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December 20, 2001
Through the lens
Sonya Dutta Choudhary
In director Tarsem’s Singh’s visually arresting debut film, The Cell, Jennifer Lopez, an expert child psychologist enters the mind of a serial killer in order to obtain information on the whereabouts of his victim.
With this as the basic storyline, we are transported by Tarsem Singh, an award winning music videos and commercials director, to a world of sights and sounds that embrace the full visual power of what cinema can do.
Wild flourishes and varied canvases bring the 'mindscape' of the subconscious to life and the imagery employed mixes the surreal textures of Salvador Dali, the gothic motifs of Tim Burton, Japanese-inspired costume design and some truly bizarre set pieces.
Stretching traditional cinematic boundaries we have a genre of directors, many first time, who bring with them the strengths and elasticities of their earlier disciplines, whether it is cinematography, ad filmmaking, painting or even film criticism.
For directors like Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon, M F Husain and Khalid Mohamed, direction has been a richly interactive experience, a process of being defined by cinematic traditions as well as defying them, and of positioning themselves at varying degrees on the art cinema-commercial cinema continuum.
For Santosh Sivan, this has meant moving from the award winning, low budget somewhat niche The Terrorist, where Sivan worked wonders with his camerawork and Ayesha’s Dharkers expressive eyes to magnum opus Asoka.
Inspired by the late Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, Sivan’s Asoka, based on the life the 3rd Emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, is a three-hour epic love story, which deals with the transformation of the emperor Asoka from a bloody warrior to a peaceful monk.
Beset with controversy from the start as to historical accuracy, the film is however nothing short of sheer visual magic. Sivan’s cinematographer’s eye captures the essence of the changing seasons, the colors and the landscape as well the femme fatale of the piece, the Kalinga Princess Kaurwaki played by the oomph-laden Kareena Kapoor, with poetic accuracy and stunning virtuosity.
The film is a riot of colors, of contrasts, of light and shadow and striking sets sans the usual glitz and glitter. You can’t miss the cinematographer Sivan in his films, he is truly in every shot.
As fellow cinematographer, former ad filmmaker and director Rajiv Menon points out , "Cinematography helps you to keep the shooting problems in mind. It also helps you to think visually. Direction and Cinematography are related. The only difference between here and the west is that, there, the Cinematographer decides the shots while here the Director does the same job. I understand the cameraman better - my single greatest plus”.
For artist M F Husain, films have always been a passion. "It is", he declares, "a way for art to reach the people. Painting often becomes the preserve of a few art critics, who guard their knowledge jealously and do not want to share it with anyone. Besides painting, as even Dali put it is 'intellectually inadequate'. My intention in making a film like Gajagamini and casting superstars like Madhuri and Shah Rukh Khan was to bring art to the people.”
Gajagamini sketches the different forms of woman -- mysterious, multi-faceted and majestic. Filmed in surreal set pieces, with a format of a dance ballet, linear time and space progression are deliberately bent to artistic effect. Husain attempts to dispense with the concept of time by showing Leonardo Da Vinci and Shah Rukh Khan (playing himself) sharing screen space with Monica, a modern-day Madhuri, and Kalidas riding a bicycle!
Visually each frame is like a prize painting. In one of the many surreal scenes, Shabana Azmi is unable to hear Madhuri, Shilpa and Farida Jalal's voices, emphasizing that women down the centuries, want to be heard, but aren't. The role of women in keeping the cycle of creation going is established through the scene where Shilpa Shirodkar ceaseless pushes a laden-with-children giant wheel.
Yet there’s a surfeit of surrealism and symbolism here, and the Director whose celluloid brush endeavors to create a film that’s not too 'artsy artsy' and 'audience friendly', seems to have fallen short despite the star power.
Then you have film-critic Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza, that is fully accepting of the pop tradition, yet unusual in the very character of Fiza, the heroine of the film. One of the few really strong woman characters in Hindi cinema, Fiza as Director Khalid Mohamed points out is the rare film that shows a woman with a book. Amaan the hero is by contrast, shown as a well-intentioned but rather weak man.
The film delineates characters in detailed hues, though much criticism was leveled at the director for selling out to mainstream Bollywood song and dance traditions, thus situating his strong, intellectually inclined heroine in a bar and having her dance for dramatic effect. "It was however a natural progression", the director maintains, "a deliberate upset of the stereotype that Muslim woman have to exist in their mohalla and cannot dance."
Commercial successes in varying degrees, these films are nevertheless interesting ones to look out for, in the power of their imagery and in their cinematic explorations, transcending stereotype and tradition and yet also somewhat intrinsically and eventually contained by it.
India News Features Service
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