Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004



Cinema In General


Pans & Tilts…Cannes’ Palms, India canned, Cheeni Kum, Vivek Oberoi…

Four Months Three Weeks Two Days...Golden Palm winner
The Cannes Film Festival, the world’s single most important cinema event, ignored British and American movies on its prize-giving day. The Festival, which ended its 12-day run on May 27, honoured a Romanian film, “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” with the top Golden Palm. Helmed by Cristian Mungiu, the movie dramatises the horror and dilemma of two university students, one forced to abort her child and other trying to help her do that during the stifling dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Through stark images, Mungiu builds up the tension the two girls face in a regime where abortion is a crime. Termed “pitch-perfect” and “brilliantly acted” by Variety, the film often conveys unbearable suspense without undue political sentimentality. That the suspense does not eventually lead up to unpleasant or frightening consequences may be seen by some as somewhat flat or even disappointing. But Mungiu’s remarkable ability to achieve precisely that can also be seen as an eloquent testimony of his directorial genius.

Another Romanian work, “California Dreamin’ “, directed by Cristian Nemescu, won the top prize in A Certain Regard, an important sidebar to the Festival’s main Competition. Nemescu died last year in an automobile accident. He was only 27.

This year at Cannes, there was no British movie among the 22 in Competition, and of the four American films here, only one, Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park”, walked away with the Festival’s 60th Anniversary Prize. Sant, who had earlier won the Golden Palm for his “Elephant”, once again treads familiar territory of adolescent behaviour, this time focussing on a young skateboard rider’s guilt and fear after he accidentally kills a security guard on a railway track.

While most awards were anticipated, the biggest surprise of the evening was the Grand Prize for Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “The Mourning Forest” about a young woman who befriends an old man in a retirement home after the death of her child. Splashed with breathtaking imagery, the movie examines loneliness and the longing to depart in one man.

Another head-scratcher was the Best Actor Honour for Konstantin Lavronenko for what I felt was a wooden performance in the Russian work, “The Banishment” by Andrei Zviagintsev. One of the many movies in the Festival that explored relationship and religious faith, “The Banishment” was not one I or most other critics admired.

One that did arouse some admiration and some criticism as well was Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Night”. It had brilliant visuals, but tryingly slow. But the jury, headed by Britain’s Stephen Frears, gave it the Jury Prize as it also did for the animated film, “Persepolis”, adapted from her memoirs of an Iranian girlhood.

This May, I did see strong female performances, and even in French movies the women kept their clothes on. Asia Argento’s performance was often striking in films such as Abel Ferrara’s “Go Go Tales” and Catherine Breillat’s “Old Mistress”. But the Best Actress Award went to Jeon Do-yeon for her heart-rending performance in the Korean movie, “Secret Sunshine” by Lee Chang-dong.

The Best Director was Julian Schnabel, whose French work, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, was based on Elle magazine editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir. He wrote this after he was completely paralysed with just one eye working.

The prize for Best Screenplay went to Fatih Akin for “The Edge of Heaven.” This story takes place in both Germany, where Akin was born, and Turkey, where his parents came from. “The Edge of Heaven” seems especially timely given Turkey’s current political situation and the mutual ambivalence brought about by its desire to join the European Union.

India was bashed at the Cannes Film Festival. Journalists and others agreed that the country’ presence at the Festival was sadly confined to glamour and the red carpet. India could not participate where it really mattered: the Festival’s two most important segments, Competition and A Certain Regard. For a country that clinched the Festival’s Grand Prize in 1946 with Chetan Anand’s “Neecha Nagar” and the Best Human Document Award 10 years later with Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali”, the slide seems awful. Besides, India has had eminent people on the Cannes jury, and they included Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Mira Nair.

Amitabh Bachchans, Amit Khannas and Bobby Bedis may talk about India’s increasing role at Cannes, but they forget that the country’s last movie in Competition was Shaji N. Karun’s “Swaham” in 1994. All these men have little to say when you ask them about this vacuum.

I have been to Cannes for 16 years, and despite its carnival of stars, cavalcade of cars, bottles of Champagne and magic of melodious mood, the Festival remains essentially committed to what it was first set up for in 1939: a place for great auteur show where budget or box-office has little say. Indian cinema, which is getting hijacked by Bollywood, must remember that getting into Cannes needs much more than stars and style.

Saw Balki’s “Cheeni Kum”, which Big B had promoted with fan and fare at the Cannes Film Festival Market. The story takes place in London, particularly in an Indian restaurant, whose 64-year-old owner, played by Amitabh Bachchan, falls for a 34-year-old tourist-diner, portrayed with élan by Tabu. The film is far less mushy than most other mainstream stuff churned out of Mumbai or Chennai or Hyderabad or Bangalore. But it is still very much Bollywoodish with Bachchan dressed up in boots and jeans with a terrible looking ponytail. This does not quite help the central romance between Bachchan and Tabu, especially when she is so stylish, easy and even virtuous. Contrast this with Bachchan’s arrogance, self-righteousness and disdain for cheap Indian tourists.
The first half of “Cheeni Kum’ is above average with intelligent wit – that may not be as classy as British humour, but is nonetheless far less crass than what we see in much of Indian cinema – and believable situations. However, Balki’s pluck appears to desert him in the second half, when he does not let his heroine lead the hero to bed, although the director gives us enough indications of her desire for sex with the Amitabh character. Also, the movie runs into familiar terrain when it translocates itself in Delhi, where Tabu’s father (Paresh Rawal) and Bachchan’s mother Zohra Sehgal pull the narrative into melodrama. We have a scene where the father refuses food – a la Gandhiji’s Satyagraha – in order to force Tabu to forget Bachchan. This is cliché of the first order, and Balki could have avoided this as he could have his tendency to tread the moral high ground.

Here is a quote from a reviewer on the net, and it aptly concludes what the “Cheeni Kum” is all about. ”Balki's script, while replete with many nice one-liners - Bachchan has a great speech early on, citing cuisine as the greatest art form, since it engages more of the senses - suffers from clodhopping symbolism (Nina's father suffers from diabetes) and rarely makes a point once if it can do it half a dozen times. For all the claims of "less sugar" and Western influences, ‘Cheeni Kum’ never quite quashes Bollywood's habitual sweet tooth for melodrama. This may hinder its crossover appeal, but then why follow foreign recipes when you have your own culinary and artistic traditions anyway?

Tailpiece: At the recent premier of “Shootout at Lokhandwala” in Mumbai, Salman Khan and Vivek Oberoi saw the movie in the same multiplex, but in different auditoriums. Both these men have been snarling at each other for a while now, nursing as they have been their wounded hearts. The cause of all this hurt is that beautiful damsel now feathering her nest with her new beau.

(Webposted May 31 2007)