Women at work

Over the past few months, I have watched three wonderful films that have made a deep impression on me. All three involve strong women who start from humble backgrounds and work their way up.  The men along the way are sometimes supportive, sometimes not. But these stories are not really about women versus men — they are about women finding within themselves, the strength to shape their destinies. That there are unsupportive men around is simply one more obstacle for them to negotiate.


A man is wrongfully convicted of murder and spends the better part of his adult life in prison before his sister proves his innocence and has him released. The story is not about him, though — it is about how a high school dropout and housewife and mother of two decides to get her high school diploma and then put herself through college and law school so that she could fight her brother’s case herself. If it weren’t a true story, I’d probably have dismissed it as one more instance of Hollywood putting dramatic impact above plausibility.

That the man is played by Sam Rockwell might not come as a surprise, but it is easy to imagine a number of other talented character actors in the role. But can you think of anybody else except Hillary Swank in his sister’s role?

There is a moment when she visits her brother in prison after he has just tried to kill himself. Watch the way she reacts to this and gently extracts from him, a promise never to do that again. I was reminded for a moment of Laura Linney’s performance in Love Actually, where she reacts to her brother losing control and trying to hit her. It is not a note readily suggested by the plot, but it is what lets Swank differentiate this character from the other strong women she has played before.

Made in Dagenham

As late as the second half of the last century, most companies in the industrialized world still paid women less than men for doing the same work. Then a bunch of women who used to stitch the upholstery on Ford cars at one of their plants in the UK decided to go on strike in protest. It snowballed into a nationwide movement, embarrassed the Labour Government which was in power at that time and led to the creation of new legislation mandating equal pay for women and men. Other nations followed suit.

The movement is spearheaded by a woman named Rita O’Grady (a composite character based on a number of real ones), played by Sally Hawkins. This is the first movie I have seen her in and, if this performance is any indication, I will eagerly look forward to watching anything else starring her, even if it turns out to be a commercial for some brand of fabric softener.

The crucial exchange, for me, is one she has with her husband late in the movie when he claims to have been a good husband because he doesn’t get drunk or abusive. Her response to that is: That is as it should be.

Another gem of an exchange comes when reporters ask her how they would cope if the Government refused to support their demands, she responds with: Cope? We’re women. Don’t ask stupid questions.

Queen to Play

This one’s quite different from the other two, in that it is a little story about a Corsican maid who learns to play chess under the mentorship of one of her employers and finds, within the logical labyrinth of this fascinating game, the keys to her own life. The relationship between the maid and her mentor seems poised on the edge of sexuality sometimes — there is a scene involving them playing a sort of blindfold chess that puts the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway scene from The Thomas Crown Affair to shame. But what really drives it is the respect they have for each other’s minds and talent. A bit like Girl with a Pearl Earring and Once.

The leads are perfectly cast. Kevin Kline shows himself capable of investing a line like “Knight to d4” with more emotion than I would’ve thought possible. Sandrine Bonnaire looks like a woman you might cross on the street without noticing, but when she smiles, well… But for much of the film’s running time, you just see her thinking. I didn’t think it would be so absorbing to watch someone do that, but she makes it so. It takes a special talent to be able to do without dialogue like “Knight to d4”.


Raindrops on roses etc.

A few weeks ago, when my 15 year old cousin was visiting and wanted to watch a funny movie, the first one the came to mind was Arsenic and Old Lace. He loved it, of course.

Once I managed to convince my cousin that my recommendations weren’t hopeless, I went on to recommend The General, Chupke Chupke, Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Pushpak… all of which would make my list of all-time favourite funny movies. Had he been older, the list would’ve included a few more gems. But even if I had a Groundhog Day experience and found myself having to recommend a funny movie to my cousin ad infinitum, I suspect I’d always pick Arsenic and Old Lace first. So there you go.

Drama is a tougher genre, but if I had to come up with just one recommendation, it would be The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a reason why that film is perched atop of IMDB’s Top 250 films list, even above The Godfather.

Action is easier — Sholay, no question. If someone were to screen the movie today in a multiplex and sit among the audience, he’d probably find a whole bunch of voices mouthing the dialogues in sync with the characters. Including mine.

Musicals — Top Hat, I guess. The sight of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing is enough to make anyone smile. Even those who have memories of its remake (Hadh Kar Di Aapne), intruding upon the experience, and that’s saying something.

Romance is tougher. I don’t know if I could pick Mouna Raagam over Once or When Harry Met Sally, or vice versa.

I could go on about other films that stand out in memory. Rashomon, for instance, has had a greater impact on me than any other film I have seenCitizen Kane inspired me to write the short story I am fondest of.

But here’s the thing I realized while trying to compile this list. As much as picking a “favourites” list is subjective, the very act of picking a favourite presupposes, I think, a desire to find someone who likes your favourites as much as you do.

Even when I pick a film like Before Sunrise as my all-time favourite (and it is), I know it isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone. But by making this statement, I am also expressing the hope that someone who hasn’t seen or heard of this film will be tempted to seek it out. Come to think of it, that is as good a reason for blogging about the movies as any other.

Because let’s face it: there’s a certain pleasure to be had in hearing someone else shriek in delighted laughter when Cary Grant says in Arsenic and Old Lace, “When you say others, you mean… others? As in, more than one others?”

Through their experience of discovering those films for the first time, I relive my own.

ps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com.

Freeze Frame #149: Red Beard

Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard is such a skilfully made film in its individual moments that one almost doesn’t notice what a manipulative piece of filmmaking it is. Every word of the script seems to have been written with the sole intention of getting the viewer to exercise his tear ducts. And yet, some individual moments play so powerfully that they entreat us to ignore the flaws.

The key segment is the one where, over the course of one hellish day, a novice doctor learns what he has to deal with in his job. His boss, the eponymous Red Beard (a magnificent Toshiro Mifune), asks him to watch over a man who is about the die. “A man’s death is a solemn occasion. Watch carefully,” he instructs. The novice tries, but cannot watch after a point.

I have always wondered about death scenes in the movies. I have never seen anyone die before my eyes, so I really have no reference point, but whenever I see someone dying on screen, I wonder if it is realistic. Kurosawa deals with this scene by changing the focus. We are not seeing the patient die — we are seeing the doctor’s cool detachment die.

ps: While on the subject of watching someone die, do read this absolutely fantastic little piece by Ratul. No more than a few paragraphs long, but I doubt it can be said any better than this.

A bigger boat

Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat has a brilliant section about the protagonists making a list of things to take with them on the boat trip. The first list they make turns out to have so many items that the boat would likely sink under the weight of it all. Then one of them suggests that they ought to make a new list, not of the things they could use, but only of the things they couldn’t do without.  This would’ve been the end of it, but Jerome elaborates on the wisdom contained in that line:

I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber… It is lumber, man — all lumber! Throw it overboard… Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing (sic).

In some ways, that moldy old cauliflower we have sitting atop our necks is just another kind of boat. The difference is, every once in a while, we come across something that doesn’t make that boat heavier. It makes it bigger. And for having encountered more than a fair share of those moments in my life, I am truly thankful. I don’t know if I will ever get around to writing down the entire list of such things, but here are a few (in chronological order):

Opening notes (1985)

My dad has an almost maniacal love for old Hindi film music. Years ago, he bought a tape that contained a compilation of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs called Magic Moments. The first song I heard from that tape was Mera Dil Yeh Pukaare Aaaja from Nagin (Track 1, Side B). Much of my childhood seems like a blur to me now, but my memory of how that music affected me is crystal clear to this day. It still affects me the same way.

Learning to fly (1992)

Back in high school, my friend Swami lent me his copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull with a strong recommendation that I read it right away. If I had to pick a word to describe how it felt after reading it for the first time, that word would be “sunrise”. It is, in some ways, the only truly religious experience I have ever had. It didn’t influence my thinking so much as it crystallized it. When  I thought about doing a doctorate and worried about the time it would take, the elder gull’s advice on seeking perfection and not worrying about speed came to mind. (My dissertation is far from perfect, but you get the idea.) Even my advisor was like that. He would say stuff like: If you have to go fast, you have to go slow. (I even asked him at one point if he learnt how to teach by watching kung-fu movies.) But he was my elder gull, and he changed my life.

A second playlist (1994)

Until I reached college, my exposure to Western music had been pretty limited. The usual diet of Michael Jackson, one song by Phil Collins (Another Day in Paradise), some Bon Jovi, that’s about it. It was nice enough, but it didn’t really draw me in. The music shows at BITS Pilani used to have two distinct parts — two-odd hours of Indian music, a half hour break, then some Western music. I’d usually leave at the halfway point. One night, sometime in the beginning of my third semester, I stayed for some reason. They started playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond to kick off the proceedings. At first, it seemed to me like they were just jamming. I remember thinking: This isn’t so bad after all. Then they launched into those four notes and it was all over. My list of musical favourites was crammed full with Madan Mohan, S. D. Burman and Ilayaraja at that point. After I heard those four notes, I knew I needed a new list.

What is math for “cauliflower”? (1999)

My friend Sridev, who was a few years senior to me in the doctoral programme, used to tell me that the honeymoon period in the programme comes just after one has finished the coursework and is looking for a problem to work on. You get to read books and papers on a wide variety of topics and try and find out what you’re interested in. I initially started off reading papers on neural networks and fuzzy systems when my advisor recommended that I try reading a book called Computational Learning Theory, by Martin Anthony and Norman Biggs. It was a slim little book, and I got started on the preface while I was walking back from the library. It began with the line: Computational learning theory is a tentative attempt to build a mathematical model of the human cognitive process. It was, as they say, love at first sight. At that point, I had no idea of the sort of mathematical hoops I’d have to jump through in order to work in this area. I still don’t understand a lot of it, come to that. Like Elvis sang, Wise men say/Only fools rush in. But it’s true, I couldn’t help falling in love with it. And I never fell out of love either.

Blinkers off (2000)

I’ve been in love with the movies for a long time, but it was when I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon that it became more than just a medium of entertainment for me. It wasn’t just that it had a brilliant concept — it was the message it set out to convey. We get bombarded with so much information over the course of our lives that it becomes easier, at some point, to just take it for granted and believe what we see or hear. On top of which, we slowly, almost unconsciously, program ourselves to hear only what we want to and filter out the rest. But every once in a while, the memory of Rashomon tickles a corner of my brain and makes me stop and look around. That doesn’t make life any easier, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the oldest cliches I’ve heard pertains to how life is such a great teacher. Sure it is, but you know what, it mostly doesn’t offer any compulsory courses. They’re all electives. These are the ones I chose, and the syllabus has been awesome so far.

ps: Thanks to Ratul, who pointed out that beautiful passage in TMiaB to me many years ago.

pps: Okay, most of you who read this blog already know it’s about the movies. So how many of you, after seeing the title, first thought it was a reference to Jaws?

ppps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com


Freeze Frame #132, #133: Once

A man stands at a street corner with his guitar, singing. During the day, when people pass by and are likely to drop a coin or two into his box, he sings popular numbers that they may have heard. It is after dark that he starts singing his own stuff. Whether or not his music is to your taste is, I think, immaterial — it is impossible to ignore the way his intensity goes up a few notches when he is singing his own compositions.

A woman approaches him. “Where is she?” she asks after a modicum of preliminaries about why he doesn’t sing stuff like this during the day. “She’s gone,” he replies. It is clear that music like this cannot come out of anything other than personal loss. She doesn’t know him, nor he her. This is a pretty personal conversation for two strangers to be having.

It turns out eventually that she is a musician as well. And that, I think, is all you need to understand. Once is a movie about two people who fall in love while they make music together. But it is not so much about their “romance” as about the sense of camaraderie and respect that two people share when they find common ground in a particular activity. In that sense, it has much in common with Girl with a Pearl Earring, that little gem of a movie about Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting.

Two scenes really stand out for me. The first is the one where they play together for the first time. It is at a store that sells musical instruments, where she has a deal with the owner to come in and play the piano for an hour. She brings him along, and they play a song he wrote called Falling Slowly. He gives her a rough idea of the music, starts off slowly and lets her join in. They play tentatively at first, slowly getting used to another person sharing their space. And as they grow in confidence, the music begins to soar. As a scene that shows the developing bond between them, it is nothing short of perfect.

It also serves to set up a later solo where he is in his room, singing a song about his breakup with his girlfriend. Home video clippings of them together plays in the background. It is clear that he hasn’t still gotten over her. But as he sings, you hear her (the girl, not the ex-girlfriend) voice slowly coming in, providing the harmony to his lead vocals. A part of you recognizes this and says, “Yes, this feels about right.”

These days, there is at least one big budget Hollywood musical coming out every year. Most of the time, the music is just an excuse to stage a big production number. But every once in a while, a movie comes along to remind you that the music doesn’t need the help.

ps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Freeze Frame #128: Caramel

Towards the end of Caramel, Nadine Labaki’s debut feature that follows the fortunes of four women who work in a beauty salon in Beirut, is a moment of heartbreaking duplicity that conveys far more than it depicts.

It features Jamale (played with barely restrained desperation by Gisele Aouad), a has-been actress hoping for a second chance. You see her attending auditions, with her skin pulled back and held with tape to make it look tighter. There is a moment when it is noticed during an audition and you see her trying to maintain her composure while still standing before the camera. Labaki shows a good sense of timing here — she lets the scene go on just long enough so that we begin to squirm.

The movie ends with the wedding of another of the characters. During the party afterwards, Jamale tries to jump the queue outside the women’s loo by telling the others that she has her period. Once inside, she pulls out of her handbag some fake blood to dab on a piece of toilet paper and an empty wrapper for a sanitary pad, and dumps them in the trash bin.

Now, I’m a guy, okay? Admittedly the sort of guy who would watch a chick flick like Caramel in the first place, but this is usually the sort of material that comes under the heading of Too Much Bloody Information.

But I kept getting drawn back to Jamale’s face while she goes through this little routine. It is clear that she has done this before. But right then, it seems like one deception too much to handle.

The movies are so obsessed with closure sometimes. Thank heaven for moments like these that are created in the knowledge that,  by the time the movie ends, not everybody has gotten that far.

Winter Light

Full disclosure: The idea of a movie about God’s silence doesn’t set my pulse racing, despite whatever I have led you to believe about my tastes in cinema. In my defence however, I will state that it doesn’t turn me off to the point of not watching it. So I slipped in the DVD and settled down to watch Winter Light, a Bergman film about a pastor who has lost his faith since the death of his wife.

What a quiet, sad, affecting piece of film making this is! The principal characters seem to be living in their own private hell most of the time. The conversations are mostly monologues, with the other participant simply reacting to the speaker, and the dialogue is spare but brutally honest. The only “event” in the movie is the death of a supporting character, but even this does not lead to any dramatic closure.

And yet, Bergman managed to draw me into this world of oppressive silences and uncomfortable confessions. He made me care about these people. Even the pastor, who is the least sympathetic character in the film. I spent a good bit of time wondering how he managed to do that, and then it struck me.

The man doesn’t try to tell a story. He simply observes, and with such an unblinking eye that you become the man behind the lens. You simply cannot look away, and as a result, you get involved. I have seen directors do this for a segment of a movie, but rarely for the entire running length. I am so used to seeing movies where things keep happening that my initial reaction was to wonder how much discipline it took to keep so still as a filmmaker. But then I realized that I am thinking about taking things out of the movie, whereas Bergman probably thought upwards from a blank canvas.

I read that Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist spent an entire day sitting in the pews of an empty cathedral just to understand how light moves through the space. When I imagine how this would’ve happened, I don’t imagine them talking. In my mind’s eye, they sit there quietly through the day, with just a few words between them. They just sit there and do the job they came there to do.

The performances match up to the expectations this style of film making places on the actors. The camera stays focused on their faces so much of the time that it is impossible to be less than totally committed. The principal characters seem so tightly wound up that, when they speak, it is as if every little show of emotion leeches all their strength out of them.

I wonder whether I would recommend Winter Light to anyone. Films like this demand more than a passive viewing. You have to get involved, think about the issues that the characters think about and reach your conclusions without the director holding your hand every step of the way. And to make matters worse, none of these are happy people or easy issues.

Do you want to do that? Frankly, on most days, I don’t. But when I do, I am glad I took the effort.

ps: On a slightly more flippant note, there seems to be a Schrodinger’s Maa between this movie and Manoj N Shyamalan’s Signs.