NARRATING HISTORY: The poster for the documentary covering the historic interview that Hitchcock gave to Truffaut. Right: FOCUSING ON INGRID BERGMAN, THE PERSON: The poster for the documentary on Ingrid Bergman.
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Documentaries in India are often considered boring, and a strong reason for this is the kind of fare in this genre we have been fed with for decades. Government-sponsored documentaries over the years have been so shoddily crafted that to watch them even for 15 minutes is sheer torture. Ditto with the ones on famous Indians (like actor Ashok Kumar and Annie Besant) that are now being screened in theatres. These are amateurish and badly conceived.
Admittedly, some good documentaries have been made by Satyajit Ray, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli. They have been truly engaging. But these have been exceptions.
So, when I watched Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, a documentary by Sweden’s Stig Bjorkman at the recent Cannes Film Festival, I was floored — although I did feel it lacking in some places. I was a little disappointed that one of my favourite movies of her’s, the legendary Casablanca, has been treated too briefly. In fact, her first decade in Hollywood — which saw her act in such classics as Gaslight (which clinched her the first Oscar for Best Actress) and For Whom the Bell Tolls — is hardly given the kind of importance it deserves. The three movies helmed by Hitchcock in the late 1940s, Spellbound, Notorious and Under Capricorn, where Ingrid gives superb performances, are mentioned in the passing.
Possibly Bjorkman wanted to focus more on Ingrid the woman rather than Ingrid the actress. Off screen, she was plucky, alluring and wonderful company. As Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid’s daughter from the marriage with Roberto Rossellini, says in the documentary, “she was too much fun to be with”. The fun, however, was laced with enormous courage. When Ingrid left Hollywood to make Stromboli with Roberto in Rome, love blossomed between the two and in full view of the paparazzi. Both were married then, and the scandal nearly finished Ingrid’s career.
Later, Rossellini would create another storm, this time in India when he got involved with a Bengali woman, Sonali Das Gupta. The then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had invited Rossellini to make a film, had to ask the director to leave the country, for such was the outrageousness of the scandal; Rossellini was still married to Ingrid, and Sonali too was not free. Eventually, Rossellini would divorce Ingrid to marry Sonali.
These are some of the intimate portrayals of Ingrid that one finds in the documentary — all culled from the star’s own diaries and photographs and interviews with her children, including Isabella Rossellini (who chaired the A Certain Regard jury this year at Cannes, and who first suggested to Bjorkman that he make a movie on her mother).
Bjorkman could not have taken a better decision than to make the film. For, Ingrid seems to be getting more iconic with every passing year. This time at Cannes, she was the Festival’s poster girl. And Bjorkman’s documentary emphasises and re-emphasises her unique strength and her disarming modernity, which was way ahead of its time.
The other fascinating documentary I saw at Cannes was Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones. This movie comes 50 years after the legendary critic and auteur, Francois Truffaut, barely 30 then, buttonholed Alfred Hitchcock for a long, long interview. A seminal book by Truffaut followed.
Why did Hitchcock say yes to Truffaut, who was just a little boy then. Hitchcock was hugely popular, but did not command any great respect from American critics even after he had wrapped up the 1963 avian thriller, The Birds. And when the young admirer, Truffaut, sought the interview, Hitchcock was flattered and granted eight days of his time. This was conducted at the Universal Studio.
Jones recaptures the historic interview between “the man who created The 39 Steps and the man who gave 400 Blows”. But the documentary goes beyond the book, which was published in 1965. The movie tries to cement Hitchcock’s reputation — which today remains high. In 2012, for the first time Hitchcock’s Vertigo unseated Citizen Kane at the top of Sight & Sound’s all-time greatest film polls.
Jones’ work can be a great introduction to Hitchcock and his exciting cinema. He was a master at conveying fright and horror without resorting to blood and gore — something very few Indian directors have learnt. I did, however, see this in Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction), which played at Cannes. A pity it went unsung there.
Jones’ documentary contains footage spanning Hitchcock’s entire career — with useful analysis of just about every aspect of the master’s moviemaking ways. In the film, Jones interviews 10 famous directors — including Martin Scorsese and Truffaut’s successor, Arnaud Desplechin. We also have inputs from Wes Anderson and David Fincher. What emerges is truly amazing: Hitchcock’s marvellous shot compositions, his play with light and shade and his poetic expressions of human anxieties.
Massu Engira Masilamani
Venkat Prabhu’s Massu Engira Masilamani seems like a collage of several films. It begins like Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26 with Surya’s Masilamani and his friend, Jet (Premigi Amaren), posing as vigilance officers and raiding a liquor shop selling the drink on Gandhi Jayanthi.
The two loot the money there and escape, before taking a ship to impersonate Coast-Guard men to intercept a vessel at sea carrying smuggled goods and currency notes. With bags full of loot, the two are so deliriously happy that they burst into a song and dance, not one but two, one after the other!
A little later, when their car crashes, Jet is killed and Masilamani survives, but acquires the extra-sensory perception to see ghosts. One of them is his own friend, Jet, and the other a carbon copy of Masilamani himself called Shakuhachi. Both help the living man — much like the Patrick Swayze character in the 1990 American movie, Ghost (by Jerry Sucker), who helps his wife, essayed by Demi Moore.
Prabhu narrates the rest of his film through a series of extraordinarily illogical and utterly unbelievable incidents that include Masilamani’s romance with Nayanthara (essaying a hospital staffer, Manini).
Tamil cinema has been talked about because of its ability to present novel themes, but Massu Engira Masilamani turns out to be a mishmash of movies (including a couple of Korean works) that have been seen earlier. Surya does appear plausible in some sequences, so does Nayanthara — but given such a storyline and script, they struggle to keep the film afloat. But why did they at all agree to act in this movie?
* Gautaman Bhaskaran has been
writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed
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