Was I just in the right mood to see it? The Wikipedia article about the book on the which the film was based suggested that both the novel and the film came in for sharp criticism -- the unlikelihood of such a situation developing was the main charge I think, but there were stronger views -- but I wasn't greatly bothered by the knowledge that it was "just fiction" after all. I think a story like that -- and the film in particular -- maybe works better as fiction. It opens up a pathway that cannot be refuted by mere facts about what might have been -- and then takes the viewer down a corridor that is strangely sweet even while horribly sad.
It's been a good fortnight for movies: perhaps two weeks ago I saw PEEPLI LIVE (Hindi, 2010 dir by Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqi), followed by WELL DONE ABBA (Hindi, 2009, dir Shyam Benegal) and VAANAPRASTHAM (Malayalam, 1999, dir Shaji N. Karun), all on DVD. I liked the first best, the second one least and the last one … well, I enjoyed it in a purely visual sense, because it concerned the life and times of a Kathakali dancer.
PEEPLI was clever, well-acted, excellently well-cut and had a great script but I would have preferred a different ending. It was so obvious that (a) someone would die and (b) that it would not* be Natha, the poor farmer whose would-be-suicide the film revolves around, the only element of surprise that remained was to discover how the situation will be resolved. So when it is resolved in the canonical way -- see the film and find out -- I was disappointed. It seemed to me that an opportunity to discover a less oh-well-yes-it's-got-to-end-SOMEHOW ending was missed. But this is a minor quibble, considering the smart and keenly-observed quality of the film. It's got the quick wits of a television commercial but the heart of a documentary. *(his death would be too, too obvious for such a cool film)
ABBA was (for me) unbearably, unforgivably paste-board cute. I am the wrong audience for films of this sort, where everything has to be make-believe, from the Mr Nice-Guy driver with the saintly-but-irritable-executive-boss, to the cheeky-beauty-smartypants daughter, to the long-suffering-police-officer … you get the picture: one endless album of stereotypes. I detest this kind of cinema because I feel it talks down to everybody and the sarcasm -- oh! A well that was paid for by a Govt scheme never materializes and eventually is reported to the police as having been "stolen" -- is meaningless in a country where it is no longer even ho-hum news to hear of taxes being paid for houses that have never been built and defaulting tax-payers receiving threatening notices for years after their deaths. But it worked for my co-watchers at home, all of whom are fond of sophisticated cinema but who found it charmingly rustic and were willing to award it the Social-Relevance-Against-Impossible-Odds Prize.
VANAPRASTHAM came highly recommended and so for me was a much greater disappointment than if I'd realized that it was an annoying and weepy story dressed up as a stirring art film built around the spectacular costumes of a Kathakali performance. I don't get any thrills from hearing Malayalam since I can't understand anything said onscreen and though I LOVED the costumes, the story was moronic. Or it WOULD have been moronic if it hadn't been performed in Art Motion (that's slow motion for the sake of Art, not Sports) and been Heavy With Cultural Significance. Even with the subtitles, which were ungrammatical, too literal and yet also obscure in meaning, the story was hard to follow. The characters seemed to age at differing speeds -- a little girl of perhaps five grows into a lissom young miss of at least 16 during the same time frame as a baby who grows into a maybe five year old boy (going only by their appearances -- I couldn't read dates or follow the time references). Meanwhile the parents, estranged by social class and personal quirks barely show the passage of time at all.
It's like watching a gift parcel being tossed in one's direction from a distance, watching it arc through the sky, imagining/hoping that it might be aimed in one's direction and then watching it fall quite far afield: it was never intended for this viewer after all, is what one realizes. And those for whom it is made, apparently live in a dimension of extreme, brooding emotions that can never be released through logic or calm reflection, passions that can never to be talked through or smoothed out: all of existence viewed as one continuous storm of untamable Feeling. Ooh! AAAhh! SobSobSob. Exhausting and unsatisfying, however beautiful the costumes.