Anurag has been pestering me to watch last year's critical Bollywood hit Manorama Six Feet Under for quite some time. I finally managed to see it a couple of days ago. It is indeed an excellent work which really makes you interested in the director Navdeep Singh's career, specially after you realize it is his debut work. I don't want to add to anything Anurag has already talked about on his blog (see also Jabberwock's review), just a few disjointed comments.
First many people, specially fans of Roman Polanski's Chinatown from which it derives its basic template, were let down by the ending. They felt that it was a cop-out, in the way it condescended to the audience's need of closure and happy ending. I didn't feel the same. It made me think about something which I keep coming to in many discussions and readings. It is a general point but not entirely unrelated to the film. The despair and nihilism which is staple of so much of modern western art is a result of something that is intrinsic to western civilization at a particular point in time. The crisis of faith and the loss of meaning which marks so much of modern art was the final step in the historical process which started with enlightenment. We in India never had any enlightenment. Our modernity is borrowed second-hand from the west. Deep down the basic assumption - the faith in the order of the nature, the belief that everything makes sense however the facts may contradict this belief - remains intact and continues to guide everbody's response to the world. The hero of Manorama is product of this very culture. If he summons God to his rescue and spouts some cliches about fate in the end, that shows he really belongs to this way of life.
Another thing about the film which I liked very much was its portrait of small-town India. The sights, sounds and the landscapes felt all real and authentic and never condescended to. It wasn't used just to create an "exotic" background to the story, it was an essential part of the story in the sense that one can't see those characters and the story outside that particular context, which is something very rare in Bollywood. Often you have a generic and cliched background which admirers of Bhansali and his ilk call "beautiful." It was also not another generic Bombay or generic New York or generic Switzerland. I also loved the way Singh used mostly extended takes rather than rapid cuts to artifically speed-up the action. The camera then becomes a tool of discovery and despite slow pace results in many surprises. I specially loved the long tracking shot from the crane which opens the film.
Hmm. What else. I also totally agree with Anurag's description of Raima Sen ("poor man's femme fatale"). I know it is very insulting and harsh but you just have to see one scene towards the end. It was supposed to be repuslive and horrifying but it only made me giggle. This brings me to another point. Can we ever have a truly Indian femme fatale? Please don't tell me Mallika Sherawat and the whole sisterhood. I mean someone like Barbara Stanwyck, Louise Brooks? Okay that's impossible but you know... in the same ballpark? May be it is again Indian culture thing. Is femme fatale also an essentially western category?