Friday, February 15, 2008

Manorama Six Feet Under


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?

6 comments:

km said...

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.

Can you please explain your usage of the word "enlightenment"? What is the context of that word in relation to modern art? I am not sure I understand.

Re your comment about an Indian femme fatale, I agree on one point. It is a "western" device. But it can hardly be called a western category. The Sirens, the form-changing demons in Indian mythology that pass themselves off as beautiful women et al are all variations on the theme.

I think the idea of a beautiful woman being dangerous is universal :)

But ah, someone like Stanwyck in Double Indemnity...never again will we see such a character.

Alok said...

Re englightenment, I am not very comfortable with this line of reasoning myself but I have seen it in so many places. Basically the idea is that scientific revolution undermined the foundations on which much of our notion of reality and morality was based on. As a result there was a breakdown of shared values and further logical thinking makes everything look random, purposeless .. that's nihilism.

I don't personally agree with this line of thought that rationalistic worldview necessarily means life without values but this is an interesting way of thinking. Actually Hinduism probably already has a strain of nihilism.. but then it has a strain of atheism too. A religion with possibility of being atheist, now that's what I like! :)

Now that I am thinking about it... there were "Vishkanya" too .. I don't know if it was a part of some mythology or just an invention by the writer who wrote Chandrakanta. I am forgetting the name of that apsara who seduced Vishwamitra. She was another. Actually Indralok had a bunch of them.

Zero said...

Alok,
I loved this film. Wonderfully constructed, evocatively capturing the mood of its setting. Fantastic performances too. Abhay Deol is pulling one ace after another.

About the denouement, for me, it was not at all about whether a happy ending or a cynical one was in order. (I wonder why a curious sense of incompleteness felt -- only a wee bit in my case -- is automatically bracketed as wanting a cynical ending or being wary of a happy ending!) After constructing a labyrinth in the spirit of "nothing is what it seems," the film closures off in a somewhat abrupt way. The payoff was not as revelatory as the labyrinth had set me up for, so to say.

Alok said...

Yes, but did you feel that final monologue/voice-over about God and fate was made-up by the writer to please the audience and so artificial and ineffective? I didn't see it that way. Other people probably did.

I really felt that he was that kind of person who will not let these dark facts of life shake his faith in some higher order even if he has only cliches to resort to in the end and express his faith. In other words I felt it was true to his character, even though the logical progression of the story would lead us to a different denouement. It is also not really a happy ending because you realize what a shallow and cliched and disrespectful of facts his faith really is.

I was also speculating in the post if it was something intrinsic to Indian culture and way of life and can we ever have a true film-noir which is also truly "Indian"?

Zero said...

I didn't see the denouement as made up or artificial at all (nor did I see it as condescending), but I thought it was somewhat abrupt (without reflecting on the abruptness) in bailing out of the intriguing, convoluted web that the film had drawn. I felt as if the writers suddenly ran out of steam. As you say, it actually doesn't really make for a strong "happy ending." In a way, that explains the abruptness I'm talking about.

Anyway, I loved this film, and the denouement didn't bother me actually. (I'm yet to see Chinatown, by the way!) Just that it was a bit underwhelming.

P.S. Vinay Pathak rocks!

km said...

Nihilism! I was expecting that word instead of enlightenment.

One big difference that I find between Indian films and Euro/Hollywood is that Indian cinema is not rooted in a literary tradition. Maybe that is why I think there will never be pure Indian noir.

(Which is why I think mythologicals and social dramas may be our purest cinematic form :))