Sunday, August 24, 2008

71. Indian director Feroz Abbas Khan's Hindi/English film "Gandhi, my father" (2007): A super-human father and his prodigal son

“He is the greatest father you can have, but he is the one father I wish I did not have”—Harilal Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi

“The greatest regret of my life…. Two people I could never convince – my Muslim friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah and my own son Harilal Gandhi.”—Mahatma Gandhi

It was easy for Sir Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi (1982)—he was merely narrating a story of a great individual who walked on this planet not so long ago. Comparatively, it must have been a lot tougher for director Feroz Abbas Khan, making his debut as a filmmaker, to film Gandhi, my father, pitting a shriveled anti-hero against an international hero, both of whom were historically real individuals, and ironically father and son. The events in the film are mostly real. Mahatma Gandhi lived, as shown in the film, setting high moral standards for the world to follow. Yet, these very standards overshadowed the aspirations of his eldest son Harilal to be a lawyer of repute like his father, to complete his education and to get a job in India and, eventually provide income for his nuclear family.

The film does not debunk Gandhi or his ideals. For Gandhi, his mission was larger than his family’s aspirations. While he loved his family and cared for them, his thoughts for appeasing their aspirations were blinkered by his ideal of caring for the masses. He stood for equality and dignity among all persons and, in his view, to give special undue advantages to his own son overlooking other deserving persons went against the basis of what he preached. The film looks at an unusual case of parenting—where an idealist parent places receding goalposts for a less-than-brilliant offspring wanting to make his own life away from his father's shadow.

The film presents an unusual scenario that really happened. A son marries his childhood sweetheart, upsetting his father. The father upsets his son’s educational aspirations at several key junctures keeping his own interests at heart. The fragile link between a devoted son and a father breaks, as the son wants to stand on his own feet and care for his nuclear family. While the father gradually becomes the father of a nation, the essentially good son stumbles in his valiant quest for identity and survival. His marriage breaks down and he seeks solace in religion, buffeting between Islam and Hinduism. Through all his tribulations his link to his mother remains, until she chides him for being drunk, when he comes to meet her.

Feroz Khan is essentially a director of plays making his foray into cinema. He wrote and directed the play Mahatma vs. Gandhi that had considerable impact on the Indian theater community. The play and the consequent film were based on two biographies, one by Chandulal Dalal and another by Nilamben Parekh. The success of the staged play was a good reason for the commercial Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor to produce this noteworthy film. Every time a good director of plays attempts to direct cinema there is an evidence of a lack of confidence with the medium. For instance, the British stage personality Peter Brook is a great director of plays, but less competent as a director of films.

The opening shots of Khan’s film promises great cinema—a derelict Harilal Gandhi is brought to Sion Hospital, Bombay (now Mumbai) barely mumbling that his father is Bapu (the popular name of Mahatma Gandhi), father to an entire nation. The hospital authorities do not recognize him to be Mahatma Gandhi’s eldest son, dying in poverty bathed in loneliness.

Apart from the dramatic opening, the film unfortunately merely presents a great story and some superb exterior shots of father and son meditating in silhouette. For an Indian film it does present some high production qualities that go hand in hand with a lack of interest for details (the clothes of most Indians in the film seem dust-free and freshly laundered, actors have somewhat modern hairstyles, and even actor Shefali Shetty playing Mohandas Gandhi’s wife a century ago has styled eyebrows), the bane of Indian cinema. Since Feroz Khan is a theater personality, he has invested much more effort in working with the actors in developing the characters rather than on cinematic details, somewhat like Sir Richard Attenborough, also a product of theater (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), who invested considerable attention to performances and detail and less on the virtues of the cinematic medium in his Oscar-winning film on Gandhi.

Knowing quite well that to criticize Gandhi in any manner was asking for trouble, even when there was no direct criticism in the film, producer Anil Kapoor took a remarkable decision of not putting up posters of the film at accessible heights in India, fearing that some one could tear the poster or disrespect it intentionally or unintentionally.

With all its mix of greatness and faults, Gandhi, my father throws several questions at the viewer. Is a mother-son bonding stronger than a father-son bonding in parenting? Is one’s immediate family less important than humanity at large? Does one seek refuge in religion and alcohol only when worldly troubles are encountered? In this film, Harilal buffeted by adversities runs from one religion to another, while his father quotes scriptures “Forgive them for they know not what they do” when beaten and thrown on the ground by a South African policeman, convinced of the value of religion and convincing others as well.

The film won the Best Actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for Shefali Shetty (Shah) and an Indian national award (2007) for best screenplay. Director Feroze Khan and producer Anil Kapoor have handled a sensitive subject very well and elicited above-average and worthy performances from the ensemble of actors. I do hope the international success of the film paves the way for some able director to film another brilliant Indian play--Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq--some day meeting international quality standards.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

70. US film director Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957): Rich in content and relevance

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

--Thomas Gray's poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard

Here’s a significant black and white film from the master director Stanley Kubrick that only a small section of his fans find interesting enough to discuss. Made half a century ago Paths of Glory is a movie that film goers might find relevant even to this day. It was not a runaway box office success. It’s an anti-war film that has a political relevance for any country that pushes its foot soldiers to fight suicidal battles for the glory of politicians and generals. And the most surprising element of the film is that the film loosely describes events that actually transpired in France. Consequently this 1957 film was not shown in France until 1975, and in Spain until 1986.

Set in Europe during the First World War, the movie is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. After the book made an impact on film director Stanley Kubrick, the film rights of the book was purchased by Kubrick and his friends for a modest sum of $10,000. Cobb’s novel describes a historical event that took place because some French generals decided to derive glory for themselves during the war by pushing soldiers in the trenches to attempt a suicidal attack on an enemy position. Once the decision is taken by the generals, the orders are passed down the pecking order, from general to colonel, from colonel to major, from major to corporal. The suicidal strike does take place, some die, and many fall back under the fire from enemy lines. A general, even under these circumstances, is only thinking of cornering glory in the pages of history and urges soldiers under him to fire on their own positions, despite protests from his officers. The attack is a fiasco and the angry general forces his officers to provide names of three soldiers who did not advance in the battle so that they would face court martial and death, if found guilty.

The film delves into how three unfortunate soldiers were picked by their superiors to face the military court and how they did not get a fair trial and are shot by a firing squad.

That’s only the framework of the story that Kubrick used to build a film that asks inconvenient questions of the viewer. Kubrick and Cobb underline the difference between the generals who are waltzing with their spouses while the poor foot soldier is worried if he will ever see his wife again. Those in power enjoy, while the poor are pawns caught in the games the powerful play to bring glory to themselves.

Kubrick’s taut screenplay shows interaction between a general and the foot soldiers in the trenches. Three of the soldiers the general chooses to speak to are the very same individuals who are made the scapegoats at the military court and shot to death for no fault of theirs. Are all of us who do not enjoy economic freedom, slaves to a system that is not fair and just? The content of this film somehow anticipates Kubrick's and Kirk Douglas' next project, Spartacus, a film that was not planned at the time Paths of Glory was being made.

The film has shades of existential colors. One of the condemned men compares his life and the life of an insect: “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.”

At several points in the film, the screenplay underlines the reality that a junior ranking officer can never blow the whistle on a senior officer’s misdeeds and get away with it. The ending of the film that Kubrick was toying with was a happy one—but the lead actor Kirk Douglas prevailed and made the ending a philosophical and a tragic one. This is perhaps one of the few examples in cinema history when an actor contributed so positively to a film. The film with a happy ending could have made more money but wouldn’t have been comparable in merit and strength as this one.

The viewers today can approach the film as an intelligent anti-war film in the league of Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line. Yet, remove the element of war and what happens in Paths of Glory could happen in an office, in a university, in politics, or on the playing field.

If we study the film closely the film it is basically a story of men. But the men are always thinking about women. And a woman’s (a German, a representative of the army they were fighting) song in a dehumanizing situation transforms the leering soldiers into men recalling their wives, mothers and daughters. The dehumanizing situation of the woman is not far removed from those of the three innocent soldiers killed by a firing squad. The lady who sang the song became Mrs. Kubrick.

Philosophically the film asks the viewer whether all the various paths of glory in life lead to the grave. And as the Thomas Gray poem that provided the title of the book suggests: death is a great equalizer. The tragic twist at end of the movie underlines this dark facet of life

Many critics have praised the performances in this film. Ralph Meeker and Timothy Carey as two of the condemned men and the fascinating actor Adolph Menjou and George Macready as the Generals provided sterling performances. (Macready’s performance in Tora! Tora! Tora! was probably a notch better) Kirk Douglas had a role that any good actor could have taken advantage of—my guess is that had Richard Burton been finally cast in the role, as Kubrick initially planned, the film would have been richer. But then if Douglas was not there, we might have lost the tragic end of the film. (Douglas’ finest acting credentials surfaced in my opinion in the little praised 1969 film of Elia Kazan called The Arrangement.)

Paths of Glory is a film that never won an Oscar or a major film festival award. Yet, it marked the beginning of a series of great films by Kubrick. To Kirk Douglas’ credit, he is quoted as saying way back in 1969: “There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now” How true!