mini-reviews from the Chicago South Asian Film Festival: features, part 1

Thoughts on the six feature films I saw at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival last weekend!

A Decent Arrangement (2011, dir. Sarovar Banka)
I really wanted to love this film about a rudderless (or slacker, as the director called him) Indian-American man, Ashok (Adam Laupus), who goes to India for an arranged marriage wrangled by his aunt (Shabana Azmi). A Decent Arrangement is less the culture clash story that that description may suggest and much more Ashok's coming of age, even though he is putting a first toe in the waters of self-awareness and bravery at a more advanced age than you might suspect. I was frustrated with Ashok throughout most of the film because he refuses to say much about what's going wrong with his life. My favorite moment is when he explains to another American traveler that he is getting an arranged marriage not out of any sense of Indian cultural identity but because he has seen the contentedness of his married friends and wants a little piece of that for himself, and since his demographic identity enables him to get married quite easily, he's going to take advantage of it. I say "demographic identity" purposefully because I have more knowledge of and affiliation with Indian culture than Ashok does.

This is the first time I've seen a story about a non-white person going to India in search of happiness or to find himself, made all the more interesting when the other American character, Lori, who is white, poo-poos Eat Pray Love-type stories while she acts every bit that indulgent, wandering stereotype. The difference between Ashok and Lori is that he's in India because he was trying to head towards something, albeit something he seems to understand so little that he can't participate in it or even identify it, while Lori gives us a line about ivory towers and not knowing if she's really happy.

The film is set in Chandigarh, which is significant for its contrast of the planned city with floundering Ashok and Lori. I can't decide if I think the Indian characters are supposed to be significantly more pulled-together and organized than Ashok. Even if they are not exactly happy (at least not in the American "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" sort of way), they seem satisfied and calm, perhaps because, as the title suggests, the arrangement of their lives is decent and sufficient, providing opportunities they understand and know how to follow. They know what they're doing, unlike Ashok, who doesn't seem to know anything at all until the very end of the film.

Runaway (2012, dir. Amit Ashraf)
For reasons I will explain later, I missed the first 20 minutes or so of Runaway, so I might be missing the key to what made the central character Baba (Shahed Ali Sujon) tick in such a weird and increasingly scary way. I had absolutely no idea where this story was going or how its threads were going to tie together (an ignorance probably intensified because of what I missed), so every time I winced I could still hope that something nice was in store for these clearly messed-up and desperate people. Actually, the roots and expressions of their desperation are another strength of the script and performances, now that I think about it. In the director's Q&A after the film, there was a discussion about the film's internal and human-scale logic, and I have to agree with the general opinion of the festival audience that this film ended exactly as it had to. Given how these characters are—which is very thoroughly established by the remarkable things they do throughout the film—and the structures and flows of power, there is but one possible ending. And what an ending it is, too. I will say no more except that to warn that for me this was not an easy film to watch but its harshness is mindful in a way I very much respect.

Jalpari (2012, dir. Nila Madhab Panda)
You may think you don't really want to see a film about female foeticide that is centered on adorable moppety children from the big city who adventurously scamper through Haryana tales and games while their father also confronts some kind of specter of his dead wife and regressive village politics, but believe me, you do.

There's something about the tone of this film that establishes a comfortably fairy-tale structure despite the horrifying truth about the much-feared witch who lurks at the edge of the village. Perhaps the actual displacement of the story from their crisp urban home in modern Delhi to the crumbling ancestral home full of strangers (from the children's point of view) adds to the sense of distancing it from "now" and placing it in a less real setting. Bad things happen in this village, but nothing seems absolutely perilous.

The actors add considerably to the safety net; the three lead child actors (Lehar Khan, Krishang Trivedi  [as the visiting siblings], and Harsh Mayar [the local ringleader who tuants them]) are so charming that I couldn't believe any real harm would befall them, and Parvin Dabas (as their confident and protective doctor dad) and Suhasini Mulay (their calm and wise grandmother) are people whose mere presence makes me happy. There is nothing un-real about what the protagonists experience, but the world they uncover feels removed even from their normal lives.

All of this makes it a fascinating contrast to one of the features the next day that dealt in part with the same basic issue...

Lessons in Forgetting (2012, dir. Unni Vijayan)
Gut-wrenching, unsettling, this is the grown-up response to the children-focused story of Jalpari in that the grown-up world so often has no tidy endings, no righting of the moral balance. It's not that this is more sophisticated than the other film, but it is darker, more complicated, and much more frightening. While both films touch on the rationale for female foeticide of "that's how it is in the village—we're not as modern as you city folks—so just leave it be," there is a more intense intent of using power to silence critics in this one. Again, there is an ending that I won't discuss, and it is even more harrowing than that of Runaway. I have not read the novel on which this is based, but author Anita Nair wrote the screenplay and I think she did a brilliant job at the arrangement and pacing of the stages of revealing the answers to the multiple questions that drive the principal threads of the story. Adil Hussain is wonderful as Jak, a father trying to figure out how his daughter (Maya Tideman) ended up mangled and unconscious. Like the father in Jalpari, he is a man of science, but unlike that father he is removed in time from the tragedy and can only look back, unable to observe directly. There is only what other people remember and are willing to tell him. He is desperate to know things, but the title suggests that might not be a wise or sustainable approach.

Contrasting with Jak, whose most important family member is returned to him nearly shattered, is Meera, played by a vibrant but restrained Roshni Achreja, whose family disappears throughout the film, leaving her reason and opportunity to become part of Jak's world. There is something about the quiet effort and openness of Meera that I just love. She's a little child-like, perhaps a result of one of the most adult aspects of her life being ripped away, but she is also more resilient and healthy in the face of tragedy than Jak. Together they create the sense that they will progress through their losses and confusion, holding on to what is valuable and shedding the rest. It's a powerful film with some truly brutal moments, but I was left with hope as well. Not much, but enough.


Sip-n-Snap said…
Having lived in Chandigarh, I think I am definitely putting A decent Arrangement on my list. Although the storyline does not sound too appealing for me to sit through it! Lets see ..
JennyK said…
That looked like a full plate of how many days? I envy you being there. I love having the opportunity to see the film and hear the director's motivations. What luxury!

I went to Youtube and checked out the trailer for A Decent Arrangement and Adam Laupus seemed a bit wooden, sort of sleep-walky in it. Is he like that in the film, throughout, or did they just pick bad moments for the clip?
Sip-n-Snap - Oh yes! Would be interesting to see what you make of the setting.

PS I'm looking at your blog and see your Rahul Khanna post. Did you see that I interviewed him for the WSJ India Real Time last week? Part 2 comes out tomorrow. :)

Jenny - A week later and I'm still feeling overwhelmed by all the movies - and I still have 2 features and 6 more shorts to write about. Gah!

I would absolutely agree that Adam Laupus is wooden and sleep-walk-y throughout. About 2/3 the way through the film I decided that I was okay with that because it suited the character, but it's still not my favoriet thing to watch. His character is incredibly confused and afraid - and, I think, kind of dumb (or at least clueless) (the director said in his Q&A that Ashok is supposed to be smart, but I never saw ANY evidence of that, nor did the other viewers I spoke to after the film) - and my theory is that those basic states result in Ashok kind of walling off, or at least not expressing or articulating himself well (or frequently). I would HATE to be friends with him, you know? Early on there is a scene where he and Shabana go to meet the parents of a potential bride, and those actors do such a good job at looking pretty horrified by Ashok, and I don't blame them! :)

All that said, I think they could have cast someone else who conveyed more personality. Ashok is a pretty weak person to frame a film on, but how much of that is the character and how much is the actor? I still don't know. I think it's one of those instances of the character being not as successfully written as was hoped AND of it being a curious choice of type of person to use as the window into the story AND the actor didn't do anything special with what he was given.

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