Saturday, June 11, 2022

Karnan's song sequences: Dance me to the end of love

Mari Selvaraj is only two films old as director but he has already developed a unique vocabulary, making startling, charged works about the grim workings of caste oppression in Tamil Nadu. His first, Pariyerum Perumal (2018), was about the relationship between a young man from a backward caste and his upper-caste classmate, and the systematic oppression he faces. His second, Karnan, released last week on Amazon Prime, is about a village called Podiyankulam, historically discriminated against because of the caste of its residents; they have to beg for government jobs and can’t even get buses to stop nearby.

The film follows in the wake of caste-critical works like Sairat (2016) and Kaala (2018) in using mainstream devices to present the simmering resentment of its protagonist, Karnan (Dhanush). Of particular interest are its song sequences, Selvaraj teaming up again with Santhosh Narayanan, perhaps the most vital Indian film composer today. As with Pariyerum Perumal, the songs in Karnan aren’t interludes but little explosions of vivid storytelling.

Kandaa Vara Sollunga

The film opens with a bird’s-eye view of a young girl lying on a highway, vehicles passing on either side. We hear the high wordless wails of folk artist Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal, which leads into a series of incandescent images: women rocking babies at dusk, a man drawing on the wall with fire, flash zooms on silhouetted figures, close-ups of wizened faces, hands, tattooed backs, animals, insects. If you see him, tell him to come. Someone fetch Karnan at once, Mariyammal demands repeatedly, to the accompaniment of urgent drums. From time to time, Selvaraj shows the reason for her distress—a man in police custody, blood dripping, face covered. The song ends with the finished drawing of Dhanush’s face, even as his real face remains hooded. At once defiant and despairing, it’s a stunning variation on a staple of Tamil cinema: the hero entry number—minus the hero.

Thattaan Thattaan

A lilting love song in the A.R. Rahman mould, Thattaan Thattaan starts out as a rural counterpart to Pariyerum Perumal’s Potta Kaatil Poovasam before a brilliant turn away from the romantic in the third verse. Temporarily shelving the happy frolicking of Karnan and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), Selvaraj focusses on an elderly woman listing the virtues and hardships of the farmer clan. Our ancestors lost the uplands, our forefathers lost the farmlands, Meenakshi Elayaraja sings. It reminded me of Arivu imitating his grandmother in Enjoy Enjaami, his recent hit single with Dhee. That track too was composed by Narayanan, and shares with Thattaan Thattaan a common vision of rural pride and historical injustice (I planted five trees/ Yet my throat remains dry, Arivu had sung in that).

Manjanathi Puranam

A funeral in the village provides the setting for this folk number. As Karnan sulks after a fight with Draupadi, his older companion Yeman (Lal) sings about his wife, Manjanathi, who died of cholera. Here, too, their societal status is invoked, almost matter-of-factly (The wretched people of our castes/ Would come after us with swords). In Pariyerum Perumal, mourning prompted the haunted Karuppi. This is a more upbeat track, beautifully performed by Lal and shot without his normal cutaways by Selvaraj, with a fluid one-take movement late in the song as Dhanush explodes into dance.

Breaking Point

As the title indicates, this instrumental track is where the film turns both literally (it’s where the interval would have been) and narratively, as Karnan and a few of his fellow-villagers wreck a bus. The provocation is extreme, but Selvaraj knows how the destruction of public transport is usually spun by dominant powers, and films it with no triumph and a lot of foreboding. The music matches this: pounding drums, wails of electric guitar and mournful blasts of trumpet. Even the release promised by the visual at the start of the scene—Karnan freeing a donkey with its feet tied together—is dispelled by the final image: an eagle frozen in flight.

Uttradheenga Yeppov

After Karnan and a few others free their companions from the police, the village knows retaliation is imminent. A classical night-before-the-fight montage follows—plans drawn, weapons readied, prayers said. The words are heavy (Come, stop those cyclical wheels that trample us) but the choice of music is curiously light—not the sort of pounding anthem you would expect but a dance number with a bouncy beat, sung by the cool-voiced Dhee. The nature of the track—a village preparing for a clash with a stronger enemy—can’t help but bring to mind the Chale Chalo number from Lagaan (2001).This ties in nicely with Karnan’s thematic and stylistic similarities to the 2019 Brazilian film Bacurau, whose director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, mentioned Lagaan as a reference point.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

The waking dream of 'The Underground Railroad'

The Underground Railroad was the name given to the complex clandestine network of abolitionists, Quakers, activists and former slaves who helped spirit African-Americans to safety in the 1800s. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead imagined it as an actual railway line on which Cora, a runaway from the deep south, travels, pursued by the terrifying slave catcher Ridgeway. “If you want to see what this nation’s about, you got to ride the rails,” one of the 'conductors' tells her. “Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”

The true face of America—cruel, enterprising, grotesque, optimistic—is vividly rendered in Whitehead’s novel, and now in Barry Jenkins’ miniseries (on Amazon Prime). This adaptation tells the story of Cora in 10 'chapters', from her flight from a Georgia plantation to a very different sort of farm in Indiana. The magnificent opening sequence, with past and future mixed up in a hallucinatory montage, is a clue to the mythic qualities which Jenkins will imbue the story with, and a reminder of the particular kind of magic he can work with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, his collaborators on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.

The series is largely faithful to the novel, yet also makes a few intriguing deviations. In the first episode ('Georgia'), Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) asks to meet Cora (Thuso Mbedu) on the plantation, as her mother, Mabel, had once escaped him and he’s curious to see her daughter. This meeting isn’t in the book but it makes dramatic sense, yoking the two principals together before the chase has even begun. After a horrific killing executed as lunch theatre for white spectators, Cora decides to run off with fellow-slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre). The episode ends with them boarding the train to South Carolina.

This first episode is close to the standard Hollywood slavery narrative—producers Plan B were also responsible for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the epitome of this sort of approach. But as the series progresses, it starts alternating between stark realism and something more dreamlike. The South Carolina episode has the eerie quality of a Twilight Zone episode, Caesar and Cora stumbling on to a conspiracy behind a humanitarian programme run by white doctors and administrators for the black population. And Jenkins breaks from Cora’s story for an episode to show us Ridgeway’s tortured path from apprentice blacksmith to slave-catcher, with Fred Hechinger playing the teenage Ridgeway and Peter Mullan, commanding as ever, as his father. (The one instance where this reordering of chronology falls through is the final episode.)

It’s when Ridgeway catches up with Cora that the show really stretches out. Episode 5 has the two of them, and Ridgeway’s partner, a young black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillon), travelling through the apocalyptic, burning wasteland that is Tennessee in the midst of a yellow fever pandemic. There is less sense of a plot moving forward, more of characters being given time to despair and lose their minds. Britell’s work is especially strong here, from the blasted sirens at the beginning to mournful horns. An episode later, there’s the biggest deviation from the novel—a short episode dedicated to a new character, a young black girl named Fanny Briggs (the name pops up in Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist).

When Whitehead asked Jenkins if he had any slavery movies as models for the series he would make, the director told him he was thinking more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Both the series and the Paul Thomas Anderson films are cracked-lens views of the making and unmaking of America. In The Underground Railroad, when Caesar asks a station agent about who built the railroad, the man replies, “Who builds anything in this country?” But Ridgeway has his own vision of the country’s origins, in which the settlers are the builders. “The only spirit worth its salt is the American spirit,” he tells Cora drunkenly. “The one that called us up from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And lift up the lesser races…well, if not lift up, subjugate. If not subjugate, exterminate, eliminate.”

In a piece on Whitehead’s novel in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the institution of the Underground Railroad is “one of the few slavery narratives that feature black Americans as heroes—which is to say, one of the few that emphasize the courage, intelligence, and humanity of enslaved African-Americans rather than their subjugation and misery”. This is even more pronounced in the series, where Jenkins reduces the number of white characters. Except for Ridgeway’s father (a good man but not heroic), the slave hunter is the only white character of force and prominence—aided by Edgerton’s tortured, scary performance. But there are instances of black heroism everywhere: Caesar and Royal (William Jackson Harper), the two men who love and help Cora; John (Peter De Jersey) and Gloria (Amber Gray), owners of Valentine farm, the black Eden where Cora ends up; Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), the pragmatic orator who debates John in a scene that’s like a church revival; Mabel (Sheila Atim), whose determination and sense of justice Cora inherits; Cora herself, stumbling from one hell to another, yet enduring.

The flammable sheen of Laxton’s camerawork helps set apart The Underground Railroad from other filmic visions of slavery, which tend towards the stark and grim. Each state looks different—the urban polish of South Carolina, the burnt earth of Tennessee. Lens flare is deployed frequently, sending rainbows and prisms across the screen. This visual heightening is in step with the air of surrealism Jenkins maintains. In one extended dream, Cora finds herself at a station. She wants to buy a ticket and move on but she hasn’t yet given her ‘testimony’. “The train is leaving, and you have not found your words,” the ticket-seller tells her. Slavery is the nightmare from which America is yet to awaken, Jenkins seems to be saying. All that anyone can do is keep striving to find the words.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai

Most Salman Khan films now are just a bunch of references to earlier, slightly better Salman Khan films. These are interspersed with fight scenes with (one imagines) a well-paid team of body doubles for the 55-year-old star, who does less and less with each successive film, unless he has Ali Abbas Zafar pushing him to try something, anything. Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai has in-jokes about Khan's Bandra home, his record of releasing films on Eid, his long-running gig as Bigg Boss host. It repurposes lines from his Mountain Dew ads (“Darr ke aage... zindagi”) and the 2009 action film Wanted. “Ek baar commitment kar di toh main apne aap ki bhi nahi sunta,” Radhe growls, before adding, “I will clean this city up.”

Radhe is post-criticism, post-intelligence, post-caring. It’s barely a film—but that’s not surprising coming either from Khan or director Prabhudeva, whose last collaboration was the mind-melting Dabangg 3 (2019). Radhe is mercifully under the two-hour mark; perhaps the film was cut down from standard theatre length when the makers realized people would be watching it at home. Khan plays the now-familiar figure of the Bollywood killer cop—97 encounters, 23 transfers—called in to put an end to the drug-peddling of Rana (Randeep Hooda) and his associates. Khan does this singlehandedly, as you’d expect, with time in between to romance Disha Patani, an actor three decades younger than him.

This is an acknowledged remake of the gritty 2017 South Korean gangster film The Outlaws; it takes the story, some of the fights, and the score. But Khan doesn’t have the intensity to do brutal action anymore—he’s barely credible jogging in the park. Everything about the film feels hurried and cut-price. The action has the flat, jerky look of digital. The screenplay is fight dance fight dance sermon fight. Jackie Shroff, playing Khan’s superior officer and Patani’s older brother, looks fetching in a slinky red skirt (don’t ask) but puts in about as much effort as Khan, which is to say no visible effort at all (the scene where the two of them have to act surprised to see each other, but have obviously forgotten how that complex emotion is portrayed, is a classic of sorts).

It’s nice to see city streets on screen, even if it’s a ghost Mumbai. But apart from these glimpses, and moments when the stupidity prompts a chuckle (Khan shouting ‘Undercover!’ as he starts to dance), Radhe is a supreme drag, and another outing for the trigger-happy enforcer cop in Hindi cinema. It’s not as concerned with flag-waving, thankfully, as other recent cop films. The only time the nation is invoked is when Khan repeats the ‘I will clean up the streets’ line and then says ‘Swachh Bharat, jai Hind.’ Had he added ‘Stay home, stay safe, get vaccinated’, this would at least have given Radhe a reason to exist.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Milestone

Ivan Ayr’s first film, Soni, was composed only of single takes, which lent a buzzing immediacy to the action. His second, Milestone, which premiered in the Orizzonti section at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and is now on Netflix, at first seems to be cut from the same cloth. The opening scene, with Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver, reaching the warehouse is an unbroken shot: He walks in and out of the garage, chats with colleagues, the hard morning light rendering everything blue and grey. His back gives way loading a piece on to the truck, at which point, after five minutes, the scene cuts.

After the title sequence, the film resumes, a minute-long shot of Ghalib driving his truck, observed from the passenger side. Once the vehicle comes to a halt, he gets out. The camera continues to look at him through the open door; it would require some complex engineering to continue this as an unbroken shot. Ayr teases expectations by holding the shot for a few seconds, then there’s a cut. The rest of Milestone alternates single takes with conventionally edited scenes. This seems to me a mature decision. Soni was a rarity—a technically complex film that felt like a simple one—but to do the same thing twice would come close to a gimmick.

Ghalib is from Punjab but lives in Delhi, alone. He's mostly on the road (when we see him in his apartment for the first time, the bananas have rotted away). He has clocked 500,000km, more than any of his peers. His back is troubling him, yet he plows ahead with work, doing overtime, driving day and night. We learn that this punishing work rate is born of tragedy. His wife, Etali, died by suicide not long ago, after their marriage hit a rough patch. Back in his village, Ghalib sits with the sarpanch and Etali’s father and younger sister, who hold him indirectly responsible for his wife’s death. Ghalib, while maintaining his innocence, offers them a large sum of money as recompense but is rejected. He’s given 30 days by the council to make another offer.

Ayr could easily have made Etali's family's demand something material—more money, land—which would have made the 30-day period a countdown of sorts. Leaving the terms up to Ghalib is an anti-narrative move. It leaves the film somewhat formless, even after the introduction of a green new employee, Pash, whom Ghalib is told to mentor. Ghalib gruffly teaches the young man some of the basics; for instance, don’t show all your papers to highway cops, as this will just make them search the vehicle and increase the bribe amount. Yet Ghalib knows his own job may not be secure if Pash becomes a competent driver.

Milestone hints at larger conflicts, often obliquely. Ghalib’s wife was from Sikkim, his neighbour’s wife is from Kashmir—this could be coincidence, or an indication of the skewed sex ratio in many northern states. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of the divide between the bosses and drivers on one side and the loaders (or “labour”) on the other. They are unionised, so their strikes are an inconvenience for Ghalib, who has to strain his back further with loading. Yet when Ghalib confronts a union leader (poet Aamir Aziz in a fine cameo), we learn that the wage increase they are fighting for is a mere 2 rupees. “At least make our case when you sit across his desk,” he tells Ghalib. “We're not even allowed in the office.”

Suvinder Vicky has been in several recent Bollywood Punjabi films (Udta Punjab, Kesari), and was terrific in Gurvinder Singh’s arthouse Punjabi feature Chauthi Koot. He looks a bit like Alfred Molina; he has the big man’s expressive eyes. Ghalib drapes his sadness like a shawl, taking it with him wherever he goes. The only time he seems slightly happy is when he’s on the road, chatting with puncture repairers, dhaba owners and drivers he knows. Vicky is wonderful in the role, his gruff manner belied by a gentle voice, hinting at the deep reserves of grief in Ghalib and his frustration with his life. “I do this job because this is who I am,” Ghalib tells his boss. “My plight is that this is all I am.”

It's commendable that Milestone doesn’t take its slow burn in the direction of violence—something all too common in Indian cinema. Still, the film’s heaviness holds it back. Ayr’s control is impressive but many of the static frames are dark and just not very interesting (a long conversation between Ghalib and a drunk friend comes to mind). Ghalib’s eventual offer to the family is of a practical nature but has no resonance with the rest of the film. Naming the truckers after legendary poets Ghalib and Pash seem awfully significant—and Ayr leaves it at that. Soni was propelled by incident and conflict. Milestone, for all its formal rigour and moments of observation, stalls by the roadside.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: The Disciple

There’s a stunning scene in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar that shows a young man’s anticipation of failure. Apu is walking with his friend at night, telling him the story of his proposed novel, which is actually his own life story. He paints a rosy picture, right until he says, “Perhaps he has greatness in him, but…” “He doesn’t make it,” his friend says. “That’s right,” Apu replies, smiling. “But it isn’t a tragedy.” He goes on to describe a life lived with the knowledge of unreached potential, but still happy and fulfilling.

In Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, Sharad (Aditya Modak) is Apu’s protagonist before the fall, poised between promise and resignation to ordinariness. He’s 24, a Hindustani classical musician in embryo. He’s a student of Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid), an ageing, largely unsung exponent of the Alwar gharana. He lives with his grandmother in what is, by Mumbai standards, a spacious apartment. In the Indian tradition of guru and shishya, he not only learns from Pradhan but also waits on him, driving him to performances, massaging his aching back and legs.

If you’d seen Tamhane’s first film, Court, and were shown the static opening frame of The Disciple, you might be able to guess who the director is: a medium-long shot a stage show, ceiling fans whirring, the camera at an objective distance from the subject. We see panditji perform, Sharad sitting behind him with the other students and musicians, playing the tanpura. The next scene is Sharad rehearsing the same tune at home with his guru, and we can immediately sense the difference. When the old man sings, it sounds like a gathering storm. Sharad’s efforts are a drizzle. He seems technically sound but doesn’t have the years in his voice.

Is that all he lacks? This is the question that hangs over The Disciple, as we watch Sharad fail to take wing. At a local talent show, away from his teacher, he gives a more uninhibited performances, but fails to make the top three. He’s admonished during a public performance by his guru. Every now and then, he takes off on his bike, interludes shot in eerie slo-mo on curiously uncrowded Mumbai streets. Yet it’s unclear if even this clears his head, given how Tamhane overlays them with the voice of the pandit’s own guru, Maai, who’s brutally honest about the chances of success in the classical world. Sharad has taken on the task of digitizing her lectures, and her frank strictures seem to haunt him.

Working with cinematographer Michał Sobociński, Tamhane has added to his visual repertoire since Court (which itself was strikingly shot). There’s that distinctive precise framing—often static and at a remove, allowing the viewer to take in both subject and surroundings—but also scenes in which the camera is unchained. One of Sharad’s performances is filmed in an unbroken 180-degree arc, a movement as elegant as it is predatory. And when he’s practicing on the roof, the movement of the camera is barely perceptible, as if in congruence with the single, extended notes he’s holding.

“Once an idea has been fully expressed, don’t stretch it further,” Sharad’s guru tells him. The Disciple seems to follow this dictum. Scenes get the time they deserve, whether it’s Sharad masturbating at night in the harsh light of a desktop screen (another kind of frustration) or the extended scene at the open-air restaurant, which rapidly disassembles the film’s gospel truths. The film jumps backwards and forwards in time—though the word ‘jump’ is misleading. The transitions from Sharad as a child to him as a hopeful 24-year-old or a 36-year-old with few illusions are seamless. This too is in keeping with the film’s subject: if Sharad is to devote his life entirely to classical music, it doesn’t really matter at which stage we, the audience, come in.

In one of The Disciple's flashbacks, young Sharad is being coached by his father at home. Their session is interrupted by a friend calling Sharad out to play. I learnt classical music for several years when I was young. I had nothing like the abilities of Sharad, and none of his ambition. Still, this scene brought back memories of friends at the door, asking my mother if I was free for a game of cricket. My choice was always cricket over music. Sharad in the scene chooses play too, but his life becomes music. Yet music doesn’t fully embrace him back. He has greatness in him, but…

This review appeared in Mint Lounge. 

100 reasons to love Ray: His bag of tricks

My piece in Lounge's '100 years of Satyajit Ray' cover. We put together a list of 100 reasons; I've included my entries here at the end.

The general impression of Satyajit Ray is that of an understated, subtle film-maker. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote of his “austere delicacy”. American critic Pauline Kael, one of his biggest supporters outside India, wrote that “his simplicity is a simplicity arrived at, achieved”. Akira Kurosawa said, “His work can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river.” This view of Ray's cinema, while not inaccurate, sometimes obscures the vast array of cinematic tricks he employed to achieve his ends.

Even though the abiding impression Ray’s films give is one of calm, there are moments of memorable agitation. His 1970 film Pratidwandi, far from flowing composedly, careens forward like a raft on rapids. The anger and frustration of its young leads is reflected in the technique: shock edits, freeze frames, flashes of photonegative film—all aimed to unsettle. In one scene, Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chaterji) calls on his sister’s rich boss in his house. When the man shows up, Siddhartha jumps up and shoots him four times. Ray films this at a canted angle, like a B-movie. Barely is the shock over than it’s revealed to be a figment of Siddhartha’s imagination.

Dream sequences show up in several Ray films, and allow him to try out his more outré ideas. The one in Nayak, with Arindam (Uttam Kumar) running through a sea of cash, is perhaps the only Ray scene that could have been directed by Fellini. Compare this with the fever dream of Devi, the father-in-law having a vision of the three eyes of goddess Kali superimposing on Dayamoyee’s face, or with the dance of the ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, six astonishing minutes of cinema trickery combining choreography, stark design, shadow animation and a host of camera effects.

The tag of “simplicity” belies Ray’s fondness for incredibly complex shots. Take the scene in the restaurant in Mahanagar where Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) spies on his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee)—who is having tea with another man—from behind a reflecting pillar. As the camera leaves her table and pans slowly towards Arati, we see her companion and the back of her head reflected on this pillar, and next to that, reflected from another angle, a worried-looking Subrata, the paper he’s reading filling the remainder of the screen. It’s a stunt of a composition, brilliant but not strictly necessary, and one imagines it pleased Ray to be able to pull it off.

The agitprop visual interjections of Pratidwandi find a comic counterpart in the animated character maps of Mahapurush and Seemabaddha, with faces appearing in bubbles and the relationship between them explained like a cartoon. Similarly playful is Shatranj Ke Khilari, which has a potted history lesson narrated by Amitabh Bachchan in which a cartoon Lord Dalhousie eats cherries and the camera zooms in on details in a painting.

While directors, even great ones, often farm out title and credits sequences, Ray channelled his interest in design, illustration and lettering to make his own ones distinctive. At the start of Nayak, horizontal and vertical bars appear, vanish and reappear, forming patterns, to the accompaniment of crashing cymbals and an insinuating, vaguely east Asian theme. It could be the start of a Kurosawa film. But Ray also knew when a simple, direct idea would work best, like in Mahanagar, where the camera follows a single Kolkata tram cable for the entirety of the sequence, or Seemabaddha, where a screen divided down the middle between prosaic moving images and credits anticipates the compartmentalised, time-strapped corporate world we're entering.

There are large and complicated tricks, and small ones that are impossible to forget. Years before Indian censors started slapping tobacco advisories on films, there were two perfect smoke rings in Seemabaddha. The first lingers impertinently in front of Barun Chanda’s face, then seemingly changes its mind and heads back in the direction it came from. The second, blown in retaliation, wafts towards his rival and explodes on his coat sleeve. Volumes have been written about Ray’s humanism and craft, but, like all great artists, he also knew the value of a good parlour trick.

- The shock of hearing Tamil in a Bengali film: one of the many dissonances in Seemabaddha.

- The times when Kapurush becomes noir: shadows, jagged lighting, prowling score, flashbacks cutting up the action, an air of pessimism and the possibility of crime. 

- In Jalsaghar, the contrast between the utter artistry of the performers in Jalsaghar and the louche, drunk, dissolute men in the audience. 

- In Ray’s 1966 detective short story ‘The Emperor’s Ring’, Feluda sings a line from a thumri by emperor Wajid Ali Shah: Jab chhor chaley Lucknow nigari/Kahen haal ke hum par kya guzri. Eleven years later, in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Amjad Khan, playing Shah, sings the same lines. 

- The details in the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri: the very Bengali mix of political and literary figures; the camera jumping from one participant to another as the competition heats up, Jaya willing her object of affection on, Aparna’s graceful surrender to save Ashim’s feelings.  

- Apu telling a friend about his planned novel, about a promising young man who doesn’t make it, but still lives a fulfilling life. One of the most beautiful paeans to failure in all of cinema.

- Om Puri and Smita Patil giggling while dubbing as Ray stands behind them puffing on a pipe in Shyam Benegal’s documentary on the director.  

- Bhupati in Charulata saying, “My favourite smell – that of printing ink”: Ray channeling his childhood memories of his grandfather’s printing press. 

- Hydrolysis, hexahydroxidiamino and a harmonium in Mahapurush.

- Vicky Redmond, affectless and touching as the rabble-rouser Edith in Mahanagar.

- A scene in Apur Sansar – Apu in a field, brushing flowers with his hand – inspiring a similar one in Easy Rider. 

- Apu’s mother seeing fireflies gather above the lake as her strength slowly gives out. 

- The kiss at the end of Ghare Baire: Ray, for once, allowing passions to boil over.

- Figures sped-up like a silent comedy, moving to the beat of Ravi Shankar’s score at the start of Parash Pathar. 

'Minari' and the Korean-American dream

It’s been a muted run-up to the Oscars, a minor but happy by-product of a tumultuous time. The biggest beneficiary of this seems to have been Nomadland, which, after its wins at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, is the clear frontrunner at the Oscars. There is much to admire in Chloé Zhao’s film, especially Frances McDormand’s lead turn, but I wish some of the attention it’s getting would be directed towards another quiet (and, to my mind, superior) Best Picture Oscar contender.

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance film festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It’s the story of a first-generation Korean immigrant couple, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), who move from California to rural Arkansas with their two children, six-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). They find work as chicken sexers—a job Chung’s own father did—and Jacob uses his free time to start a farm, where he plans to grow Korean vegetables. Monica is less enthused about their moving to the middle of nowhere, living in a (stationary) house on wheels, an hour away from a hospital if David’s heart murmur acts up. In one of the early scenes, Jacob digs up a bit of earth and tells his wife it’s why he picked the place. “Because of the dirt colour?” Monica asks incredulously.

After a near miss with a tornado and a big fight (the kids fly in conciliatory paper planes from the other room), the couple decide to invite Monica’s mother in Korea to stay with them. And so the irrepressible Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) enters their lives—much to David’s disgust, who has to share his room and drink a herbal concoction she makes every day. She isn’t anything like his idea of a grandmother; she can’t bake, plays cards and swears. But she’s hardy and resourceful—when she describes the unfussy, adaptable minari plant, she could be talking about herself.

The second time I watched Minari, it occurred me how masterfully constructed Chung’s screenplay is. Little details acquire significance through repetition: the warnings of “Don’t run, David”; the burning of garbage every evening; even the drinking of Mountain Dew. Monica’s deadpan assessment of the new home (“It gets worse and worse”) in Korean is later echoed by her daughter saying, in English, “This just gets better and better.” There’s also a subtle reversal of Hollywood’s tendency to play up the foreignness of immigrant customs. The Yis are regular churchgoers, while Jacob’s helper on the farm, Paul (Will Patton), is a cross-lugging, parable-spouting eccentric. The locals use water diviners; Koreans, Jacob insists, "use their heads". There's also a clear break from the majority of immigrant stories, which tend to focus on problems of assimilation. Minari is more interested in the Yis as individuals and as a family, not representatives of a community narrative.

Like Nomadland, Minari takes its cue from its stubborn protagonist. Jacob is a dreamer—his drive to make the farm a success despite all the setbacks has as much to do with his self-worth as it does with his family (“They need to see me succeed at something for once,” he tells Monica). It’s fascinating to see Yeun, so charismatic in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), play a character with limited charm and a lot of doggedness. There’s a bit of Daniel Plainview in Jacob—except here there’s an equally determined opposite number in Monica. Both Han Ye-ri and Yeun are wonderful: there’s a believability to their fights and their compromises, a relationship past the first flush of love but with great depth of feeling.

Minari’s director is American (the film is loosely based on his experiences growing up), the production company is Plan B and the distributor is A24. Yet, it feels like a foreign film: at least half the dialogue is in Korean, and—Sundance origins notwithstanding—it doesn’t have the rhythms of a Hollywood indie. It’s closer to the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda—it shares his preoccupation with imperfect families, the interior lives of children, flawed fathers and boisterous grandmas. Minari isn’t always fluent: there’s a tendency to throw to Alan Kim (undeniably a charmer) once every few scenes, and the Arkansas residents are painted in the kind of broad strokes that would have been offensive had it been the other way round. But in its quiet way, it expands the ambit of the immigrant film in America. has it at 16/1 to win best film at the Oscars, with Nomadland at 4/1. I know those aren’t great odds, but imagine the scenes—the absolute scenes!—if a Korean-language film wins Best Picture two years in a row.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.