Tag Archives: Cinema

Christopher Nolan’s Magnificent History Lesson About Survival

In the tenth standard, we had an entire chapter dedicated to the Second World War. Amongst the several terribly written paragraphs, there were only three lines about Dunkirk’s famous retreat. Our professor had read them out verbatim to us without elaborating on any of them, without sharing any explanation about why the incident was important and had told us to underline one of the three lines. The line as I remember clearly was – Winston Churchill called the Dunkirk retreat a ‘miracle of deliverance’.  He reminded us it would come as a ‘fill in the blank’ in the exam and that was that. All I knew about Dunkirk’s evacuation was that single fill in the blank.

 

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I walked out of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ yesterday feeling cheated out of a history lesson in my school days. The movie is an exhausting watch and I recommend you see it as it’s meant to be, not on a digital platform, not on your laptops, but in a cinema hall; preferable IMAX. It’s one of the most haunting, involving films I’ve seen in a while and judging by the number of people who had their hands over their mouths in graphic horror shortly before the unnecessary interval, I wasn’t the only person who felt like an eyewitness to the entire tale.

In many ways, most of great war films are remembered for the human story behind them. Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory (my personal favourite), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Even Band of Brothers (which follows Easy Company from England to Germany) concentrate on the personal story of the soldiers behind the larger incident. In Dukirk’s case, I felt strangely detached from the characters. Nolan doesn’t offer you the time to build a connect with any of his ensemble, swiftly intercutting between the air, sea and land in three non-linear timelines to maintain the feeling of constant danger and panic at a high point right from the very beginning. That I feel, is the heart of why the film works so well, what makes it a ‘Nolan’ film, because we’re effectively watching what’s supposed to be an hour in the sky, a week of land survival and roughly a night of sea battle cut with the same degree of importance. Failure during any of these time periods has only one eventuality – certain death.

The film begins with an empty street in Dunkirk, propaganda posters falling silently through the air while British soldiers carefully make their way through. Hans Zimmer’s eerie notes almost preempt the start of violence, a constant pattern through the film, with each segment like a mini-movie within itself. Four of the Brits are gunned down by Germans, leaving Fionn Whitefield the only survivor; as he bolts into French barricades before heading to the ships. Whitefield, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles lead the subplot on the ships, as they hopelessly try to survive till aid reaches. Nolan never cuts to the Germans, he never at any point intercuts to who is firing from the ground, or inside their cockpits, or for the matter within the confines of their U-boats. We never see a single German face, or hear the word ‘Nazi’. The only interaction a viewer has with the German army is direct onslaught.  This constant presence of a faceless enemy is disconcerting to watch, because there’s no predictability in their attack. As a viewer you experience it only at the moment the Brits do.

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Nolan’s mastery grasp over technique is indisputable. The film belongs to his crew just as much as it belongs to him. The flight shots, which are some of the most minimalistic and surreal shots I’ve seen in a war film work in complete antithesis to the chaotic mess soldiers on the ground are in.  Hoyte Van Hoytema’s raw camera comes closest to virtual reality; working in tandem with Zimmer’s unique, jarring soundtrack. It works up a crescendo in every sequence slowly, building up a gradual fear arcing to panic. Nolan’s erraticness of action, his decision to actually show how random war is and the absolute uncertainty of who/what will be hit next, who will have an upper hand, who will luck favour in the next five minutes is what keeps you on the edge of your seat

In a scene where a torpedo strikes one of the rescue ships, soldiers have just been fed warm tea and bread and are totally off guard.  The resultant feeling of suffocation, as water bursts into the chamber is so intense, so sudden that you barely get time to adjust to it, to tell yourself that it’s happening on screen. Unlike a lot of directors, Nolan allows these moments of strike to play in wides without cutting to the actual projectile detonating. He makes sure one gets to view the chain reaction of soldiers reacting to a threat, never letting you know where exactly the damage will happen. He emphasises how much luck dictates survival in a war.

 

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Tom Hardy’s entire portion in the air is almost like a reprise of his stellar work in Locke, as he powers through a third of a movie with just his eyes and his voice.  You’d think that as the biggest star in the film, he’d be given more coverage. That it would be logical to show his narrative as the most important. Nolan doesn’t do that. He treats him as an equal to the rest of his characters. His soldiers are kids. They aren’t older men playing younger parts, they’re actually young.

To me the film belongs to Mark Rylance, who plays a British civilian sailor representative of the hordes of non-navy personally called to bail out the troops from the beach. There’s a strange inevitability of having accepted impending doom in his demeanour to try and help his country. Yet, his character is as much of a fighter as any of the troops. His storyline is a constant reminder through the film that its theme isn’t about war, but about survival and to me, that’s what makes Dunkirk unique. None of the soldiers in the film are looking out for the romanticised glory so typical of war films. They want to go home. They can see England from where they are and they’re willing to do anything they can to cross and reach there.

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Above: Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson.

Nolan’s the first director whose work I fell in love with in college. He was a posterboy for films we wanted to direct in our first year. There were a countless others like me. We all wanted to make a film where the top continues spinning in the end. We all fell in love with the ambiguity of his endings, the idea that we don’t owe our watchers an explanation to a concrete resolution. We also grew out of it, eventually coming to terms that his films do have flaws, and that aping the style of someone whose intentions you don’t understand isn’t the wisest thing to do. Dunkirk takes me back to the days where I was blown away by the audacity of what he was doing on stage. It’s not the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s certainly a modern masterpiece. Watch it in the theatres please! You’re going to be making a very, very strong long time memory.

 

 

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Don’t Postpone Your Court Date

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Have you seen Ratatouille? There are two lines from that movie I’m going to quote here. Remember when the food critic, Anton Ego is asked about his loyalty for food? He snarls out, “I don’t like food, I LOVE it! If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow!!!”

That line encompasses everything I feel for cinema.

I love cinema. I love cinema to the point where my last wish in the slightly worrying situation I’m kidnapped by Incas and given one last wish would be to watch Reservior Dogs followed by Cinema Paradiso or Dil Chahta Hai rounded up by Six Shooter with a small break in between to cry about being sacrificed to the sun or the Wimbledon 2008 Final. I would do all this eating honey glazed pork ribs, because hey! which level headed rational thinking individual doesn’t like honey glazed pork ribs?!?!

I don’t write about either food or cinema because I don’t think I’m qualified to. I see these long personal opinions every Friday where an ABC tells the entirety of his social reach how Vishal Bhardwaj should have ended Haider 30 minutes before its current screen time. Hold on kid. He’s Vishal Bhardwaj, someone with an IQ bordering the boiling point of water on the Fahrenheit scale. You’re a kid with a DSLR and Torrents. Keep it in your mouth.

Here’s where I’m making an exception. I saw Court yesterday. Heard of it? It’s a film Chaitanya Tamhane made and released last year. Italians saw it last year. Germans saw it last year. People in Mozambique probably saw it last year. I saw it yesterday. This makes me pissed at myself. Partially because it’s my fault. If I made time to watch Main Tera Hero and dream of going for a date with Narghis, I had the time to watch Court at least 18 times by now. But I didn’t. I hadn’t bothered finding out which films are making headlines in some of the most prominent film circles in the world, especially considering the director probably eats Pani Puri in the same tapri I do, given the closeness of proximity of his location.

Besides that, I didn’t hear anything about the film. The Times of India didn’t comment on how its actors forgot to wear underwear, no one tweeted about it, there was nothing. Let’s face it. It’s a bit tough to be enthusiastic about something no one knows anything about. I digress. This is about the film. Court is the BEST. I repeat, THE BEST. No wait, I should say that slowly again, THE FUCKING BEST film I’ve seen in a theater over the last ten years. It is on par with Birdman and Boyhood and Gravity and Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption and any other foreign tagged film you can throw at my face and I will fiercely defend it as the best film a debutant director has made in decades. It deserves to have a VIP entrace in any list that features the words ‘Courtroom Drama’ and a throne of some kind in any list that features the words, ‘Directorial Debut’

For those of you who’d like to know a little about what it’s about, Court follows the Indian judicial system through the eyes of four sub-characters. The accused, two lawyers and the judge. Its screenplay is like a methodical timelapse of a jigsaw puzzle forming steadily in front of your eyes. The accused has been charged of encouraging a man to commit suicide by jumping into a sewer and suffocating himself to death. The accused has been arrested for allegedly singing a song that instructedthe poor to graphically kill themselves in the exact way mentioned above

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I need more structure to this. Let me try it this way.

Unlike other CR dramas that involve someone like Tom Cruise screaming his lungs out heroically followed by long soliloquies about handling truth, 1.5 kilo hands and dogs identifying witnesses in front of a live audience, court maintains the calm sanctity of real life. Firstly, it’s pace is maddeningly slow for a courtroom drama. The shots you see are wides, they stay on for a couple of seconds even after the editor inside your film watching eye expects a cut. That doesn’t happen. The slow pace works fantastically, because you want to know what’s going to happen. He makes you wait for content, which in many ways goes with the theme of the film in itself.

The film follows the lives of both the lawyers fighting the case even outside of the courtroom. It makes you understand their economic background. It makes you realise what shapes the thought process of the two lawyers, what their personal lives are like. It throws light on about 4 other social issues simply following them around. The lawyer who is fighting on behalf of the state comes home after an entire day’s work and proceeds to cook a new meal for her husband and kids, who are oblivious to her day. They don’t care about whether she’s eaten or not. They don’t consider that it’s probably best if they dine together, not at different times. She herself is happily doing this, she doesn’t see the gross inequality in her own house as a social injustice. It works because it’s so subtly shown. The entire film is layered so well. I don’t want to delve into the actual content, because that will spoil a first time experience if you haven’t watched it. It reminded me of an incident I had read of a couple of years back where Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne was tried because a kid allegedly shot himself after listening to one of his songs called ‘Suicide Solution’

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The last ten minutes of the film, after the case is over will spear you in the gut. It’s an ending that will sink in slowly, and once it does, you’ll have goosebumps, if you understand what he’s showing you. No amount of adjectives or hyperbole can explain the kind of impact that last shot had on me. It has rocked me to the core.

Please, please watch the film. It’s an absolutely historic film that will stay in the theaters for just about a couple of weeks more and trust me, it will be something vastly iconic to have missed in the cinemas. You know how you talk about seeing South Africa chase that gigantic 400 something score on live television for the rest of your life? It’s like that. It’s killing me to think that barely anyone will end up going for it. Because it doesn’t have the budgets to buy up every single billboard on Juhu beach. It deserves at least a thousand blog posts more and it deserves at least a month in cinema halls.

I’ve read Pu La Deshpande, and seen him narrate stories on TV, and he’s probably the only humorist I tell everyone who doesn’t speak Marathi is right up there next to PG Wodehouse for humour, and yes! It’s hard to believe till you’ve experienced it. My lot, my entire convent educated English adoring lot are in an unfortunate position where we don’t resonate with our own culture any more. Which is no one’s fault. But it’s the sad truth of my generation. We watch Game of Thrones for breakfast, read Stephen King for lunch and hear Coldplay for dinner. There’s nothing wrong in it. We’re sandwiched in between an abject disdain for our vernacular languages which is a really sad thing, because we don’t see (Marathi in my case) as a language cool enough for all everything we do. I can’t imagine having sex talking in Marathi, or even Hindi for the matter, which is a real truth test to find out how comfortable you are with a language. Which is probably why an average city boy will consider seeing a Fast and the Furious -12 (The finalest final one ever) over something like Court, just because of the level of proximity he has with the language.

We’re slowly proceeding to shun out masterpieces of our own culture. Venice Film Festival has to validate Court before it becomes acceptable to watch. Le Monde has to write a review before we begin considering watching it. It sucks.

After seeing Court, I can say without any effort that I have never been more proud of an Indian directorial debut.  I’ve had the absolute honour of watching it in the cinemas. Remember that speech Anton Ego gives in the end of Ratatouille through his review. I’m just going to sum it up using that. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

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