Filmistaan [2013)

I consider it an auspicious sign that my survey of Indian cinema begins in earnest with the masterpiece Filmistaan.

Do not mistake this piece of cinema for a half-baked idea.

Do not even attempt to lower it by calling it a comedy.

And not least, do not think only of India.

I wanted to come up with a catchy pigeonhole.

Indian Subcontinent.

The Subcontinent.

But I have too much respect for the great traditions of Bollywood (and Lollywood) to do such a thing.

And so this is very much an Indian film.

India.

And it is very much a comedy.

So funny!

But it is touching in a way to which few films can ever aspire.

Filmistaan, like Roberto Benigni’s magnum opus La vita è bella, takes on a very serious subject with the best weapon of all:  humor.

But instead of the Holocaust, we get the Partition.

And yet, Filmistaan is not some laborious period piece.

[leave that to the artless Spielbergs]

No, our film addresses the tension between India and Pakistan in the most deft, feather-light manner imaginable.

And for this we have to thank a new auteur on the world stage:  Nitin Kakkar.

I say “new” because Mr. Kakkar has not been graced with the honor of his own Wikipedia page in English yet.

Well, he is wholly deserving of that honor (based on Filmistaan alone).

But Mr. Kakkar had to have magical actors to pull this off.

Luckily for him, he did!

Sharib Hashmi is undoubtedly the star of this picture.

His performance as Sunny goes from the highest highs of emotion to the lowest lows.

It is truly remarkable.

Mr. Hashmi is about one month older than me.

40 years old.

Perhaps that’s why I identified with his youthful optimism and passionate devotion to cinema.

But to understand our film, we must first locate Rajasthan on a map.

It is the biggest state in India.

It is northwest.

And it borders Pakistan.

To understand Rajasthan, we must comprehend the Thar Desert.

Most of the Thar Desert is in Rajasthan, but it extends somewhat into Pakistan.

These are all important details in understanding our film.

Rajasthan is arid.

Like the American Southwest, it’s a good place to get lost…or kidnapped.

But friends are to be found in the most unlikely places.

And the friendship of shared interest, such as two cinema devotees, knows no borders.

For Mr. Hashmi, the brilliance of his performance depends on the artful support he receives from fellow-actor Inaamulhaq.

But let’s examine the divide between India and Pakistan for a moment.

It is a fact that a man from Peshawar (if he speaks Urdu) can communicate with a man from Delhi (if he speaks Hindi).

Peshawar, of course, is in Pakistan.

Indeed, it’s so far into Pakistan that it’s almost in Afghanistan.

Delhi, of course, is in India.

It is in the north-central part of the country.

It is, further, not essential that the two talkers hypothesized above be men.

The salient detail is that Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language (in their spoken forms).

This is vital to understanding Filmistaan.

But continuing, the two languages could not look more different once they are written down.

[Which is to say, the two hypothesized men might be at loggerheads were they forced to communicate with pen and paper]

Urdu looks similar to its written forebear Farsi (the language of Iran) [which is itself a descendent of Arabic script].

To put it quite simply, a neophyte like myself would probably have a difficult time telling the difference between Urdu, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic.

Hindi is in the wholly different Devanagari script.

You will not confuse written Urdu and Hindi.

It’s at least as obvious as Picasso to Pollock (if not Warhol to Rembrandt).

But enough analogies.

Why should you watch Filmistaan?

Well, for one…it’s currently on Netflix.

Yes, ever since I have joined the streaming service, I have ventured to be a more “worthwhile” film critic by giving you relatively-spoiler-free reviews of current titles to be found on the U.S. version of the site.

But that’s only the beginning.

Yes, there are wonderful performances from Kumud Mishra and Gopal Dutt (as well as a plethora of fine supporting actors).

But the real reason is that Filmistaan expresses the sublime.

The context is terrorism.

The context is border tension.

Indeed, on the Indian Subcontinent, the context is two nuclear states.

Pakistan and India.

But the context goes back.

To Jinnah and Nehru.

And the threads bind.

Cricket.  Cinema.  Music.

There is an excellent example in Filmistaan which illustrates the situation.

Dilip Kumar.

Now 94 years old.

Like my hypothetical man from earlier, born in Peshawar.

Then a part of “Pre-Independence India”.

Now a part of Pakistan.

Bordering Afghanistan.

In Filmistaan, Inaamulhaq knows him as Sir Yusuf.

Sunny knows him as Dilip.

Dilip Kumar was born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922.

Sir Yusuf.

Dilip Kumar.

Same person.

It’s like the World Wars.

fenêtre in French

das Fenster in German

window.

/\

fenêtre /\ Fenster

But when you look through a window (or a border), everything can look backwards.

You’re so close, in reality.

But you’re reading the word as if in a mirror.

Nitin Kakkar directed a masterpiece with Filmistaan because he put his heart and soul into evoking peace.

There are no winners in a nuclear war.

And peace is a rare commodity on the world stage.

Geopolitics…

But we must reach out that hand.

And shake it.

I congratulate Nitin Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi for their dedication.

It is evident.

Though I speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, I was able to watch.

And understand.

I needed the subtitles.

But sublime emotions may be mutually intelligible across cultures.

What a film!

-PD

Spies Like Us [1985)

Hulu lost me.

Hello Netflix.

Hulu is like an inept intelligence agency.

They had the goods.

The Criterion Collection.

But as that oeuvre was surreptitiously phased out, Hulu was unable to offer any value whatsoever to the thinking person.

And so perhaps it is ironic that my Netflix relationship (no chilling here) starts with a spy spoof of sorts, but make no mistake (as the woeful Barack Obama is wont to say):  this is a very intelligent film.

It was a childhood favorite of mine.

Perhaps I was a strange child.

[no doubt]

But we all want to be James Bond to a certain extent, right?

Details disappear.

Even Putin had his cinema heroes.

Consider the film Щит и меч from 1968.

iMDB seems to fill in where Wikipedia fails.

Because these details tell so much.

To know one’s opponent.

But Vladimir Putin is not our opponent.

As long as our election stands.

Perhaps the answer is Stanislav Lyubshin.

Or was it Oleg Yankovsky?

The real answer is comedy.

Even spies need a laugh.

Spies are humans too.

Spy lives matter.

And so we get the provenance of the Pentagon basement meme.

A favorite of mine.

And this film.

Integral to who I am.

I had a cousin who worked in the Pentagon.

I don’t think she worked in the basement 🙂

But God rest her soul.

She is no longer with us.

And she was the most kind lady perhaps I ever knew.

She served her country.

I believe she did something in the health care field for veterans.

But yes…I identify extensively with Austin Millbarge.

In my own way.

Dan Aykroyd is stellar here as Mr. Millbarge.

And then there’s Emmett Fitz-Hume.

Chevy Chase is at his best in this film as Mr. Fitz-Hume.

Frank Oz is classic in his role as a test monitor.

Yes, Yoda and Miss Piggy were the same person.

How’s that for a mind fuck?

For young know-nothings like myself, this was a likely first exposure to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

And it speaks volumes that the DIA “recently” fielded its own band of covert operatives (in direct competition with the CIA).

There is, it seems, a palpable mistrust between the CIA and the U.S. military.

Different cultures.  Actually, a class difference.

[Not to get all Marx here…]

But it’s real.

I can’t define the parameters other than those intuitive, nebulous sentiments just expressed.

It is (very) interesting to note that Dan Aykroyd’s wife Donna Dixon, who stars in this film, was born in Alexandria, Virginia…

Hmmm…

NoVA.

We get Pamir Mountains.

We get Tajikistan.

But before that, we get Pakistan…and Budweiser…and Old El Paso tortilla chips.

And the intel cutout Ace Tomato Co.

And while we’re on the subject of failed businesses (Hulu), we should note that we definitely shan’t be accepting Indra Nooyi’s invitation (“Why don’t you gentlemen have a Pepsi?”) any time soon.

No…we’d much prefer to look at B.B. King’s Jheri curl blowing in the Nevada breeze…or watch Bob Hope “play through” on the Road to Bali.

But let us get back to that old enigmatic chestnut of our youth:  the road to Dushanbe.

“It’s…’Soul Finger’…by…The Bar-Kays.”

“They must be having trouble getting gigs.”

God damn…best line ever!

“Doctor.  Doctor.  Doctor.  Doctor.  Aaaaand Doctor.  Did we miss anyone?”

So many lines in this film which hit just the right mark.

Rarely do I write about screenwriters (it’s the auteur theorist in me), but Dan Aykroyd and his cowriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo (!) Mandel deserve major credit for the quality of Spies Like Us.

And yet, the direction of John Landis is fabulous as well!

Landis is no slouch.

I’ve previously written about the timelessness of Trading Places.

And I am sticking with that assessment.

But let’s take a break here…

Is there anything more lovely than seeing Vanessa Angel emerge from that tent?

Well, at least we get the cultural edification of some Lithuanian dancing to a boombox blasting Stax/Volt goodness around a Stolichnaya campfire 🙂

Back to the essential stand-down aspect of the false flag/stand down.

And for this we will always be indebted to Dr. Steve Pieczenik (and to a far lesser extent Roberta Wohlstetter).

We again refer to the FBI’s 1989 raid of Rocky Flats and the heavily-armed DoE agents guarding that facility.

Perhaps some U.S. Army Rangers are in Michael Chertoff’s not-too-distant future (to name but one grand conspirator).

“Ohh…I’m sorry Paul Wolfowitz!  The correct answer is ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’!!!”

 

-PD