An American in Madras [2013)

Here we come again to India.

And again to Tamil Nadu.

When last we visited India in our minds, we spoke of For the Love of a Man.

Another Tamil documentary.

About the superstar of South India:  Rajinikanth.

But An American in Madras takes us back.

WAY back!

Indeed, it is the story of a man named Ellis Dungan.

And his 15 years of fame (complete with tuned klaxons) [meme mixing] was 1935-1950.

Ellis Dungan from Barton, Ohio.

Who went to Spain.

And bicycled to France.

Worked a bit in Paris.

Became interested in photography.

And somehow ended up in one of the first cinema cohorts at USC.

Met an Indian student.

Got an invite to Madras (Chennai).

And six months turned into fifteen years.

Isn’t that the way life works?

If you think I’ve spoiled too much of this story, you’re WAY wrong.

There is so much more to this fantastic documentary directed by Karan Bali.

Mr. Bali is in his prime, being just 48 years young.

But he has made a significant contribution to cinema with this picture.

Yes, this story is unique and compelling.

But again, we get a priceless view of India.

I promise we will move from Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu eventually (the only two provinces I have really covered).

But you really must see An American in Madras.

It is currently on Netflix.

And by the screenshot–the thumbnail…you might think it’s about a Jewish director.

That would be wonderful and fine.

But you would be wrong in assuming such.

Indeed, it seems that the six-pointed star on the “film poster” is not the Star of David but perhaps, rather, the Star of Goloka.

Which is to say, an Indian six-pointed star.

And though there are (and certainly were) Jews in India (though not very many…all things considered), An American in Madras is just about a bloke from Ohio who somehow ended up directing some (14) of the classic Tamil-language films.

1935-1950.

He left India at the behest of his wife.

They divorced a short time later.

Okay, ok…I will stop giving spoilers.

But suffice it to say that An American in Madras tackles a very sticky conundrum:

motivation.

For most of my life, my main motivation has been EXPRESSION…

What I’m doing right now.

Showing off my verbiage.

But hopefully adding value to the world.

[there goes my business school dissection…it’s second-nature now!]

And yet, my motivation changed.

For I was presented with a crossroads.

Not like Robert Johnson’s crossroads…

But more like Robert Frost’s crossroads.

Two paths.

God damn it!

I chose the path less-taken.

I chose love.

Not lust.

Not romance.

Just love.

And it doesn’t make me a saint.

But it is what it is.

I gave up music.

I gave up expression as my main motivation.

And I attempted to evolve.

To nudge an inch closer to nirvana.

I chose love.

As my main motivation.

It is not a rockstar path.

Mother Theresa probably had some pretty rough days…

And I ain’t no Mother Theresa.

But I’m trying.

Trying to put other people before myself.

Often failing.

But steadfast.

I am on the path.

And yes, I become wistful.

It seems like 40 years ago.

Maybe I can catch a wisp of song in my memory…a shard…a sherd…some hieroglyph of my past life.

But growing into an adult can entail smiling through the tears.

Singing a snippet, and being glad to be here now.

-PD

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