familiar stranger, trying to helplessly recall and pick up the strands of reality he had left behind as he fell asleep.

Cut to the scene towards the end in Inception , when the dream catchers slide back to the reality of the plane in which they are flying, one by one, each nodding and giving the faintest smile of recognition, as they establish their (apparently) real dimensions.

It all needs a little blurring of vision, an iota of myopia, a pinch of idealism, the ingredients of a daydreamer, to appreciate this haze.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sweet Water Apples

Often , the leaves of the sweet water apple tree found their way into his room, invariably alighting on his trigonometry textbook, which was left wide open on all days at all times by habit . As the leaves of the pages fluttered with leaves from the tree, Muni felt the sines , cosines and tangents fluttering through the room and magnetically funneling into his head, as he lay on his bed beside the window of his room.

Summer lethargy and a heavy humid stagnation infested this little room that Muni stayed in as a paying guest since the past four months. The trigonometry was a sidekick. He taught the land lady’s fourteen year old monster mathematics. While in the mornings, he went about this coastal town, trying to find a reason why he had come to the place at all.

Ever since the pat on his back given by his principle at college, for being an outstanding student of his batch on graduation day, Muni had been disgusted at his whole smug self and decided that he would do anything in life except make use of his graduation degree.

Sweet water apples . They came in pink and white. With pecks from the sparrows . Like kisses implanted specially for Muni. When Muni first came to this sleepy town, merely out of a random one fine morning whim rather than any logically aimed destination, he went straight to the 22nd street off the temple complex where stood a pink bougainvillea bush arresting any passerby with its vanity. Behind this bush was the house where Muni was looking to be a paying guest. And behind the house was the pink water apple tree. Well, the pink was from the fruit which hung voluptuously from its high branches, virgin fruits kissed by the birds, and challenging Muni to come and consume them. Muni agreed to move in just for the tree, the room having gone completely out of his selection criteria. Luckily, his room on the first floor faced the backyard, and was in full uninterrupted view of his new beloved tree.

“Muni dada?”, the little landlady’s monster peered into the room with watery sparkling eyes. “Yesss , my lord!,” replied Muni, eyes still closed , not stirring from his bed. “Today, I fell in school while playing! And there was so much blood , that even my teacher was nice to me,” he was saying with victorious pride beaming in his voice. “ The teacher told me not to study today,” very quickly, and confidently, he uttered these last words, and waited to see the effect on Muni dada’s face.

Smiling on the sly, Muni half opened his eyes and peered down his bed at this little plaintiff. His nose had a little speck of soot on it, and he was standing on the threshold, his wounded thrust to the front so that there be no doubt about his claim. Here was Napoleon Bonaparte himself, asking Muni dada release from his trigonometry class, with the help of a hopeless claim. “Your teacher told you not to study?! Wow, I had never come across those kinds before!”, Muni said with mild pretence of amusement. “Okay, no class today”, so saying he gave the little Napoleon a wink and got up to look out of the window.

The smell of wet earth wafted up to his room as far somewhere, rain clouds shattered. Grey and pink was the palette of the landscape this evening. He peered back at his doorway and saw Napoleon still standing in the frame, looking unsure. He had been hit by the unseen circumstance that , though he was free from his torturous class, his other friends in the neighborhood were nevertheless slogging in their classes . So he was left with no one to play at the moment. Muni scanned this little figure, deep in his sudden crises, and at once understood.

“ Come inside. There’s no class, but we could play something , no? Want a water apple? ”

Napoleon's eyes widened into a grin. “Yes! Ok. I will climb the tree and throw them down. You pick them up!” So saying he ran downstairs . Muni hadn’t expected this. He was referring to the fruits in the bowl in his room. Nevertheless, a tree adventure seemed much more alluring.

An unequal duo, they seemed. Delicate little hands searching out the sweeter bird pecked fruits, little dusty feet dangling from fragile branches which had the complete trust of a boy. Standing below, stubby fingers and course nails picked up the fallen fruits from the fresh rain soaked soil. Slowly piling up in the vessel, each fruit, made its own little clink as it settled into a new found company of pink peers, hand -picked by their very trustworthy Napoleon.

Back in the room, happy in exhaustion and fruition, the team shook hands and sealed a silent bond in all its solemnity. The room glowed a tinge of pink twilight on that grey evening.

With a satisfied silence, Muni and Napoleon perched on top of the window sill , surrendering to sweet water apples, rain drops and that odd evening in the life of a man and a boy, where nothingness made them equal.