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

India: Matri Bhumi [1959)

This is a hard film to title.

India.

मातृ भूमि.

Matri Bhumi.

The Devanagari (मातृ भूमि) translates to “homeland”.

And this brings us full-circle to a subject which has preoccupied us off and on for a month or so.

But we shan’t get too far into that excursus.

Nay, ’tis better to attempt a bit of writing regarding the film at hand.

First, we are thankful.

That Roberto Rossellini made a film about India.

Now, why would he go and do something like that?

Well, we must remember that he was only married to Ingrid Bergman from 1950-1957.

In 1957, he married Sonali DasGupta.  They were married until Rossellini’s death.

Without getting too lurid or tabloid, let’s just say that Jawaharlal Nehru invited Rossellini to India to help with the country’s film activities.  It was then that he met Sonali.

The rest is beyond the scope of this review.

But what is germane is the screenwriter Fereydoon Hoveyda.

Mr. Hoveyda, an Iranian diplomat and author, helped stage this documentary in much the same way that a Robert Flaherty film might be put together.

Think Tabu:  A Story of the South Seas (1931) on which F.W. Murnau collaborated with Flaherty.  Or even Louisiana Story (1948) which was a Flaherty propaganda film for Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Hoveyda, being the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., was ostensibly in New York when the Revolution happened in 1979.  I’m guessing he stayed in America.  Probably a pretty smart choice.

And he was a smart guy.

Indeed, some of the books he wrote seem very timely indeed:

-What do Arabs want? (in French) [Hoveyda assumedly being Persian, not Arab]

-The Hidden Meaning of Mass Communications (2000) [sounds like a particularly interesting application of linguistics and/or semiotics to ends similar to the agenda-setting theory]

-The Broken Crescent: The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (2002) [a rather suspicious title released at a potentially opportunist time]

and finally

-The Shah and the Ayatollah: Islamic Revolution and Iranian Mythology (2003) [the year the US was steamrolling Iraq…perhaps with salivating neocons looking to quickly expand into Iran]

I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but I noticed where Mr. Hoveyda passed away:  Clifton, Virginia.

Fairfax County.  Vienna.  Herndon.  Definitely some DoD in there.

Furthermore, it is home to the CIA (yay!), the NGA, the NRO, and the DNI’s office.

So my guess is that Mr. Hoveyda probably worked for the US intelligence community.

This would probably be a good time to tell you that I am pro-Islam.

I am pro-CIA.

I’m pro-Palestine.

I’m pro-immigration.

Pro-Mexico.  Pro-Russia.

But most of all I’m pro-America.

I hold no other citizenships.

Some of these revelations will be old hat.

Some new.

All probably confusing for one reason or another.

I’m pro-NSA.  I’m pro 25 AF.

I’m even pro-FBI.  [pro-DIA, pro-ONI, etc.]

Yes, I’m a 9/11 “truther”.

I want to know the truth.

Do I think Saudi Arabia did it?

It was impossible for any group to pull it off without state logistical support.

So it still points very much to an inside job.

The guilty state being the USA.

But maybe I’m wrong.

I do know one thing.

Mr. Trump has rightly noted that the WTC towers did not fall down by themselves.

Nor did they sustain enough damage to fall at near-freefall speeds.

So there was a team (a gargantuan effort) which wired those buildings to explode.

Who was that team?

What was their allegiance?

There were several big pieces to the attacks which needed substantial protection and handling once inside the U.S.

Ok, that’s about as open-minded as I can get regarding 9/11.

I just had to get that off my chest.

My assessments are fallible.

But I’ve seen an optimism in America in these past few days.

It’s not unlike the optimism which Rossellini captures in India:  Matri Bhumi.

Buzzards always circling.

And you’ve let me write about film.

And haven’t begrudged my politics.

So this is for my friends.  From many countries.

And every day I sit and try to think of the right thing to do.

Some things I know.

But there are many things I don’t know.

Many truths which are likely a combination of half-truths I never considered gluing together.

I wish all of you a happy day or night.

This is probably the worst review I ever wrote.

Because I’m better at insulting things.

I’m better at guessing.

But maybe I haven’t connected the dots?

It’s not my job.

But it’s been on my conscience since 9/11.

Who can we trust?

Why are there so many internally-incriminating anomalies?

And so many indications of a cover-up?

I welcome the Saudi lawsuits if only for the opportunity to learn who the REAL culprits were.

The Saudis were middlemen (if that).

They were central casting.

Until the remote flight plans took over.

God, what a daft war…

Based on nothing…and stirring up a continued mix of real and fake.

Impossible to discern anymore.

Maybe Trump has the guts to get some truth.

Obama squandered eight years without even a hint of curiosity.

Buzzards circling.

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 15 [1976)

Starring Jill Clayburgh!!!  Who???

Yeah, kinda like the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial (?) High School.

This is one of those episodes which reminds me that I know a lot more about music than I do about anything else.

Leon Redbone I knew.  Had a record of his as a kid.  The one with “Sheik of Araby” on it.

But back to Jill Clayburgh.

Twice nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.  Ok, see…this brings up my claim to be a film critic.

It’s kinda, “Fake it till you make it.”  I know I’m not a realll film critic, but I take pride in what I do.  I’m an amateur.  It’s a passion.  I’m always seeking to learn.

Well, here’s a great opportunity.

The two films for which she got an Oscar nod?  An Unmarried Woman (this goes back to the play on words I was discussing in an earlier piece…the French word for woman [femme] being the same as the French word for wife [femme]…hence the wordplay of Godard’s Une Femme est une femme [not to mention Une Femme mariée]) and Starting Over.

Please excuse the momentous interpolation.

That is, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over.  Those career highlights were ahead of Ms. Clayburgh when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976.

The auteurs in question were, respectively, Paul Mazursky and Alan J. Pakula (the latter having a surname which is, perhaps, the only conceivable rhyme with Dracula [not counting Blacula]).

Ok, so…apparently this is going to take a lot of parentheses and brackets.

For all of you conspiracy theorists (I usually fall into that category), Clayburgh starred in a 1970 Broadway musical about the Rothschilds (!) called, appropriately, The Rothschilds.  The libretto was by Sherman Yellen.  No easibly-identified relation to Janet.

The end of 1976 would see her in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

One further C.V. note:  Clayburgh won (in a tie with Isabelle Huppert) Best Actress at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman.

Ok, so that’s who she is.  A charming lady.  I had no idea who she was.  I’m an idiot 🙂

Sadly, Ms. Clayburgh passed away in 2010 after a 20-year battle with leukemia.

Well, she was pretty great in this episode!  And I must say…SNL once again reached a new height in intelligent writing with this installment.

One really senses that the writers were toying with the censors.  It was dangerous.  It’s impressively counterculture.

One of the funniest skits is Clayburgh as guidance counselor Jill Carson (a fictional personage).  She is the overly-optimistic crusader for social justice.  It is quite a complex, multi-staged piece.  John Belushi plays a delinquent whom Carson (Clayburgh) is attempting to rescue from “squalor”.

The opening sequence of the show, however, really sets the tone for what’s to follow.  Chevy Chase shows up in Lorne Michaels’ office insistent that the pratfalls and “newsman” stuff should be retired.  Chase’s subsequent weave through the studio audience is really priceless.  The comedy is just so damned smart!

Speaking of which, we finally get my hero Andy Kaufman back.  [On the hero worship scale he’s nowhere approaching Jean-Luc Godard (for me), but he’s definitely the comedic actor who (along with Peter Sellers) most got into my head.]

Well, Kaufman here does another lip-sync piece with immaculately-memorized dialogue.  The song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the special part is Andy in a cowboy hat directing the traffic of four audience participants.  It is a sweet piece, and yet it still shows off Andy’s genius as resplendent and unique.

Leon Redbone is really fantastic in his two songs…particularly the first (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) where he conjures the “me and the radio” loneliness at the heart of a usually-raucous song.

One of the weirdest sequences is a visit by The Idlers (a singing group of the United States Coast Guard Academy).  The show’s producer (Michaels) and writers take the opportunity to remind the viewing audience that dolphins are definitely smarter than The Warren Commission.  No doubt!

It’s a strange, bold sequence.  Chase’s Weekend Update is similarly racy (particularly the bit about the Mattel anatomically-correct male dolls…in white and black…the former $6 and the latter $26.95 or something).  Good god…

Most necessary was the political prodding.  Michaels begins the show with a photo of Nixon on his desk.  By Weekend Update, it is the People’s Republic of China which is pardoning Nixon for Watergate (and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, of course).

But I must admit my ignorance once again.  I had no idea Gary Weis’ (sp?) film featured William Wegman (!)…  The dog should have given it away.  Duh!

Well, anyway…thanks to Wikipedia for a generally informative blurb about this episode (though I have expanded upon that information quite a bit).

The running series Great Moments In Herstory punctuate this episode at various intervals.  Particularly risqué is the Sigmund Freud (Dan Aykroyd) and daughter Anna (Laraine Newman) dream interpretation featuring a titillating banana.  A later episode highlights Indira Gandhi and father Jawaharlal Nehru.  It is a bit of a clunker…

Walter Williams’ famous Mr. Bill debuted on this episode as part of the solicited home movies from viewers.  Williams and Mr. Bill would become a significant part of the show in the coming years.

Once again, this episode is not to be missed.  It was an essential step for a show on the rise.

 

-PD