Academy Awards 2005: Triumph of spirit in the Foreign Language Category
INTERESTINGLY, THREE countries sent a film each for a possible Oscar nomination in the foreign language category that deals with human sorrow, disease and death. But they do not, in the final analysis, drown in a pool of cynicism. Rather, they elevate us in a strange sort of way.
I SAW THESE THREE CELLULOID WORKS IN THE PUNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2005, HELD FROM JANUARY 14 TO 20. I SERVED ON THE MAIN SIX-MEMBER INTERNATIONAL JURY THERE.
India chose the Marathi movie, "Shwaas" (A Breath) for the nomination race. It narrates the story of an old man (Arun Nalavade) who brings his seven-year-old grandson (Ashwin Chitale) from the village to a city hospital, where the doctor says that the boy's choice lies between death from cancer and a life without sight. Sandeep Sawant's debut feature paints the dilemma of the old man as he grapples with this terrifying medical verdict.
Sawant does his best to balance hopeful sentiment with the depressing prospect of a child's world going dark, and he tries to infuse this simple melodrama with a sense of tenderness and beauty. There are lovely, elegant shots of the verdant, coastal landscape the boy has left behind (and will most likely never see again), and hectic scenes in which adults — including a kindly, harried doctor (Sandeep Kulkarni) and a sympathetic social worker (Amruta Subhash) — fret over little Parashuram's fate.
However, this simplicity becomes tedious after a while as the adult conversations tend to ramble on, and the mood of dramatic conflict loses effect. What we are then left with is the agony of inevitable sadness and the excruciating preparation.
Somewhere, Sawant fails to give his film a better sense of proportion: the scenes leading up to the doctor's diagnosis are far too long, and so are those that deal with the hospital panic when the man and the boy disappear for half a day.
Also, one is left with this sneaking suspicion that the social worker has been roped in largely for her good looks, a desperate attempt to get the box-office jingling.
One wishes that Sawant had laid a greater emphasis on this half day, when the grandfather whisks away his grandson from the hospital to show him the sights of the city that the little boy had always wanted to see.
When the doctor confronts the grandfather after the two return, he quips: ``but I wanted him to have the beautiful sights of the city as his last visual memory... I did not want my grandson to see the hospital beds, the tubes, the patients and the suffering before the world became permanently dark for him.''
"Shwaas" won the 2004 National Award for the Best Picture, and the 2005 Pune International Film Festival gave Nalavade and Chitale the acting prizes.
Yet, the veteran movie archivist, P. K. Nair (also on the jury), wondered whether India could only manage a "Shwaas" for the Oscar race out of the 1,000 films the country produced last year. One would tend to agree with Nair.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have heard Nair. "Shwaas" was not nominated.
However, "Shwaas" ends on a positive note: we see the young boy in dark glasses — composed and collected against his earlier mood of impatience and anger — returning to his village, perhaps indicating a feeling of victory, a sense of life that lives on against disease and disability.
South Africa sent Darrell James Roodt's "Yesterday" for a possible inclusion as one of the five nominated movies in the foreign language category.
The film made it to the short list of five.
The subject of "Yesterday" is also dismal: a young South African woman is diagnosed with AIDS, and when she tells her husband — the source of her infection who works in a distant mine — he is outraged. The wife's travails do not end there: she finds herself ostracised by her village community, which does not even let her have her supply of water from the common well. Finally, her husband returns home, sick and dying.
Often, Roodt embarks on a trying and ponderous route, where we see the woman walk up and down the medical clinic. It takes her many weeks of such long walks before she is able to meet a kind, white doctor, and what can be particularly disconcerting for the audience is that nothing happens on those journeys between the woman's home and the clinic.
Yet, the director strikes an optimistic note: it is wonderful to hear the woman explain why her father chose to call her `Yesterday': ``because he thought yesterday was beautiful.'' And Yesterday names her daughter Beauty, and despite the mother's worry that she may not live long enough to see her daughter go to school, the film lifts us reasonably above the abysmal depth.
Yesterday gets busy trying to find a kindred soul to look after Beauty when she is gone, and Roodt gets a fine performance from Leleti Khumalo. In spite of the movie's sometimes-preachy tone, "Yesterday" has the ability to provoke us into thinking about not just the destructiveness of AIDS, but also the terrible implications of social isolation, even banishment.
It won the Best Picture Prize at the recent Pune International Film Festival.
Earth and Ashes
The third movie is from Afghanistan, "Earth and Ashes" (not nominated either), by Atiq Rahimi, who powerfully underlines the horrors of war: there is one brilliant scene here. We see a very young boy playing with a goat on the foothills of a mountain, when a landmine explodes killing the animal.
It takes a while for the boy to realise what has happened because he is deaf, his hearing having been impaired by an earlier bomb blast.
The boy accompanied by his very old grandfather is on his way to meet his father who works in a mine. The old man is carrying the grim news of the young man's family. His wife and mother have died in their village during an air raid.
"Earth and Ashes" -- which won the Special Jury Prize at the Pune International Film Festival — conveys total misery. Rahimi uses all the tools in his command to put across one important message: the futility of armed aggression.
And, when the little boy finds in the end that it is not the others who have lost their voices, but it is he who has lost his hearing, the grief is written on the grandfather's forehead. His deep wrinkles tell us the story of pain.
Nevertheless, we see the old man rise above his gloom to shepherd his grandson away from peril. And as Rahimi's work ends, we see the two walking into what appears like dawn, the hope of better times.
The tragedy of Afghanistan could not have been better narrated with such force of thought.
Admittedly, "Earth and Ashes" can sadden one immensely, but to end on a more cheerful note, the spirit of the grandfather and his grandson is as inspiring as that of the lead pair in "Shwaas."
In fact, all three works, including "Yesterday," capture the wonderful triumph of man/woman in situations that are not just frightening but anguishing.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated January 28 2005)