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Lockdown Blueschasers: Children Of War!

Lockdown Blueschasers: Children Of War!
Written by Subhash K . Jha

Children  Of War (2014):   In one of the many mind-numbing images in this exceptionally vivid work on the wages of war, the back of a truck is  jolted open and out falls a tumble of women one on top of another at a Pakistani prisoner camp for Bangladeshi women run by a despicable tyrant who could be the Nazi mass murder  Ralph  Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

 But no.It’s Pavan Malhotra, brilliantly evil and slimy as the man who believes that if Pakistani soldiers  rape and impregnate enough Bangaldeshi women  , the separatists and  freedom fighters would stop dreaming of their own home-land.

 This is the irrational,  blood-soaked ravaged Pakistan of 1971 when Bangladesh was born out of the most horrific violence perpetrated against humanity.Very often as I watched debutant director Mrityunjay Devvrat’s stunning film I was reminded  of the great anti-Nazi films, like Alan Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice ,Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far , and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. I  was also reminded of Nandita Das’s Firaaq about Gujarat’s 2002 genocide where a truckload of corpses had tumbled out. The difference is,the women who fall from the truck like trash from a garbage van in Children Of War are alive.

They might as well be dead. As these Bangladeshi women, played by actresses of various ages  from 12 to 40 who seem to live every second of the agony, are raped repeatedly you wonder how low human beings can fall when given unlimited power.Rape as a tool of oppression has never served a more brutal purpose in any other film except Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen. And you wonder why the man or woman who sits in the boss’ chair in the corporate organization  is no different from the leery neo-Nazi from the Pakistani concentration camp who supervises the mass rape of Bangladesh women.

Children Of War shows how and why absolute power corrupts absolutely. Revisiting the Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971 it recreates with nervewracking vividness the horrors of those times when suddenly a whole civilization was threatened with extinction.The director spares us none of the agonizing details.Why should he? When humanity suffered  first-world countries turned their faces away.It’s time to face the music.

 The unannounced midnight knock and the graphic rape that follows, the brutal slayings of refugees on the run as they are intercepted and shot pointblank(in slow motion) on a river bridge as they try to escape, the leery Nazi-like army man peeing into war prisoner’s face….War never seemed more like a personal and political violation.

This is not a film for the squeamish . But then war was ever meant for the civilized. The sheer incivility of a strife where one bully-section of a country decides to teach another  section of the people a lesson, is captured in layer after layer of unstoppered brilliance portraying the complete collapse of compassion.

 The film is littered with passages of unbearable pain  and, yes agonizing beauty. It is an indelible irony of all visual arts that human hurt makes for great visuals. The lush lyricism that Mrityunjay Devvrrat supplants to the suffering never takes from the powerful statement on pain and suffering  . Cinematographer Fasahat Khan shoots the chilling nights with prowling predators and ravaged women captured together to emblematize the essential conflict between sexual aggression and vulnerable victims.

There is no manipulation here in the merger of the murky and the magnificent. They have co-existed from time-immemorial. In this film the ugly and the cherishable are so close together you can touch both and come away a changed  film-viewer. The plot moves across several epic conflicts simultaneously. There is a teenager Rafiq (played with heartrending vulnerability by Riddhi Sen) who loses his entire family and his home and is left with only a sister(Rucha Inamdar) to flee from the brutality of his homeland to the relative safety of India. 

Rafiq’s journey becomes a metaphor of Bangladesh’s feral fight to freedom.

While the director has made extensive and telling use  of documentary footage(including Mrs Indira Gandhi’s rationale for Indian intervention in Bangladesh) , there are many passages of unbounded symbolism leaping out  of the screen. I was specially fascinated by a boat journey across a blood-soaked tell-tale river where a girl ‘sees’ ghosts and other casualties of  war violence as they jostle tell her, it is not over yet.

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At times like these Mrityunjay Devvrrat seems to echo the pain-lashed operatic cinema of Sanjay Leela Bhansali.A trueblue epic of mind-numbing intensity Children Of War is the kind of cinema that David Lean would have attempted were he  a first-hand witness to the barbarism that went into the formation of Bangladesh. The film’s brutal brilliance and spiralling structure if dread  doom and devastation make you wonder how first-time director Mriyunjay Devvrat could muster such a masterly vision  of human oppression and resilience.

At heart this is a conventional lovely story of a couple(Indraneil Sengupta & Raima Sen) separated by sudden war. Standing forlorn  silhouetted by barbed wires in a concentration camp designed in Hitler’s twisted mind,Raima sometimes looks way too beautiful to be a victim. She can’t help it. Along with her every member of the cast rises above his or her  personality to become part of the director’s epic design. Special mention must be made of Pavan Malhotra,Tilotama Shome(playing a human bomb), Riddhi Sen(so young and so much pain!) and Victor Bannerjee in a memorable cameo as a traveling refugeem reminds us that humanism  and barbarism are neighbours.

Aiding the actors to achieve the acme of authenticity is the film’s mesmeric sound-design and music. In one harrowingly graphic sequence a rock-anthem reverberates across the skyline as drains filled with blood tell sagas  of the savagery that awaits just outside  our homes .

Genocide is not only history. It is what a country gets when intolerance is encouraged by political interests.

There are visuals and sounds of pain and anguish in this turbulent treatise on one of history’s worst atrocities that will stay with me forever. It is impossible to believe that this war epic has been directed by a first-time filmmaker.How can a virgin artiste conceive such a vivid portrait of the rape of a civilization?This isn’t really a film. It’s a work of art, tempestuous and terrific.Yes, this is a masterpiece.

Haider (2014) :  Shakespeare lives!  Seldom if ever, has a Shakespearean tragedy been given such a magnificent treatment in cinema of any language. Sure, the narrative is fractured and fatally flawed at times. But like the hero’s villainous uncle who lies limbless writhing in pain in the Kashmiri snow pleading for death at the end,the narrative dares you to end the pain of a people who wear their and brutal existence on their sleeves.

Haan bhai yeh Kashimir hai. Shakespeare never visited the Valley. But going by Vishal Bhardwaj’s film it seems the Bard pre-empted Kashmir’s political turmoil in Hamlet.

 Haider is a beast that just won’t be tamed by regular cinematic definitions.There is flamboyance and subtlety , both at once in the treatment. Elegance and earthiness rub shoulders in the execution of what is regarded as Shakespeare’s most complex of tragedies.

And to place Hamlet in militant Kashmir …what a masterstoke! Haider is the kind of  rarest of rare cinema that unfurls wave after wave of exquisite narrative fuel  into the frames, providing a  kind of compelling narration that is propelled as much by the passionate writing as the intuitive direction.

Bhardwaj understands his Shakespeare inside-out. He transmutes Hamlet into Haider with an unbridled fearlessness, tempered by a  restraint of treatment  that goes a long way in imparting an urgent sense of beauty to the work.

 The basic idea is compelling to the core. Freeing his narrative from the fretful freedom of excessive self-indulgence seen in his last film Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola(where even the title was a sign of showoffy unorthodoxy) Bhardwaj’s vision takes wings creating one of the most complex and compelling mother-son relationships seen before and after Yash Chopra Deewaar.

That Tabu and Shahid play the mother and son torn by the agonizing disappearance of the man they both love(Narendra Jha, a surprisingly well cast actor in a role that is more about absence than presence) is a blessing for Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare. I don’t think any other two actors could have better understood the political cultural and emotional complexities of their characters. Tabu and Shahid get a firm grip on their characters and pitch their emotional compulsions into  Kashmir’s tormenting tale of terrorism during times of  Oedipal  impulses.Their performing range hits the highest octaves without getting shrill. 

The narrative–so supple and strong it defers any dispute regarding its raison d’etre—openson a fateful chilling night in Srinagar when  a doctor accused of harbouring terrorism disappears. His wife (now a ‘half-widow’) shares a discernibly sexual relationship with her brother-in-law(K K Menon,credible and in-character).And the son who was forced to leave Kashmir by his militancy-paranoid mother returns, new an educated young man, to see his mother’s illicit relationship with his uncle.

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At times Bhardwaj’s vision turns playfully towards Shaekespeare’s plays. There is the comic relief in the form of two Salman Khans look-alike running a video parlour in Vishal’s Kashmir in 1995. Salman’s films run playfully through the film like a prankish leitmotif, doing nothing to the main character’s pain-lashed lives. Towards the end three grave-diggers straight out of Shakespeare, sing and dance in and around the graves.

Really, now.

All the world may have been a stage for Shakespeare. Vishal Bhardwaj’s lyrical paean on the pain Kashmir won’t jest at scars  that never felt a wound. He prods and tears at the wounds, drenches the pristine snows of Gulmarg in blood.

Cinematographer  Pankaj Kumar who earlier shot the amazing Ship Of Theseus, penetrates and probes the brutal tragedy of Kashmir. Once there, the visuals insinuate a profound affinity between Nature and Man’s cruelty. Who knows what goes in the minds of politicians, poets and others nation builders? Haider looks at a grieving son’s search for his missing father(memorably enacted by Narendra Jha) with languorous affection. There are bouts of tenderness and brutality in the narrative which sometimes overlap without warning.

Above all, there are the performances…Towering  luminous actors  craning their  collective creative necks into the director’s vision to give it mesmerizing magical spin. While the supporting cast including Narendra Jha, Lalit Parimoo(remember him in Doordarshan’s Kashmiri serial Gul Gulshan Gulfam?) ,Aamir Bashir and a host of adept actors illuminate the edges of this darkly ignited revenge saga it is the three principal actors who pin Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean drama down to a level of cinematic lyricism.

K K Menon as Haider’s treacherous uncle is so wickedly subtle evil yet humane that you wonder where this brilliant actor got waylaid in his journey in cinema. As for Shahid Kapoor’s torn troubled tormented Haider, the actor brings out all the inner conflicts in a  shimmering rush of Shakespearean angst. With this one performance Shahid proves himself notches above all his contemporaries.

But it’s Tabu whose haunted face as the bereaved wife and the troubled mother that will stay with me for many years to come. To the role of the mysterious dramatic deceptive woman Tabu brings a kind of inner illumination that lights up the darkest corners of her character’s souls. Her scenes with her screen-son Shahid Kapoor are smothered in unpoken words and recrimination.Vishal Bhardwaj shoots one lengthy dialogue between the two in one single shot…and why not, when you have two actors who seem to have visited the soul of the Shakespearean play and transported it to to the pain of Kashmir?

The Oedipal suggestions between the two coil and uncoil out of the narration in smouldering balls of flames that ignite the very soul of Vishal’s narration.

As Haider’s love-interest Shraddha  Kapoor struggles to create space for herself in the mother-son saga.She has her brilliant moments towards the end  where we see her humming a Kashmiri folk tune in numbed grief  oblivious to the world that gave her that grief.

Irrfan who has a  capricious cameo also gets the film’s only funny line. “Kashmiris are so used to being frisked everywhere that they can’t even enter their own homes until they are searched.”

But this is not a film about laughter and humour . Haider looks at the grim reality of the blood-soaked Valley through a Shakespearean prism.Shahid’s Haider is one of Hindi cinema’s most tragic heroes ever created. He bleeds into the narrative’s heart without allowing a drop of blood to stain the surface. Vishal Bhardwaj’s third Shakespearean sojourn is his best yet. Haider is like a painting viewed from the road inside an art gallery….The vision is distant yet  vivid, layered life-like and yet exquisitely poetic. And yes,Vishal Bhardwaj’s background score rises and falls in swelling tides of bloodsoaked undulations. Besides Hamlet/Haider the other truly tragic hero in this cinematic marvel is Kashmir.Set in a fatally flawed paradise Haider screams silently to be recognized as a wondrous work of art.

To see or not to see? That isn’t a question at all. 

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