By Gautaman Bhaskaran
I managed to catch up with two delightful — but variedly different from each other — movies during my fleeting presence at the recent Mumbai Film Festival. While one of them premiered at Berlin in February, walking away with the top Golden Bear, the other was honoured with a couple of significant awards at Locarno in August.
Berlin screener Taxi is a cocky example of defiance. Iranian director Jafar Panahi made three movies while living under a house arrest of sorts in Tehran and a crushing 20-year ban till 2030 that forbids him from picking up the megaphone.
In the short time since the sentence was slapped on him by the Iranian authorities, Panahi has not only made three films — Taxi being one — but has managed to smuggle them into major festivals. Which have also been sporting enough to accept them, celebrate them and even give major awards.
To shoot Taxi, Panahi fooled the law by turning a yellow cab into a mobile movie studio and placing a camera on the dashboard. As the taxi cruises through the colourful streets of Teheran, Panahi, who himself plays the driver (this was gutsy), picks up different kinds of passengers, many of whom have candid conversations with him. It may well seem like the One Thousand and One Stories of the Arabian Night.
Seemingly inspired by his mentor, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (with a woman driver), Panahi’s Taxi takes us on a journey which several passengers make — each engagingly contributing to cinematic appeal.
The first is a loud-mouthed man who makes a quick note of the camera on the dashboard. The second is a mild-mannered schoolteacher, who gets into a heated debate with the first man over the stupidity of capital punishment and the Sharia law.
The third is a man who sells pirated DVDs of films — and one cannot fail to notice the hint here. Taxi can be seen in Iran only on a pirated disc. This man of course recognises Panahi, and wants to know whether the other two commuters are actors. We would never know, for Panahi never divulges this to the viewer — letting him or her live through the experience of the taxi ride in suspense.
Interestingly, Panahi infuses his road trip with humour, black humour though it may. As he cruises along, he picks up a wounded man and his hysterical wife, and rushes them to hospital. But even in his bleeding state, the man wants to be videotaped as he mouths his last testament and will! Otherwise, he avers his young wife will not be allowed to inherit his estate.
But most profound of all commuters is Panahi’s teenage niece, a student of cinema, who rues the fact that it is almost impossible to make a movie in Iran given the kind of restrictions imposed by the government.
It is precisely here that we realise that Taxi is no mere run on the road, but a deeply provocative look at the dark times artists in Iran are facing. The film conveys sheer outrage, while presenting an on-the-surface laugh.
* * *
Bengaluru-based Ram Reddy’s Thithi (the eleventh-day ceremony for the dead) ended an eight-year dry spell for Indian cinema at Locarno, a scenic Swiss city.
Set in Mandya, Thithi chronicles responses to the death of a man called Century Gowda — from his son, grandson and great-grandson. The man had lived for over a hundred years, hence the title Century. In an engaging climax, the responses mix and match on Gowda’s Thithi — the obsequies providing a platform for emotions to surface and swim in a wave of nostalgia.
“It was always my dream to capture a little piece of India’s soul in a movie. The awards and the good response the film received at Locarno show it has had a wonderful start and that the collective soul of a magical community will live on,” said Reddy.
Co-written by Ere Gowda, Thithi follows Reddy’s earlier short movie, titled Ika (Feather). Reddy just all of 25 years is a graduate from Delhi’s elitist St Stephen’s College. He later went to the Prague Film School.
However, it is interesting to note that given such a background Reddy has made a movie that is rooted in Karnataka, and rural Karnataka at that. Set in a decrepit village in the Mandya district of the State, Thithi is all about death, and how the passing of a patriarch affects the following three generations.
Part poignant, part witty, Thithi captures the mood on the 11th day after the death of a cranky 101-year-old man. His elderly son, Gadappa, is a drifter, who is more obsessed with his magnificent grey beard than anything beyond it. Gadappa’s son, Thamanna, is a scheming materialist who is desperate to get hold of his grandfather’s five acres of land. Thamanna is mortified at the thought of the land falling into someone else’s hands. His young son, Abhi, could not care less about his father’s fears, but is passionately in love with a local shepherdess.
Though revolving around death, there is a playful feel to the film. Humour is never allowed to degenerate into something inane. There is also warmth and certain kind of empathy which is striking.
As one newspaper article quipped: “For a movie dealing with mortality, Thithi has given birth to a brand new voice in the growing tribe of young, independent Indian directors.”
♦ Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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