Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alien Story

Review of ‘District 9’ with comments on 'alien' issues it raises and hopes that the film will usher in a new era of filmmaking for Hollywood.

Who is an Alien? In one word - an outsider or the minority. It could be a religious minority, or the ones with a different idea or way of life, culture, or even mindset. Yet, connecting all sorts of alien with a common theme is that even they - no matter the type - live, breathe and feel like the rest of us. And this should be the basis of a humane, compassionate coexistence sans prejudice. This is the basis of Neill Blomkamp’s film ‘District 9’.

There's always something that the majority find fascinating in the minority. In 'District 9', it's technology. In real life, it's either cheap labour, propensity to a certain type of work etc.

The film, of course, takes the literal meaning of the word ‘Alien’ but the issues it raises, are very much a part of every nook and corner of spaceship earth.

A spaceship of alien suddenly floats above Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1980s and just hangs there for three months. When humans finally break into it, they find a million ‘prawn’ looking aliens, malnutritioned and dying on the ship. Humanity gives them shelter and a ghetto - ‘District 9’ - is formed. Yet, these aliens, who look and speak different from humans, are never accepted amidst the human race and a multinational corporation, cheekily and boldly called Multinational United, wants to harness the amazingly advanced weapons technology of these aliens for their own profit.

'District 9' for India would be Kashmir. For USA, after eliminating the original 'District 9' residents, the Red Indians, today it still is every corner of the country where blacks reside. For the world it is an entire continent of Africa - no one cares about the people who reside in the place where humanity originated, but everyone, including India (Indian corporations own millions of hectares of farmlands in Africa, even as they systematically and brutally convert Indian farmlands into industrial wastelands) is interested in what they have to offer.

The story is familiar. The alien race can be looked upon as the Negroes in America who have been ‘used’ by the nation but never fully accepted. Or they can be the Jews in Nazi Germany. Or they can be Muslims in India; or Indians in UK or Australia. All of these connected by one simple basic fact - each is useful to their community, but being in a minority are targeted by the dominant race of the region and never fully understood just because their looks, customs or cultures are different.

Whose responsibility is it then, to try and understand? Should the ‘aliens’ make themselves understood? If yes, then how? You can’t talk to closed minds. Or should the majority try and understand. That is more feasible. Perhaps, the answer is that both should make an attempt. Yet, the easy way taken by the majority in any race or culture, is of neglecting and even targeting ‘aliens’ and blaming them for the problems that beset them. Laziness is perhaps a quintessential human quality.

Hence, Wikus, one of the top managers in MNU, who is given the responsibility to evict the aliens from their ghetto into a settlement away from the city, looks gleeful while unplugging the nutrition supply nesting a swarm of alien babies, thus killing them. He does not see the ‘human’ side of these creatures but looks at them just as a nuisance that have to be curbed and segregated. Yet, his world takes a u-turn when he is accidentally exposed to a liquid from a secret instrument one of the aliens had been building and without his knowing begins turning into an alien himself.

Wickus talks concepts of ownership with a race that does not, unlike dumb humans, know the concept.

To his own company, MNU, he now becomes both a threat and an asset. Asset because MNU has had a huge cache of alien advanced weapons, but are unable to harness them as they are hard coded with alien DNA i.e. only an alien could use them. When Wikus, as part alien, is able to use the weapon, he becomes a multibillion dollar commodity, the most precious man (alien) on earth and everyone wants a pie of him, including a Nigerian militia whose intention is similar to MNUs, to become like the aliens and use the weapons. After Wikus escapes, he is hunted and with his images broadcast across the world; he is left with no friends. In a twist of fate, he retreats to the only place he knows MNU will not come looking for him, District 9.

When the doctor gets to taste his own medicine, he discovers 'humanity'.

Here, he finds an unusual ally in Christopher, the alien he had met the previous day, and exposure to whose instrument altered his own DNA. The two become unlikely partners with different goals, Christopher’s to be able to connect with his mother ship and fly back to his own planet and Wikus to reverse the DNA change and turn human again. Ironically, it is only by turning alien that Wikus becomes human in the true sense and meaning of the word. In the end his transformation to the true side of ‘humanity’ is complete as he is willing to sacrifice himself to save the alien.

The film sounds like a typical Hollywood film. Indeed, in many ways, it is. Yet, with its documentary style of narrative, it pushes Hollywood filmmaking into uncharted territories, explored only by World Cinema before and left untouched by a scared Hollywood despite the commendable success of ‘Blair Witch Project’ and other attempts like ‘Cloverfield’. Had the analogy of the aliens been replaced by say a different race of humans, like the blacks in America, it would have seemed like an entirely true documentary with candid moments, shaky camera, out of focus shots et al. And this is where the film scores a triumph - in not giving this film a ‘sanitised’ look like other sci-fi films like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Matrix’. Instead, the focus is the humanity or the lack of it in humans.

Gregory Peck, plays a reporter who goes undercover posing as a Jew, even when he is not, only to discover the sickening depth to which anti-Semitism runs, in Elia Kazan's Oscar winning masterpiece 'Gentleman's Agreement'. In India, it's still not very different with Muslims being denied basic fundamental rights just because of their religion. But, of course, like in 'Gentleman's Agreement' it is all very conveniently tacit.

The analogies in the film are too obvious for the comfort of any discerning world cinema lover. The landing of the spaceship in South Africa is an obvious statement against the apartheid and segregation of the blacks there. Also, how direct can a filmmaker be in making a statement against capitalism than calling the evil corporation ‘Multinational’ United? The film drives home the point against both racial conflict and capitalism like only Hollywood - the strongest surviving film industry in the world, can. And for the lovers of the perfectly shot and sanitary Hollywood films, it more than manages to create a film that is much more engaging, gritty and real, yet surpassing reality, than any recent film.

‘District 9’ is also a treat for lovers of cool CGI. Yet, the best part about the special effects is that first it is not the focal point of the film and secondly it treats them as if it were child’s play for the filmmakers to create. It is however obvious that the effects were not easy. For one, the aliens, at least the long shot of the aliens, is complete CGI, obvious because the stomach part of the aliens is so thin that it is impossible to do it in rubber or silicon body masks.

The only drawback to the film, from a puritanical perspective, is that it is conventional in parts, especially its ending, where the story is rounded up, something so essential in Hollywood filmmaking. One can guess that that is a compromise the makers had to make. Watching the film makes one glad that they took the chance.

Indians are targeting Muslims, tribals, Kashmiris, lower caste people in India. Indians are being targeted in Australia and UK. Blacks are targeted in the US. Americans are targeted in Muslim countries. Jews are still targeted in many places. The poor are targeted everywhere. Is everyone a freaking alien in this world?

The film borrows from the tradition of 30’s and 40s Hollywood (and the idea resembles ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’) where filmmakers with a conscience ruled the roost and made films that said something. Here the statement is about the minorities of the world, not necessarily based on the looks. The ‘alien’ in India for instance, could be the farmer community, whose suicide does not even ring a bell to the elite who are completely unaware how intricately their lives are intertwined and dependent on them.

The global success of ‘District 9’ will hopefully take commercial filmmaking into yet uncharted territories and inspire it enough to dig into the world of cinema to find out other potent narrative structures that it can borrow to make engaging and powerful films. One only hopes, the sequel, ‘District 10’ which like the alien is arriving in 3 years, would do so as well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

…And Then There Was World Cinema

Here's a li'l piece I had written for a UTV World Movies E-zine. This is perhaps the shortest, yet the most inclusive possible introduction to the World of Cinema. For those of you who are beginners, its like a beginners guide, for those who know, it will reinstate a few lost ideas. Of course I had to leave out more than I could include, but this is a birds eye view of the major trends, which hopefully will inspire you to dive down, and have a closer, more intimate view. Trust me, you'll enjoy every bit of it...

World Cinema is the latest buzz in town, a term which guarantees instant awe when dropped in conversations. Yet ask anyone to define it, and all you’ll get is a vague generalization about ‘art films’ . “So what about creative commercial cinema?” you wonder.

Ask Wikipedia, and it makes ‘World Cinema’ synonymous with ‘Foreign Language Films’. Does that mean that good films made in one’s home country do not belong to World Cinema? You have a lingering doubt that perhaps the truth about World Cinema lies beyond these.

And it does.
The special effects of this 1902 film 'A Trip To The Moon' by a professional magician Georges Méliès , had audiences tripping inside their heads more than what 'Matrix' did for us in our generation. This movie's available for free from Archive.org.

When the Lumiere brothers first made and demonstrated ‘moving images’ to a Parisian crowd in 1895, they weren’t thinking ‘World Cinema’. Neither were the audiences who thronged town fairs across America and Europe and paid a nickel (hence the term nickelodeons) to watch them. Back then, cinema was merely a novelty.
The four musketeers who founded United Artists in 1919, from left to right: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

It was the vision of one man, D W Griffith, that changed this status quo forever in 1915 with ‘The Birth of a Nation’. Besides pioneering numerous cinematic techniques, he is also the first man to shoot in Hollywood.

Though World War I hampered the growth of cinema in Europe, it did not stay far behind. Hence, while Hollywood had its masters in Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton, Europe had its own in Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein and F W Murnau. Yet, as the years went by, Hollywood emerged as the cinema capital of the world.

Then the patron saint of cinema breathed sound into moving images in 1927 with the birth of ‘talkies’. Despite the initial chaos, the result was the Golden Age of Hollywood. Directors and actors worked exclusively with studios, and films were made at assembly-line speed. Yet, directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock made it the most creative filmmaking period ever.
Al Johnson was only playing Nostradamus when he walked on screen in the October of 1927 in the film 'The Jazz Singer' and sang out 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet...', the first words ever heard from a film, heralding the wave of sound films.

For Europe, World War II brought opportunity in the form of adversity, and a new form – Italian Neorealism – took shape. Filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini abandoned the comforts of a studio and took to the streets to shoot films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘La Strada’ that inspired the world, including a certain advertising executive in India named Satyajit Ray, to make ‘different’ films.

In France, a breed of critic-turned filmmakers, who were inspired as much by Hollywood as by Italian Neorealism, took up the baton. Directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard changed cinema with landmark films like ‘400 Blows’ and ‘Breathless’, respectively.

Japan, meanwhile was on a unique tangent. One breed of its filmmakers led by Akira Kurosawa was inspired by Hollywood, while others like Yasuziro Ozu and Mikio Naruse developed their own distinctive style.
More than 40% of films made before the 1940s in Japan are lost forever and nothing remains of them but their names. An unspeakable loss to the world of cinema.

Staying with Asia, the intellectual fervor in Iran in the 1950s and 60s led to a new and gritty kind of literature that fuelled its cinema. The result was the Iranian New Wave, a humanistic approach to filmmaking that blended fiction and documentary styles with directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
and Majid Majidi taking the lead.

Ironically, when good, low-budget films made by the French New Wavers did well in the US, Hollywood was forced into realizing the importance of supporting new talent. The result was the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 70s, with directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

India had its own new wave in the 70s as well, with directors like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan making low-budget but intelligent films whose success challenged the stronghold of the so-called ‘commercial cinema’.
The tremendous success of the low budget, but creative film 'Bhuvan Shome' directed by Mrinal Sen, heralded the Indian New Wave in the 70s, perhaps the most creative filmmaking era India has seen.

This brief history of World Cinema thus brings us to its elusive definition, which is actually deceptively simple. Films that have pushed forward the art and craft of filmmaking with its intelligence and creativity can be classified under the omnibus term World Cinema. And while once there was no need for a separate categorization, this has become necessary today due to the formulaic nature of commercial filmmaking across the world.
Yet, works of commercial but creative filmmakers like Capra or Hitchcock find as much place in the roster of World Cinema as those who made films only for art’s sake, such as Tarkovsky (Russia) or Kieslowski (Poland). Awards given at reputed film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno and Toronto are a good, if only limited, anchor for identifying trends and movements in World Cinema.
World Cinema is inclusive, not exclusive. Hichcock and Capra find as much place here as Tarkovsky and Kieslowski.

Thus, what emerges is an inclusive and even benign class of films and not an obscure and exclusive one as some intellectuals would make us believe. World Cinema, with its good, clean, entertaining, enlightening and provocative appeal, is as much for the ‘masses’ as it is for the ‘classes’. And the world is much the better for it.

(Thanks to Tanmoy Goswami for the wonderful and tight edit.)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

To Teacher, With Love

This is a portion of an article paying tribute to teachers this teachers day that appears in DNA Me, September Issue. To read the full article, do buy a copy.

It is said that a student is not a vase to be filled, but a candle to be lit. And though teachers who inspire the love of learning instead of stuffing minds with information are few, almost all of us have been touched by one such special angel of a teacher who has changed the course of our lives. Cinema has often paid rich tributes to these 'miracle workers', who are often more stubborn than their most adamant students. Here are a few depiction in cinema of teachers, who saw more potential in their students than they or their society dared to see in them.

To Sir With Love (1967)

Sir Fighting His Way Into Their Brains And hearts

How do you teach students who have greater problems in life than education - like poverty, hunger and street violence? The answer is, you don't. At least that's what the teachers of this school do, as they are content with running the school in this impoverished part of London just for namesake. When Mark Thackeray, a young black teacher joins, he is told to do the same. Mark does not think much of the school and the rowdy students (who harass him) either. For he is an engineer and this is just a stop-gap, before he lands his big job. Yet, he tries to do a respectable job out of it. When he fails to connect with the students miserably, something snaps inside him. As he gets involved further into the lives of his unwilling students struggling with daily survival, he realises the stupidity of thrusting conventional education at them. What they need, he realises, is life-affirming, practical education. So, he adopts a flexible approach, talking to them about problems that affect them the most. Slowly, but steadily they not only develop an interest in learning, but in bettering their lives and rising from their harsh surroundings. And the same kids who were once up at arms against him (literally as well), now love him (one even has a crush on him). But, he is offered a high paying, respectable engineers job. Will he take it? We all know the answer to that question as the passionate teacher learns a lesson himself - that it is noble to build buildings, but nobler to construct healthy, able minds with the motivation to face life. The film made Sidney Poitier a sensation and the emotional song 'To Sir With Love' by Lulu (who also acts in the film) climbed to No. 1 on the US charts.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

The Master And Her Masterpiece

An unwilling student can be cajoled into learning by talking or listening to him. But what do you do to a girl who is blind, deaf and mute. That is the momentous challenge Annie Sullivan faces as she gets down to teaching Hellen Keller (now famous), a violent and aggressive girl not too keen to learn, frustrated as she is to be imprisoned within herself. But if Hellen is stubborn, her teacher is doubly so. Using unconventional methods, often being very harsh to her while locked in a battle of ego with such a child, she finally manages to instil and inspire the love of knowledge and that is the miracle of the film. Based on the biography of Hellen Keller, the film has been made into numerous plays, but it is this film with two breathtaking, Oscar winning performances that has stayed in the consciousness of the world and inspired countless copies and remakes worldwide, including 'Black' starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee which in many parts is a scene by scene copy of the original. However, while 'The Miracle Worker' leaves the audience at the moment of discovery by Helen Keller, 'Black' delves further into the life of the protagonist.

Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

His students were his greatest composition. One of the best symphony ever.

It is often hard to forget that the practitioners of the noble profession of teaching are human beings with their own personal aspirations. Glenn Holland is one such man who dreams of composing his own magnum opus that would make him famous. He had taken up the job of teaching music to school children as a backup position that would give him time to compose. He had never imagined that his next 3 decades would be spent in classrooms. The film follows him during this period as he comes to terms with the two frustrations in his life, one of being a failure unable to realise his dream and of having a son, who is deaf. However, with his passionate teaching and by introducing the magic of music into the hearts of his students, he has affected their lives in more ways than he can understand. In the end though he realises that he has not been a failure and that his magnum opus is the inspiration and joy he has brought to the lives of his students, that their better life is the greatest composition he could have ever composed. Richard Dreyfuss as Mr. Holland was nominated for an Oscar in this film that tells the story from the perspective of a teacher, telling us that life is often what happens when we are busy making other plans and that its greatest rewards come at the most unexpected moments.

Dead Poet's Society (1989)

Stand Up Against Conformity - He Taught And They Imbibed

Conformity to tradition is often the chain used to stifle creativity. Respect for customs is necessary for students, but not at the cost of inspiration. This, John Keating (Robin Williams), the new English teacher in a conservative and aristocratic boys school understands and using literature and poetry dares his students to change their lives of conformity. Though initially reluctant, the students one by one, experience their moments of epiphany and self realisation. However the self-actualisation of their potential causes an uproar as it threatens to uproot the established tradition of the school and the families to which the students belong. This creates a war between Keating on one side and the authorities on another and when a student who was forced away from his passion by his parents, commits suicide, blame is put on Keating who is expelled. He goes, but not before getting the greatest reward – the satisfaction of knowing that the lessons of life he imparted to his students, had been learnt. A loose adaptation of this Oscar winning film in Bollywood was the hit 'Mohabattein' starring Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan which reduces this beautiful film into a juvenile love story.

Stand And Deliver (1988)

"A Negative Times A Negative Equals A Positive'' - Mathematic Can Inspire

Mathematics is not a subject particularly liked by most. That it can be used to change the lives of volatile kids and inspire them, would sound like a far-fetched idea to even adults. Yet in 'Stand And Deliver' Jaime Escalante, a dedicated high school teacher, does just that. In a school where rebellion runs high and teachers seem to prefer discipline over academics, Jaime is not liked as he is threatened and taunted. However, using unconventional teaching methods like using props and humour to demonstrate abstract ideas of mathematics, he is able to win them over. When he realises that they can do more, he decides to teach them calculus, much too advanced for their level, over summer class. Despite the conflicts in their disturbed homes between what they aspire to be and the desires of their parents, they find the courage to pull through with the help of Jaime and pass the test. However the school board challenges their score. When Jaime challenges the board, the students are asked to take a retest, with only one day's preparation. The students are surprised themselves when despite the difficulty, they pass thus reaffirming their teacher's and more importantly, their own faith in themselves. Based on a true story, this low budget but uplifting film won audiences over and was nominated for an Oscar.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I'll Wait For Thee, At The Edge Of Eternity

At the far edge of the known universe,
floating through the abyss between death and illusion
traversing the fertile land between morality and happiness
in the silence that separates truth and faith
tiptoeing over the blade that cuts cruelty from compassion
far from the reach of sin or even god
in that heaven between night and day
in the oasis betwixt lust and sorrow
guided by the candle that flickers between life and death
I shall wait for thee my beloved.

But travel light my love
empty your heart, your mind, your soul
Take my hand and we shall walk close
Fill the treasure of our hearts
with pearls from this depth-less sea
Colour our soul with rainbows
etched on a sky without eternity
Stimulate our minds with sights
over a landscapes built by beauty.

Come alone my dear there
Carry none of your precious illusions:
the truth of your daily fears
the breathing mask of your loves seclusion
the lust for truth flowing through your veins
the ideology that sustain your brain.

But do be there fast my sweets
For eternity has an end
Beauty has its ugliness
Infinite passion turns to depression
For the one who has not his lover
to the one whose love is lost.

Hurry and come to me my ray
We'll build our hut out in this melee
And here my sweet innocent love
forever we shall dance our dance of eternity.
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