At Dubai Fest, Arab cinema and Naseeruddin Shah
December 15 2015 11:14 PM

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

One of the biggest campaigns at the ongoing Dubai International Film Festival is called Promote Arab Cinema. About two such works.
Appearing on stage to introduce his debut work, Zinzana (Rattle the Cage), young director Majid al-Ansari said that unless there was enough patronage for Arab movies, no amount of funding would help. This is the key to the success of Arab cinema. Watch more Arab films than those from Hollywood, he signed off.
And Zinzana seemed like a desperate attempt to capture audience attention, for the movie had a feel of Hollywood, its pace, its clipped style and editing. But the script was weak in places and the storyline lent itself to questions.
Set somewhere in Arabia, Zinzana is about a sadistic cop who walks into a small police station to unleash a night of terror on the lone inmate there. Talal (played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri) finds himself in a police lockup after he assaults a stranger (Ali al-Jabri, head of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in a cameo). While the victim gets out on bail, Talal has to stay inside, and his telephone call to his estranged wife does not help either.
It is at this moment that another policeman, Dbaan (Ali Suliman), enters the station to a night long of drama, which unfolds within the confines of a single room. It is only later into the movie that one understands why Dbaan does what he does, although the circumstances leading to this is somewhat fuzzy.
Violent and gory, Zinzana reflects the brute force that policemen use the world over, and the film touted as the first work of noir in the region, is well acted out, but may not quite convince viewers, given the illogicality of the script in places.
Philip Faucon’s Fatima grapples with the Middle Eastern immigrant issue at a time when there is a lot of disquiet over this across Europe. The film tackles the fate of an immigrant, Fatima (Soria Zeroua), whose life in France is not easy.
Born in Morocco and emotionally close to his roots, Faucon’s work is admirable, because he keeps his narrative restrained and does not let it explode into dramatic rage.
Fatima is inspired by a book, Prayer to the Moon, written by a Moroccan woman, Fatima Elayoubi. It is her 1980s travails in France that we see in the movie. The film’s Fatima devotes her entire life to her two daughters even as she is abandoned by her husband. Fatima cleans houses and looks after the elderly, hoping that her daughters would do better than her in life.
However, there is a chasm between her and the girls — the generation gap, lack of mastery over the French language and her refusal to give up the veil. But Faucon makes sure that these mother-daughters disagreements do not explode into major fights, and remain mere skirmishes.
Fatima is a wonderful work about desperation, dejection and disappointment — about a woman who finds herself alienated not only from her daughters but also the society she has made her home. And the narrative is structured with imagination to give us an insight into Fatima’s mind.

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Waiting and Naseeruddin Shah
Anu Menon’s second feature, Waiting, is miles apart from her first, London Paris New York. Screened at the ongoing Dubai International Film Festival, Waiting unfolds in a swanky Kochi hospital — where two grieving people meet and strike a rapport, despite a yawning age difference. Naseeruddin Shah’s Professor Shiv Natraj has been waiting in the hospital for eight months hoping that his wife, Pankaja (Suhasini Mani Ratnam), would rise from her coma and smile, demanding her favourite biryani (steaming hot, please), which her hubby gets from his club where he goes to watch his favourite game, cricket.
Also waiting at the hospital is Tara Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin) — young, sexy and brash — whose husband, Rajat, (Arjun Mathur), is also in critical condition, with a brain injury after a road accident.
So, while Natraj lives in hope, often frustrating doctors with his deep medical knowledge that he picks up from scientific journals, Tara is angry and cannot believe that this terrible thing could have happened to her, and just weeks after her marriage.
Menon, who now lives in London, has a fairly good grip on the narrative (the story grew out of a personal loss, she tells this writer) and succeeds in holding viewer attention — though the movie tends to sag a bit towards the end when it struggles to think of something fresh to keep us all going.
The generational contrast between Natraj and Tara is presented with a lot of humour. What is Twitter, asks Natraj, a question that foxes Tara. She thinks hard for an answer, and comes up with one. It is a notice board where one collects followers, thousands of them, she says. But soon realises the hollowness of it all, for not one of her followers is there at the hospital to comfort her; which Natraj does with warmth, humour and a sense of confidence that probably comes with age and life experience.
In a brief contrast to the tragic grimness of the hospital, Menon takes us to Natraj’s house one evening where he plays an LP record for a little dance with Tara, the music bewildering his neighbour who is wondering what could have happened to the staid professor.
Though one may be tempted to compare Waiting with the Irrfan Khan starrer, The Lunch Box, the two films are very different. Admittedly, the story in Waiting — like in The Lunch Box — involves two people divided by a huge difference in age. But there ends the similarity. In Waiting, there really is no romance between Tara and Natraj — contrary to what some of the Indian papers and magazines have been writing.
Finally, Shah is just brilliant — as ever — as a professor who never says die. And in a brief interaction with this writer here, the actor — one of the first to have been part of the Indian New Cinema which came on in the late 1960s — says that Menon’s script “touched my heart”. This is no clever movie, but one that is extremely genuine. “I felt that Menon was really keen on making a film that was free from the trappings of commercialism… And I could see the sincerity and honesty in the script. Well, my heart wanted to do it. And I did it.”
Shah avers that very few writers or directors have been able to make a serious statement using Bollywood’s commercial format. A few like Rajkumar Hirani have managed it with something like Munnabhai. We have had works like Vicky Donor, Jolly LLB and so on. They were very good, but they were not made in the usual commercial style. These movies succeeded because they told us great stories.
Although a good story is important, but a serious film must give us the truth of our times. It must awaken something in us, Shah contends. “I do not believe that cinema can change the world, that it can be educative. But I do believe that it must and can act as a record of times.”
Digressing from cinema, Shah quips that returning awards is of no significance, because awards themselves are of no significance. “It will be no sacrifice on my part to return my awards. They are lying somewhere in the attic. I do not look at them and gloat.” Shah in his usually and brutally frank avatar, is certainly a delight to be with. And a master performer who can disappear into the garb of a motor mechanic (Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai) or an ageing star (The Dirty Picture) or a lecherous subedar (Mirch Masala) or a coffin-maker (The Coffin Maker) or a common man (A Wednesday)...

♦ Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Dubai International Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]

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