In Circus of Books And A Secret Love, On Netflix, Love Overpowers Sexuality

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

October is observed as LGBTQ History month across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Greenland, Hungary, and the city of Berlin. But that shouldn’t stop people of different nationality or sexuality from celebrating it, because at the end of the day, everything condenses down to love, a feeling that’s truly universal in every sense. Which is precisely the objective of this piece – to summarize how the films in discussion treat sexual orientation as a differentiating factor, transcending constraints imposed by humans.

Over the years, several documentaries, ranging from Arthur J. Bressan Jr’s Gay USA (1978) to The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) by David France, have conjured the anger of the unheard voices in a repressive world. Similarly, narrative films ranging from Desert Hearts (1985) by Donna Deitch to the recent Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins are equally important.

Moreover, Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta, Aligarh (2016) by Hansal Mehta, My Brother Nikhil by Onir have tried to instigate the much-needed conversation through cinema in India. While the crowd-pleasing nature and lack of complexity of Shub Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan have left viewers polarised, it is indeed a welcome change, bringing the dialogue to the mainstream.

However, documentaries always have an edge over narrative films, because they are unconditional, unfiltered, unreserved, and most importantly unequivocally real. Whether they give voice to hate, anger, or love, the impact squares when we know that people and stories in front of our eyes are real. On these lines, two recent Netflix documentaries, Circus of Books and A Secret Love, tell different stories concerning a singular theme, simultaneously echoing the changing perception towards homosexuality over decades.

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American Murder: The Family Next Door, On Netflix, Is A Scathing Portrayal Of Our Social Media Projections

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

Note: This is a review of a documentary based on a real crime. If you are unaware of the subject matter and haven’t seen the trailer, do not read this review or anything related to the film. The film offers an enhanced viewing experience when seen with no prior knowledge of the subject matter.

The Social Dilemma, a recent Netflix documentary,examined how social media platforms are designed to transcend the virtual actions into the real world consequences, by influencing our choices. American Murder: The Family Next Door countermands this idea by reconstructing events, which seemed all hunky-dory on social media, but which metamorphosed into harrowing tragedy in reality.

Over the years, social media has seamlessly become an integral part of our lives. While The Social Dilemma answered the ‘why’ and ‘how’, American Murder acts as a case study, offering a new perspective, and is exponentially more humane and distressing than the former owing to the sheer darkness of the subject matter. As our reliance on social media becomes more intrinsic with each update, aspects like how much of our ‘self’ we project onto the social media and the light in which we portray our personality have remained a subject of debate, both on an individual and broader level. This documentary allows you to figure out the conclusion for yourself…

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Holocaust Film #2: The Diary of Anne Frank

This article is the second entry in The Holocaust Film Project.

Note: Should go without saying, but spoilers ahead. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter. Story over everything and the objective of the Holocaust project is to share stories.

Film: The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) – True story

Director: George Stevens

Screenplay: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett

Producer: George Stevens

In July 1942, in the thick of the Holocaust, 13-year-old Anne along with her family and their family friends, the Van Daans, took shelter in the attic of a spice factory in Amsterdam to prevent arrest by the Nazi forces. The whole film is set inside the attic with advertence about the outer world coming through the radio and their safe-keepers, Milep Gies and Mr. Kragler (original name: Victor Kugler), who intermittently alert the inhabitants regarding the cruelty that’s being constrained upon Jews.

Their world augurs sporadically in the form of news that acts as a harbinger of allied army forces. Their confidence and hope are broken more than once, but they move on without progressing.  The camera seldom moves outside the building the family is hiding in, often restricting the view through the broken windows, reminding us of their confinement.

A still from the film. Anne Frank (played by Millie Perkins) in the center.

Anne shortly starts penning her thoughts – which would later transmute into philosophical proverbs – in a diary her father, Otto Frank, gifts her. The film takes a few liberties to make it fit the cinematic medium. Two of the most notable differences between real life and the film pertaining to the diary include:

  1. Anne received the diary on June 12, 1942, her 13th birthday, a month before she went into hiding, whereas in the film, she is presented the diary after they arrive at the safe house.
  2. From 21st September, 1942, she started addressing her writings as letters to Kitty, a fictional character from a series of books by Dutch author Cissy van Marxveldt which Anne had read in her initial days of hiding.

Regardless of these changes, the ruminations that emanate from her experiences remain unblemished. However, the fact that Anne addressed Kitty, referring to her as a companion, alludes to how lonely she was despite being surrounded by people in cramping physical proximity. The physical isolation and mental remoteness, coupled with a monstrous threat a few steps away from her life, snowball into contemplations which find catharsis in the form of words in her diary.

On the cinematic front, The Diary of Anne Frank subverts the idea of terror usually associated with Holocaust films, steering clear of death, violence, and blood. Instead, it banks on our understanding of the Holocaust to gauge the menace facing her life. The consistent dread emerges from the plight of these people, who are bound to danger any moment. A hint of their presence -a footstep or a minute thrum – is a threat, and they have to cleave to their distressed non-existence in order to subsist.

A still from the film

Adding to the burden, Anne grapples with people – her mother, especially – but she never frets. Anne is informed that her friends went to school and never returned, how people are disappearing in masses, and how the situation on the outside is worsening with each passing day. However, Anne gleams in the darkness. The film serves both as a detailed character study and broad depiction of loathing the Jews were subjected to through the Holocaust, from the perspective of an innocent young girl. 

The film ends with the capture of Anne and her family by the Nazi police. Although her journey ends along with millions who perished on the back of hate, Anne remains the embodiment of hope during the darkest of the times. On the outside, The Diary of Anne Frank starkly differs from other Holocaust films, but it has the soul of one – reflecting the ubiquitous human detest.

Perhaps, the greatest achievement of The Diary of Anne Frank is the way it immaculately enacapsulates the fear and terrors of the Holocaust, while seamlessly confering hope in the world during its nadir on the moral front.

The fine balance in commentary between broad concepts such as hate and empathy with personal conflicts like loneliness and coming-of-age perils give this film the potential to create a paradigm shift in one’s beliefs regarding life. One simple example- if a 13-year-old girl, who is hiding with her family – surrounded by death amid human massacre of unprecedented proportions – can look at life optimistically, what’s stopping you? 

***

Learn about the life of Anne Frank here.

Read the first entry in the Hololcaust film project: Toyand

Totally Under Control Review: Timely and Timeless

The obligation while reviewing documentaries that has always challenged and fascinated me is to create a clear distinction between the film’s subject matter and filmmaking craft. Totally Under Control is no exception, and is, perhaps, a bigger challenge as compared to other documentaries ascribed to its germane nature with which it addresses the prevailing COVID-19 situation.

One certainly cannot – and should not – overlook its relevance. After all, the film’s fundamental motive is evolving as you read this. Probably the most felicitous film you can get your hands on at the present, Totally Under Control is a conscientiously infuriating and trepidatious documentation of a colossal failure. Set amid the raging pandemic, i.e. the present, the film brings the facts pertaining to what went wrong through experts such medical professionals, scientists, government officials, and journalists, among other professionals who remain feeble witnesses, watching the flagrant power at play that scorns the menace of COVID-19.

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Holocaust Film #1: Toyland

Note: Should go without saying, but spoilers ahead. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter. Story over everything and the purpose of the Holocaust project is to share stories.

Director: Jochen Alexander Freydank

Screenplay: Johann A. Bunners & Jochen Alexander Freydank

Producer: Jochen Alexander Freydank Music: Ingo Ludwig Frenzel

It’s only fitting that Toyland is the film to start the conversation about the Holocaust. The film marks the beginning of a gargantuan tragedy, but the tragedy is not in sight because the people knew little about what awaited them after they board the train to a concentration camp. In the film, the genesis of the genocide is buried under a child’s innocence, while a mother’s kindness gives hope in a world that’s soon to dissent into savagery. 

The title Toyland has dual connotations. One – extermination camps; two- a child’s immaculateness. Set in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Meißner and David Silberstein – an Aryan and a Jew, respectively – are neighbors, best friends, and take piano lessons together. With jews being deported to concentration camps, the fate of the Silberstein family is evident. On this premise, Heinrich’s mother, Marianne, tells her son that his friend, David, and his family are shifting to a new place called Toyland. Heinrich buys the story, owing to his innocence. All of this occurs off-screen and the film begins with Marianne finding her son missing the morning David and his family are deported. She suspects that her son may have joined his best friend, since he believes they are going to Toyland, and promptly starts searching for him.

The very first shot of the film, a close up of a piano – focusing on the linear, horizontal pattern of the keys as two kids play a tune – intercuts to a toy train track. This is the film’s most important shot, considering how it uses piano and train as metaphors for coexistence and hatred, respectively. It’s to be noted how piano – made of both black and white keys – is used to represent unity and solidarity, while railway tracks, which stand for uniformity, are used to represent revulsion rising from the difference.

Source: Magnet Film, Youtube

Toyland talks about the importance of indifference and co-existence, without uttering a word. To Heinrich, it makes no difference whether his friend is an Aryan or a Jew. So does his mother. In the nick of time, Marianne arrives at the railway station to prevent her son from being mistakenly deported, but she realizes Heinrich is not present on the train. It is revealed in a flashback that Heinrich tried to join his friend but was restrained from doing so by a German officer. Using the moment, she instead claims David is Heinrich and saves him from being deported and the impending death. Marianne raises David along with her son and both the friends – again, an Aryan and Jew – grow old together. All attributed to the innocence of the child and the kindness of the mother.

Had Heinrich not believed the story of Toyland, he wouldn’t have tried to join his friend, subsequently not alarming his mother, which in turn, would have meant the deportation and death of David, along with millions of others. It’s a story of how the naivety of a kid saved a life. Towards the end, the piano makes a reappearance showing two older men, David and Heinrich, playing a tune, perfectly in synchronization with each other, proving that kindness and compassion pave the way to coexistence.

Source: Magnet Film, Youtube

Watch Toyland here:

A Dialogue With My Mother

I always believed I knew my mother in and out.

I know what she loves and hates, which aspects of life agitate or calm her, where her thoughts are, whom she looks up to and disregards, and how she reacts to the tiniest of the aspects. Spend 23 years with a person and one can foretell every minuscule move of theirs. I know my mother, I assumed. My belief was only partially right. Little did I know ‘why’ certain things angered her, or ‘why’ she prefers certain things over others. The most important facet of all – the why – is something I never pondered on, and that differentiates everything. There are 23 years of her life, which I was not a part of, and those years have answers to the why-s. This conversation is an attempt to discern my mother, not as how I know her, but as who she is.

Artwork by Merwin Atticus Antony

Amma is a fun person – or at least tries to be. She is as lucid as a glass. Not a person to conceal her feelings, one can intelligibly notice when she is fumed. The aspect of her personality that I find the most fascinating is how extreme her kindness and anger are. When she is happy, she is the loveliest human to ever exist. When angered, it’s the end of Wakanda. I call her an extremist to nudge this very facet. So I begin the dialogue by asking has she always been this extreme. “Not exactly,” she said, sitting beside me, looking at the TV but not watching it, as I scrolled through an endless Netflix’s library, “I think the anger springs from the end of tolerance level after a point,” and she curtly changes the conversation to “why don’t you mute and scroll, the sound is annoying,” I acknowledge and switch off the TV. “See, now I’ll like to talk. How can one talk with the TV playing in the background?” she questions. Fair enough. I go back to the question and she resumes, “No. I was not as angry, or even expressive, for that matter back in the college days.” 

Picking from there, I ask her which has been the best time of her life. I knew the answer would be “College days,” she replied without taking a second. “’88 to ’95,” she goes on and I imagine memories must be hovering in her mind as she transmutes them into words, “During graduation and post-graduation, I was independent. Can’t say the same now,” she stops, as her voice gives a sense of gloom that is likely to ensue. I ask her why she doesn’t feel so, knowing that I’m complicit of her dependent-state. “Down the line, priorities changed. Journalism and social work, fields in which I aspired to pursue a career in, remains only partially fulfilled. Family became my priority, and it’s great. Not that it’s bad, but I would be lying if I say the disappointment doesn’t exist”. I countered her answer, asking whether she was compelled to deprioritize her aspirations or did she choose the life she settled for. 

She took two seconds to answer, the longest gap to any question. 

“It was a gradual transformation. A certain kind of conditioning by circumstances around me. I did my PG after marriage because your father has been supportive. I even worked until you were 13. You remember, right? Then, there was a point when I realized I was sailing on two boats and I had to resort to the family boat. Was I given a choice? No. There was no choice. Would I have done anything differently if given a choice? I don’t think so. The time was such.”

I’m quite familiar with this boat analogy. She always asked me to center my efforts on only one thing to warrant the most conducive results. I now understand where that emanates from. 

Realizing the conversation was getting somber question by question. I decided to lighten up her mood, converging back to her college days. 

“‘88 to ‘95, from Intermediate to Post Graduation, are what I’d call golden days.” 

It’s to be noted that she got married in ‘94. 

“A senior of mine while studying at Osmania University College for Women went on to pursue journalism in Sri Padmavati Mahila Visvavidyalayam located in Tirupathi and this urged me to get in as well. Plus, I was always interested in jobs that would make a difference in the real world, unlike a conventional desk job. Not that the others don’t make a difference, but in journalism, the impact is visible. And yes. I did crack the entrance exam and I topped merit lists of all the five programs they offered. Still one of the bigger achievements of my life.” 

Here comes the setback. 

“But I wasn’t allowed by your grandmother to go for journalism because an old fag (read: musali vedhava), a family friend of ours sowed the idea in her mind that journalism is not the ideal profession for women, as it involves a lot of ground reporting and travel. Funny how months of study to crack the entrance exam went down the gutter because of one man’s words,” 

Again, I counter her asking why she didn’t take a stand, especially considering how big of an impact this decision is going to have on her life. 

“I was weak and young. There was no way I could fight my mother. I was privileged enough to pursue PG at a time when many of my friends from UG were confined to homes in the pretext of marriage. And PG in Master of Social Work is equally significant. I could still make real-world consequences,” 

I’m glad to know she wasn’t heartbroken. 

“We saved several homeless children and disabled, from bus-stands, railway stations, and temples. We sent them to homes, where they are taken care of, provided education, and are even adopted by foreigners.” 

I’m floored by listening to this at a time when compassion – as small a gesture as offering water or fruit – is being capitalized by individuals desperately seeking fame in the form of pictures and other mediums to boast. I ask her how she felt doing all the good deeds, making a difference. 

“To be honest, it didn’t feel like we were making much of a difference. There was so much more to be done, and all of this was only a part of it. For us, at 22, bunking college to watch films was more exciting and felt like a bigger deal than saving children’s lives!,”

It’s surprising how easygoing she is with the notion of saving a life, not knowing how big of a deal it is. She goes on with the little delights, 

“Watching an FDFS in Tirupathi was unlike anything else. They’d play songs twice, you know?”

 Woah! 

“And the lights around the screen would go zig-zag. It was a mayhem in the theatre! My best friend, Radhi, would carry those pink slips in her purse and hurl them around! We watched a countless number of films together as a group – Criminal, Bobbili Simham, Yama Leela, Baazigar Gandeevam, Hello Brother, Govinda Govinda, Bangaru Bollodu, Gaayam, and many more. I vividly remember bunking a field visit to a leprosy home to watch Yama Leela and were caught by the HoD, who threatened to cut internal marks,” 

I realize cutting internal marks has been the HoD cliche for 3 decades. You need to up your game, HoDs. 

“Yes. The best times comprised watching films, walking up to Tirumala every weekend, and hostel,” 

Did it all end after marriage? 

“Yes” 

Hard-hitting. I ask whether my father is a patriarch? 

“That’s a big word. He’s the man of the house, that says something, right? But he has been supportive through my education and career post-marriage. But there were elders at home to take care of, your father’s job didn’t allow us to stay in one place, and they all held my career back. I saw no point in stretching beyond a point. I wish I was strong enough to pull it together. I should have argued with my mother and gone for journalism. But hey, this is the strength that I gained in the last 23 years. It didn’t exist 23 years ago! I have everything now. Compared to all the joys in life, the regrets pale in comparison.” 

My mother should be very proud. She saved many homeless children from the grim world. She worked for 11 years counseling women saved from trafficking, helping children with special abilities, patients with severe diseases instilling hope in them, and even as a teacher. Moreover, she worked as a family counselor for a year, which my father and I tease her job description as something similar to what’s done in the cringy, over-the-top family panchayat TV shows. 

Best and worst part: She never considered any of those as achievements. This, in turn, made her feel incomplete. 

“Oh boy!  I forgot I did these many things. I did more than what I was thinking, to be frank. Really, I kind of held myself in low regard all these years. I could have done a lot more, but I still did a lot. I’m proud of my short-spanned career!” 

She laughs for the first time during the 20-minute conversation. The delivery man from Swiggy calls, asking me to collect the choco lava cake. It was a sweet conversation, a bit dark, but sweet, just like my mother’s favorite choco lava cake, which marks the end of the conversation on record. 

It’s funny how a simple conversation that I began to discover my mother, in turn, helped her find herself. 

My beautiful, strong mother, Sridevi.

***

Possessor: Layered with Terror

Originally appeared in Cinema Sentries.

When someone asks me what a film is about, I’m often puzzled whether to share the synopsis of the film, or tell what the film is actually about. Take the case of Parasite, for instance. It’s the story of a poor family infiltrating a rich family to make money. What is it actually about, though? The persistent, wide gap between classes in a capitalist world. A layered screenplay bestows such depth, the duality, or what we call, subtext. Ignore the subtext, you still have a coherent film. 

Likewise, I can surely tell the story of Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore effort, Possessor. It follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a vague tech-based corporation that uses brain-implantation as a medium to take control over people’s bodies and murder the target through the possessed. On one such job, which should be no different from any of her earlier assassinations, she is stuck in the body of the person, Colin (Christopher Abbott), she is currently possessing. There you have the plot and conflict. However, it’s certainly not your conventional body horror, since it thrives on ambiguity. Unlike other films, it’s hard to discern what the film is about. It’s more about the experience – which will stick in my mind – than the logical dissection. 

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The Perils Of A Star-Centric Narrative, As Seen In Mahesh Babu-Starrer Maharshi

Note: This piece originally appeared in Film Companion.

What’s more annoying than a bad film? A bad film masquerading as a great film. The worst case scenario is a bad, boring film pretending to be a socially and thematically important film. Mahesh Babu-starrer Maharshi by Vamshi Paidipally holds itself in very high regard, and that only pulls it back from even being an engaging watch, forget cinematic merit.

If intent is the sole criteria to judge a film, Maharshi is certainly far from futile. But, when one chooses the cinematic medium to tell a story or convey a message, the medium has to be respected. In the case of bad-filmmaking, the message takes over the craft. Neither of these are the issues with Maharshi, which uses both the medium and message to only honour its protagonist. The plight of farmers — which has become a hotcake for South Indian stars to enhance their stature post the humongous success of AR Murugadoss‘ Kaththi  — is reduced to another subject to bring the protagonist to the foreground. That’s only one of the many issues with the film. 

Pitfalls of stardom

Mahesh Babu is a massive star and people go crazy to catch him on the big screen. Be it a slo-mo walk or a sprint, there’s an aura he possesses that has cast a spell on millions; he’s no less than a superhero for them. However, his stardom has confined him to a zone where he can no longer play the common man. 

The star’s recent filmography, starting from 2015, proves it. He played a rich man in Srimanthudu and Brahmotsavam, an Intelligence Officer in SpyderChief Minister in Bharath Ane Nenu, and the CEO of an American company in Maharshi, the film being discussed. The last time he played a character that represented the common man was in Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (SVSC), one of the rare instances where he did let go of the star stature. 

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Mudbound: Peace in War

This piece originally appeared in Jumpcut Online

War alludes to destruction and death is ubiquitous on the battlefield. World War II effectuated deaths of millions and the gravity of horrors spread across the world is beyond human perspicacity. However, what if something as grotesque as the war bequeathed a fleeting relief to a person whose entire life was tyrannized by unseen, underlying, but omnipresent hatred?

Dee Rees’ Mudbound acts a formidable critique of racism by drawing an analogy between a noxious battleground in war-torn Europe and a quiet farm in Mississippi, USA. Unlike the battleground, where the menace and distress are thoroughly physical, back in the farm, the infliction of pain is majorly cerebral.

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