Thursday, August 27, 2015

182. Indian director Anand Gandhi's debut film “Ship of Theseus” (2012): A remarkable thought-provoking, non-commercial film from India

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had 30 oars, and was preserved by the Athenians, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
-- Plutarch (Greek historian, 45-120 A.D.)
Ship of Theseus is an unusual and a philosophical film from India. It deals with an interesting philosophical subject that Plato and Socrates debated, philosopher John Locke postulated replacing the ship with a torn sock, and Jules Verne used in his story Dr Ox’s Experiment.

It is unusual for several reasons.

First, much of the film Ship of Theseus is in English and, that too, in good spoken English, and represents visuals of mostly emerging urban India.  

Second, it is not a big budget film (made with less than the equivalent of US$ 0.19 million as per IMDB, a fraction of what it takes to make a commercial Indian film in Bollywood) and yet has good technical quality--quality that earned it international awards. The sound design  is credited to a talented Hungarian duo who did sound design of British director Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009) and two of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s films The Turin Horse (2011) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). 

Third, one segment of the movie has as an actress Aida El-Kashef, an Egyptian filmmaker, who filmed the famous Tahrir Square protests in her country. Her performance in Ship of Theseus won her the Best Actress award at the Dubai International Film Festival, and the Best Supporting Actress Award at the 61st Indian National Film Awards.  

Fourth, the film, which does not have any commercial trappings, was released briefly in major theatres in India and subsequently won the country’s top national award, the Golden Lotus, in 2014 for the best feature film of the year. The film also picked up awards for the Best Film at the Transylvania film festival. A dream achievement indeed for a debut filmmaker from India! 

And finally, Ship of Theseus is a rare work of cinema that highlights ancient Jainism as a religion that sprouted in India and continues to be a way of life of millions, even to this day.

Plutarch’s conundrum is placed before the viewer by director Anand Gandhi, and his two co-scriptwriters Khusboo Ranka and Pankaj Kumar, by presenting three disconnected modern tales on human organ replacement to extend the concept of aging parts of the fabled ship of Theseus being replaced with new parts until all its original parts are replaced . Each of the three segments of the film Ship of Theseus approaches the effects of the physical replacement with different perspectives. 

The blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) capturing urban India
on camera aided by sounds 

In the first  segment, an almost blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) clicks away with her camera, using intuition, touch and sounds to come up interesting photographs that are eventuially exhibited as art. On regaining her sight, the photographer reviews her blind work. The concept of “good creative“ art, once applauded, is reassessed by its creator, post her critical organ transplant.

Barefoot Jain monks meditating on the sea front captured against the backdrop
of a recently constructed  bridge in Mumbai 

In the second  segment of the film, a well-educated, well-read Jain monk Maitreya (played by theatre actor Neeraj Kabi) spearheads a legal war against the torture of animals for the benefits of medical research of the pharmaceutical industry. The very same medical world points out that Maitreya’s liver has cirrhosis and needs to be treated with drugs or even replaced. As with most Jain monks, for whom the concept of “Santhara” or fasting to death is an option, Maitreya has to choose between what his religion, which he has practised over decades promotes, and an option of modern medication combined with organ transplants. (The concept of “Santhara” has been in the news in recent days as an Indian court ruled it to be similar to abetment of suicide, provoking Jains to point out that it conflicted with their fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.) The option before Maitreya is not a Hobson’s choice. However, Maitreya’s  final decision in the film makes one rethink about all our own moral stands, not just his. What director Gandhi’s film asks is if a critical organ transplant can change the views of a well-read, ethical person as well.

Wrecked and junked cars are a metaphoric backdrop for a converstion on
the illegal human organ trade 

The third segment of the film Ship of Theseus deals with the growing problem in India where the poor and the uneducated are robbed of their organs without their knowledge by a growing organ transplant villains who sell their spoils to unsuspecting rich clients worldwide who need the organ to survive. In this segment, Gandhi’s film questions the ethics and morality among the world of organ recipients, the organ robbers and the amazing evolutionary changes in the views of morality of those who were actually robbed of their critical organs. A young bright stockbroker Navin (Sohum Shah) stumbles on the larger story of unethical human organ transplants and tries to help a poor labourer, who was robbed of an organ unwittingly. But the outcome of his efforts is even more thought provoking.

Young Anand Gandhi brings all the three protagonists of his film Ship of Theseus together reprising what the famous Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had done at end of Three Colours Red (his final part of the trilogy, made in 1993-4) by bringing the critical characters of Three Colours Blue, Three Colours White and Three Colours Red briefly by a seeming cosmic coincidence. Kieslowski showed the characters as lucky survivors of a boat tragedy, but Gandhi shows his varied characters as lucky survivors of the organ transplant medical operations in India. In Kieslowski‘s three celebrated films, a key character always cried at the end. In young Gandhi’s film, no one sheds tears as the characters from the three segments watch a film together on caves and the exploration of the unknown, a visual metaphor of the film in itself.

Anand Gandhi and Aida El-Kashef have won accolades at international film festivals for their respective contributions to Ship of Theseus. Equally creditable is the contribution of cinematographer and co-scriptwriter Pankaj Kumar, whose talents are quite evident. Several handheld photographic sequences of the film such as the sequences  involving extremely narrow and winding approaches to the labourer’s living quarters and the exterior shots of the peripatetic monks against modern windmills and electric pylons taken from another high vantage point, ask questions of the viewer the effect on the rapid changes in Indian society on past beliefs and social views that also relate to the same primary Ship of Theseus conundrum. Pankaj Kumar won awards for his contribution as a cinematographer for Ship of Theseus at the Transylvania film festival, the Tokyo International Film festival, and at the Mumbai International Film Festival. The talented Pankaj Kumar has subsequently moved on to commercial mainstream Bollywood cinema working on films such as Haider and Talwar. Ship of Theseus also brought to the limelight a fascinating stage actor Neeraj Kabi, who plays the Jain monk in the middle segment of the film. Kabi, according to reports lost 17 kg in weight, over 5 months, to enact the starving monk. Actors such as Kabi are rare to come by and he was spectacular in his role. 

The movie Ship of Theseus not merely raised the quality of contemporary Indian cinema but proved that good cinema can be made with low budgets, if truly talented people made the film. Most importantly, it is a rare film made in India that forces the viewer to think about philosophy rather than provide escapist entertainment. Such films do not just win international awards but provide quality entertainment for the discerning viewer. Evidently, it was not considered as an Indian entry for the Oscars because the film is in English, which eliminated it from being considered in the foreign film category. Young Anand Gandhi needs to be congratulated for roping in the rich talent from diverse fields to make his remarkable debut film with a limited budget.

P.S. Indian cinema has seen some young filmmakers accomplishing interesting works with limited budgets in recent years. Sudevan’s CR. No. 89 (2013) is one such film made in Malayalam language reviewed earlier on this blog. Another is Praveen Morchale’s Barefoot to Goa (2015) in Hindi, also reviewed earlier on this blog.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

181. US director John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) based on his own original script: A creditable tale about entertainment, ambitions, and reality

I won't call my work entertainment. It's exploring. It's asking questions of people, constantly. 'How much do you feel? How much do you know? Are you aware of this? Can you cope with this?' A good movie will ask you questions you don't already know the answers to. Why would I want to make a film about something I already understand? 
There is no reason why a serious film, one about life, can't be enjoyable, maybe even fun. Emotions can be very entertaining, you know. I try to use them generously in my films.

                                                              --John Cassavetes, on his own films

If this critic were asked to list his favourite US filmmakers, the first would be Orson Welles, the second Terrence Malick, and the third John Cassavetes. And while each work of Cassavetes as a film director is admirable, his The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a wee bit more fascinating than the rest.

The late John Cassavetes was an amazing man.  First, he arrived in the world of  cinema playing impressive roles in front of the camera, specifically in three films: Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He proved that he could act and be remembered for his performances, big and small.

Cosmo (Ben Gazzara). in his limousine, at the height of his success

Then Cassavetes, the director, came into focus of film viewers—a man committed to making films that portrayed reality without interference from the big studios that often lead to artistic compromises. Cassavetes carefully ploughed back what he earned as compensation for his acting in front of the camera to make his own independent films, based on his original screenplays in which he would often be behind the camera both as director and un-credited cinematographer. He even handled the distribution of his films. The big Hollywood studios had little or no role in his films.

Each Cassavetes film proved to be different and it is not easy to find out why he chose to write the script of each work, so distinct, so original, and so honest.  Cassavetes soon established himself as a notable American director, arguably in the league of the immensely talented Orson Welles. Like Welles, Cassavetes was an actor, a director and his own original screenplay writer. And unlike Welles who had proved his genius on the radio waves, on the stage and in cinema, Cassavetes was focussed solely on cinema; one that projected reality and not make believe. His films captured emotions and subtle human interactions of ordinary Americans, often including morally upright losers. The spoken lines were often improvised in his films. The plot mattered less than the irony of situations and human reactions to each situation.   He was the epitome of the independent filmmaker in USA. Moreover, his cinema importantly side-stepped even covert racism—all human beings were equal socially and politically in the cinema of Cassavetes (most obvious in his debut film Shadows and later in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). His love for cinema was so great that he entirely reshot Shadows, initially made in 1958 and appreciated by critic-cum-filmmaker Jonas Mekas, replacing the improvised dialogue with a proper script. His commitment to making honest cinema even forced him to hypothecate his home as collateral for monetary loans to first make and then distribute his films independently to movie halls without big studios to back him.

Cosmo: A good man trapped and alone with a gambling debt

Why is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes’ best work? Many viewers might find the movie to be below average cinema, especially if they go by the title and expect to see a noir gangster film.  But The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a typical gangster film, though it does include a killing and is a tale that involves gangsters.  More than a gangster film it is a bleak tale of a strip club owner called Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), who has clawed his way to the top of his personal goal to fulfil his dream of running a club that is financially viable and debt free. Cosmo Vitelli introduces himself thus:  “I'm a club owner. I deal in girls”. Notably Vitelli is not racist, he is closest to a black family.

Vitelli and the real life Cassavetes are people with their own personal visions of dedication to providing  entertainment and are honest individuals who apply a moral code to their actions.
Both the character Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the director Cassavetes in real life love to control what they dish out as entertainment.  Says Cosmo Vitelli to the patrons at his club  "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his De-lovlies will be along in a moment. My name is Cosmo Vitelli; I’m the owner of this joint, I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” The entire plot of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the very name of the Club in the film, “Crazy Horse West” are evident metaphors for the director Cassavetes’ own struggles for his own dream of making his own films the way he wanted without compromises where he is in complete control over all the details of his films, just as Vitelli is in control of “Crazy Horse West.”  The fictional Vitelli and the real Cassavetes have parallel objectives and yet do differ.

Cosmo, an honorable man, always pays off his debts 

Vitelli achieved his life’s ambition of owning a successful debt –free club, having his club’s star ladies accompany him publicly, travelling in a limousine with a well-attired chauffeur, and doling out gifts to those who helped him reach those heights of “style.” In the film, he corrects his chauffeur Lamarr that he, Vitelli, now has “Style, not class.” At the height of his success, Cosmo Vitelli  boasts “I've got a golden life. Got the world by the balls. That's right, I'm great... I am amazing.”

Those familiar with literature would pick up the familiar signals of hubris at this juncture in the film. When there is hubris, there is a fall that follows. Vitelli’s fatal flaw is gambling. At the peak of his achievements, he borrows $23,000 from gangsters to pay off a gambling loss.  And his life, unlike that of the real life Cassavetes, spirals downwards because Vitelli is a man of honour and will pay back his debts as he has always done before while retaining ownership of his Club.

Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts), entertains at the club,
without sophistication, as Cosmo wills it

Cassavetes is very clear about one fact: his film is not about the gangsters who twist Vitelli’s arm to kill a Chinese bookie to pay off his $23,000 debt, his film is about Cosmo Vitelli, his love for his dream strip club, and his steadfast desire to pay off his debts, as required. He is not a killer, but he can kill if he has been driven to do so. Even while going about his killing assignment, he stops at a pay phone to enquire about his club’s affairs and sorts out a minor problem by a singing a song over the phone.  The killing is less important to Cosmo Vitelli than his club working well. Thus those who are looking for a typical noir film or an action gangster film will be disappointed.  The gangsters are seen minimally but never emphasized. For Cassavetes, the film is not about the killing but all about Cosmo Vitelli reaching his life’s aspirations and then having to lose it all—all for a game of cards.

There is more to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie than what meets the eye. Cosmo Vitelli’s club is often playing the song "I can't give you anything but love." At the end of the film you hear the song again. Cosmo Vitelli’s life is embodied in those words. He had given that love indirectly to his employees in his cloaked speech of the inevitable end when he said with a grin and a swagger while a bullet was still lodged in his body: “ ‘cause what's your truth... is my falsehood.  What's my falsehood is your truth and vice versa. Well, look. Look at me, right? I'm only happy when I'm angry... when I'm sad, when I can play the fool... when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” Cosmo Vitelli’s last contrasting statements in the film follow in the same vein: "I’ve never felt better in my life,” followed by “I don’t feel too hot.” 

An important aspect of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is its deliberate avoidance of glorifying the bad guys and reducing on-screen conversation of the gangsters to the minimum. The discomforting film is not about a killing or about gangsters, but rather a film about an honest achiever, who loses everything due to a fatal tragic flaw in his character. What happened to Cosmo Vitelli at his peak of his success could happen to the best of us. Cosmo Vitelli is a loser, as most characters in a Cassavetes film are. With all his flaws and even as a killer, Cosmo Vitelli emerges as a good man and an anti-hero. Cassavetes leaves it to the perceptive viewer to imagine what is not shown. He was not bothered if a viewer misconstrued the lack of unnecessary details for a lack of quality or capability. It is a rare American film director who can do that in every film he makes.