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Director/Screenwriter: Karan Gour
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 2011 Chicago International Film Festival had a special focus on South Asia that was a particularly welcome addition to the films on offer. CIFF has a tendency to be top-heavy with European—especially French—films, and India never seems to have more than a couple of slots in any given year. One of the Indian films I wanted to see but didn’t find space for was Karan Gour’s debut film Corrode. The intriguing premise—the growing obsession of a woman for the figure of the goddess Lakshmi—fed into my interest in religion and women’s issues. Fortunately, I got another opportunity to see this film recently, and found that it tracked favorably with another favorite 2011 CIFF film of mine, Southwest, another gorgeously photographed, black-and-white film with a spiritual dimension and birth at its center.
The central protagonist is a young, married artist named Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) whose first appearance on screen bodes ill for her future. She picks up a sharp, triangular rock and tosses it into the road; a car racing by catches the corner of the rock and flings it back at Chhaya, gashing her face. She wanders into a shop where statues are carved, many of them for a Bombay festival during which they will be thrown into the sea. A large, as-yet-unpainted sculpture of Lakshmi mesmerizes Chhaya. When she asks the young sculptor (Adityavardhan Gupta) how much the statue costs, he quotes a price far outside her budget: “We don’t bargain here.” With reluctance, she leaves her Lakshmi behind, but like the rock that opened her flesh, this object has left its mark, one that will last beyond the end of the film.
Corrode is masterful in its economic storytelling and projection of mood and emotion. We recognize immediately the love between Chhaya and her husband Arvind (Alekh Sandal) in only two brief scenes—Chhaya telling Arvind she is perfectly happy with the life he has given her, though it is apparent that they are barely making it, and the couple’s thrill and curiosity during her pregnancy. We also watch Chhaya’s maternal instinct in full flower when she is asked to babysit a neighbor’s infant for a few hours. Her playful baby talk and careful construction of a cradle from a bedsheet are sweet and very endearing.
Chhaya and Arvind’s tragedy is her miscarriage and resulting infertility, and we can see that for her it is a fathomless void that she believes only Lakshmi can fill. Director Gour emphasizes this absolutism by shooting in black and white and having Chhaya prefer the statue in its unpainted state. The whites are so pure, and the blacks are so dark that Chhaya will do anything to get the money to possess her Lakshmi.
The irony loaded into this film cannot be missed by anyone familiar with Hinduism and what the goddess Lakshmi represents. Devotees pray to Lakshmi for prosperity and fertility, and she is thought to bring good luck. It is natural that Chhaya would appeal to Lakshmi to make her fertile again, and a well-meaning neighbor (Nitika Anand) said that she knew a woman who became pregnant through Lakshmi’s intercession. The truth is that Chhaya’s unresolved grief causes her to pursue a cure that is worse than the illness. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, but counting on a supreme being to make everything better offers a blind and dangerous hope, one we see played out on the larger world stage every day. In fact, far from prosperity, Chhaya’s obsession destroys what litte she and Arvind have, and the love he bears for her in trying to help her would have been better directed at finding her a good psychiatrist. Sadly, for those on the precarious edge of the working class, as Chhaya and Arvind are, psychiatry is financially out of reach. Unfortunately, it appears that religion is just as expensive, and Chhaya feels not so much faith as desperation.
Corrode is a film that lingers in the mind, in part due to its brilliant cinematography. I’m more and more impressed with the results that can be achieved with newer generations of HD cameras and processes, in this case a Sony HDR FX7, shot on HDV 50i and converted to 25p in post-production to give it a rich, near-nitrate look. The many close-ups of the expressive leads in the film seem to pierce into their souls, and the actors seem very comfortable working in such close quarters. This film is well worth a look.
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Producer/Director: Ashvin Kumar
2011 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If my life depended on my knowledge of the Asian subcontinent, I’d be playing a very off-key harp somewhere out there in the universe. That’s why the CIFF’s “Spotlight South Asia” is such a welcome addition to this year’s festival, providing emerging voices from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a much-needed showcase and giving people like me a chance to better understand this ancient and volatile region. My first foray into the “Spotlight” offerings, Inshallah, Football, was massively eye-opening, even as it told a story that’s all too familiar throughout the world today.
Basharat Baba is a very talented soccer player from the Srinagar district of Kashmir who has been recruited to live the dream of all aspiring soccer players—to train for and compete on a professional team in Brazil. But the Indian government won’t grant his request for a passport. Why? Herein lies the sad reality that has plagued Kashmir. This predominantly Muslim state has been trying to exercise its legal sovereignty since its forced occupation by Indian troops beating back Pakistani forces trying to control Kashmir following the 1947 Indian Independence Act that created the two independent countries. In Basharat’s case, his father’s past as a Pakistani-trained militant in the 1980s and 90s has put him on a government blacklist—the sins of the father, so to speak, preventing Basharat from realizing his dream.
Inshallah, Football provides helpful title cards that familiarize viewers with the facts and issues of the region, but there are some universal truths about the human condition that get a thorough airing as well. The dismantling of the British Empire left traditional political structures that existed before the British arrived in shambles in many parts of the world besides India and made land grabs in the name of security rather commonplace, for example, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The paradox of structurally democratic nations heavily oppressing a minority population is also easily recognizable as the paranoia of power desperate to keep it. That such oppression breeds militants who are denied their rights is no surprise, nor is blacklisting of future generations of perceived enemies of the state.
Ironically, the film shows Basharat to be a young man very much like any in the world. He asks a pretty girl for her phone number even as he maintains a steady relationship with another girl, he hangs out with his friends and engages in some playful rough-housing, he becomes childishly stubborn when faced with the need for compromise, and he doesn’t understand why he is being punished for something he didn’t do. Basharat is lucky; he was given the chance to join a soccer academy run by Juan Marcos Troia and his wife Priscilla, who moved from Argentina to start a feeder system for talented Kashmiri youth to soccer clubs throughout the world. If he hadn’t gotten that chance, it is likely that he might have been one of the angry youths, their faces hidden, who throw stones at the Indian troops who dog their every move with random arrests, harassment, and “defensive” volleys of tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.
That possibility was his father Bashi’s worst nightmare. Bashi’s life as a militant had been filled torture, imprisonment, and separation from his loved ones. It was also an adventure and one in which Bashi committed his share of crime and violence. He talks movingly of the night he thought he would die—the warden of the dreaded Papa 2 prison, Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib, told him, “You know the policy now is capture and kill for militants. You were lucky you were captured at home.” Bashi is quite unemotional about his militant days; he has moved on, and is now a successful real estate developer.
The Indians show no such signs of moving on, and the cause for which Bashi fought and so many others died is a long way from won. I was absolutely floored to learn that Kashmir is the world’s most heavily militarized occupied zone, with 500,000 Indian troops holding back a perceived threat from Pakistan. It’s hard to understand why the Marcos Troias want to live in Kashmir, but they are a pair of do-gooders the Indian government should welcome for reducing militancy and sending Kashmiris out of the country. Unaccountably, this affable, loving couple had their visas revoked at the end of the film; while they won a one-year extension at the last minute, I have to think that director Kumar’s own run-ins with the occupying Indians caused them this unwarranted trouble. Inshallah, Football lost three appeals with the censor board, and finally won an A (Adult) rating, normally reserved for films depicting extreme violence or graphic sex, thus limiting its exhibition potential in India. Fight the power by seeing this important documentary and sharing your thoughts widely.
Inshallah, Football will screen Thursday, October 13, 5:00 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 12:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St. It will show Sunday, October 16, 8:00 p.m. at the University of Chicago’s DOC Films, 1212 E. 59th St.
George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Have you ever wondered why the majority of prison wardens in the United States who have participated in executions are against the death penalty? Have you ever thought about why individuals who were about to be executed used to give their executioner a coin? The answer to the first question is that these wardens know that innocent people have been put to death, and they want no part of it. The answer to the second question is that the coin was a token of forgiveness to a person with a morally ambiguous job to do. Veteran Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan uses parallel stories to show the tragedy that is capital punishment.
The year is 1941, a time of social foment in India. Kaliyappan (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) is a hangman in Travancore (now part of the state of Kerala) at the southern tip of India. His willingness to do this distasteful job has afforded him many privileges from the Maharajah, including a house and fields to tend. Nonetheless, he carries a heavy burden. He has learned that one of the people he hanged was innocent. The guilt has driven him to heavy drinking. It has driven his son Muthu (Sunil) to seek guidance from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi.
The scene switches to a classroom of girls. A trickle of blood runs down one girl’s leg, and she starts to cry. The girl, Mallika (Reeja), has just begun her very first menstrual cycle. Later, at her home, many people are gathered to perform the rituals welcoming her into womanhood. Mallika is delighted with the attention and the new regard people show for her. After a glancing look between her and her brother-in-law, we return to Kaliyappan’s story.
On the road, an official finds himself stuck on the wrong side of a creek. Two villagers who encounter him inform him that he can wade across. The official, smartly dressed in a white uniform, curls his lip with distaste. The villagers end up carrying him across the creek and then inform him once they learn he is looking for Kaliyappan that he could have made the approach using the road. This interlude imitates the comedic moments found in Shakespearean tragedies.
Upon reaching Kaliyappan’s home, the official reads the decree that a new execution has been ordered. Kaliyappan is beside himself with grief, and complains that he is unwell. The official is unsympathetic. One simply does not postpone a hanging. The reason was made clear by the gossiping villagers who carried the official across the creek—the Maharajah absolves himself of guilt over the hanging by sending a full and complete pardon that is timed to reach the jail after the execution takes place!
Kaliyappan prepares ritually for the job ahead, purifying himself night and day with water and prayers to Kali, the wild and wrathful Hindu goddess and consort of Shiva the destroyer. Because Kali represents duality–destruction and creation–Kaliyappan is said to have the ability to cure the sick. He suspends the noose of his most recent victim above his altar to Kali. When a villager comes to him for a cure, he cuts a bit off the noose, burns it at the altar, and anoints the sufferer with the ashes. Now that a new execution has been ordered and Kaliyappan is praying feverishly and filling himself with the spirit of Kali, villagers start flocking to him for cures. By the time the officials come to take him to the site of execution, he is literally and figuratively at the end of his rope.
Once again, Kaliyappan tries to beg off due to illness. He does indeed look extremely ill. The official insists that he go, and that Muthu accompany him. A rueful look passes between father and son as they climb into a tiny, covered cart and are escorted to the execution site. Upon their arrival, Kaliyappan is fed drink after drink, which makes him sleepy. The rules say that he cannot sleep the night before an execution because his victim certainly will not be able to sleep. Two guards begin telling him classical stories, but these are too boring to keep Kaliyappan awake. One of the guards, after expressing doubt about the propriety of telling a story not prescribed by the rules, begins to relate the case of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. We return to Mallika’s story and become immersed in her short life of innocent love with an orphaned boy and her brutal end at the hands of her obsessed brother-in-law. An even more shocking revelation follows the story. In the end, Muthu the pacifist takes his father’s place on the gallows.
Gopalakrishnan takes his time setting the stage for this drama. Kaliyappan, his family, his habits, and his surroundings are lovingly captured to help us empathize with a man we might have dismissed as a repugnant drunk who exchanges state-sanctioned murder for material comfort. Every frame is like a painting, emphasizing the beauty and timelessness of this lush, tropical land and contrasting it with the dark environments of the people who inhabit it. In this way, Gopalakrishnan brings the spirit of Kali to life for us visually.
But he doesn’t refrain from shining a light on the very real social problem of capital punishment. The cynicism of the Maharajah, the careerism of the official who will not lose his job over a postponed execution, the soul-destroying toll it takes on the hangman, and the miscarriages of justice are all in plain view. Setting the film in 1941 has a slight distancing effect, however, and initiating Muthu forcibly into state-sanctioned slaughter seems heavyhanded, though plausible.
The parallel story structure also allows us to empathize with the feelings of the victim’s family in a way we did not expect to. We would think they would want to have revenge, but instead they choose to back up the murderer’s story so as not to leave their other daughter a widow, which was a horrible fate for an Indian woman at that time. They seem content to discard an innocent life in the process–perhaps the beliefs in reincarnation and the caste system make this more tenable in Indian society. However, we never get to see their reaction, so it is difficult to judge whether we are getting a true picture of family attitudes toward the murderers of their kin.
I have two other reviews on this site that deal with capital punishment. Deadline is a documentary about the death penalty, and Chicago features the hanging of an innocent woman convicted of killing her husband primarily because she was poor and couldn’t speak English. Joining them, Shadow Kill is a very fine fiction about this timely and troubling topic from a land exotic and beautiful, dark and familiar.