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Which Side Are You On?

An Open Letter to the Students of JNU

Abhijit Guha

The 17th Mumbai Film Festival (Oct/Nov, 2015) was full of cin-ematically sophisticated, challenging and innovative movies. Debut Feature Films, India Gold Features, Dimensions Mumbai Short Films, World Cinema, India Story, Restored Classics, Documentaries and Tributes to Agnes Varda (France) and Chetan Anand fused scintillating scripts with inspired direction.

Jafar Panahi
‘‘Taxi Teheran’’ (Iran, 2015, Persian, Colour, 82 mins) by Jafar Panahi, is out on the streets of Teheran, away from the cloistered world that film maker inhabits, following a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on film-making for ‘‘making propaganda against the system’’. The driver (Panahi) is a good-humoured man, plying his fictional trade of a taxi driver. Three small cameras are camouflaged, aided by a glass roof and windows for light to enter, transforming the taxi into a secret moving studio. Disparate passengers enter the shared taxi in rapid succession. Panahi’s dash board mounted camera absorbs the fragments of daily life played out by the passengers. The loud mouthed young man takes note of the mounted camera, set on the taxi’s dash board. A mild mannered female school teacher (Nasrin Sotoudehi) and the young man argue over the morality of capital punishment and Sharia law, in the context of theft and robbery. With reference to the concealed screenings of ‘‘Taxi’’ in Iran, only on DVD, a DVD bootlegger Omid, sits on the co-driver’s seat. He recognizes Panahi, and speaks of Ceylan’s ‘‘Once upon a time in Anatolia’’ and Woody Allen’s ‘‘Midnight in Paris’’. A young woman and her older husband share the back seat. The husband has been injured seriously in a by-circle accident, and demands to be videotaped by Omid, reciting his last will and testament. At the hospital, the injured man offers cash, which the taxi driver declines. The wife runs through the hospital courtyard, and requests for the film. Panahi’s cameras shift with every jerk of the car.

The video owner sells videos of zombie and art films to a young man. The taxi driver observes that books are already written, and films are already made, and advises the video dealer to look elsewhere for inspiration. Two elderly ladies, one carrying a jar of fish, request a lift to Ali’s Spring. Both ladies were born at noon. The fish have to be thrown in Ali’s Spring, so that they both die at night. The driver’s teen aged niece, Hana is collected from school. The niece (Hana Saeidi) pulls out a Canon Camera to make a short film, as school assignment. Hana records on camera, a young man picking up cash, dropped by a newly married couple. She tells the man to return the money. Now a lady with flowers sits on the front seat. Hana’s camera takes a close up of the flowers. The taxi is parked at Ridge Point. The driver meets the two ladies at Ali Spring and returns the purse, found on the back seat. Two men, on bikes arrive and rob the taxi. The film concludes on a blank screen without any credits. The images in ‘‘Taxi’’ are witnesses to the present, and situations. The passengers are of the closed images. Reality is everywhere, though out of bounds for portrayal.

Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard’s ‘‘Dheepan’’ (Belgium/France, 2015, French/Tamil, Colour, 95 mins) has a mass funeral debut, of dead bodies on bamboos, covered with barks and leaves. In the forest area, a man burns old clothes. Amongst children, a woman searches for a mother. Another woman assembles orphans. Sivadhasan Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a Tamil rebel fighter, on the closing side, in the closing days of the long and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. Dheepan Natarajan, 35 years of age, has lost his own wife and child in the carnage. He obtains the passport of a dead man at the refugee camp. Paired with a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a 9-year-old orphan girl, Illayall (Claudine Vinasithamby) as daughter, Dheephan and his new ‘family’ are placed on a boat for Madras, and then on a flight to France, on asylum. The boat ride on the choppy sea at night has coloured light flashes on a dark screen. Much of the narrative and the action is captured on hand held cameras. Dheephan sells plastic trinkets for 2 euros, on Paris streets. When police arrive, he flees. A home is set up, with the stranger woman, Yalini and the adopted daughter Illayaal, who is attending a school. When immigration officials raise questions as to why Dheephan left Sri Lanka, Dheepan explains he was working in an NGO and as a journalist.

Dheepan and his family are relocated to a large housing block in a Paris north-east suburb, Le Pre-Saint Gervais. Dheepan works as a caretaker of a residence in the concrete jungle. He prays in Tamil, in the initial displacement and disorientation. Details of language and other cultural barriers are revealed. The pretending husband and wife have no real feelings for each other, but they feel nice talking to each other. Dheepan is alert when the woman bathes. The girl craves for unconditional love from the adopted parents. Yalini stitches at home and does odd jobs. She works as home-health aid for Mr Habib, an infirm elder, where she meets Brahim, a drug smuggler, on parole. There are clashes between drug peddlers, and Dheepan demarcates ‘‘no-conflict zone’’ with white paint lines. Physical ties and affections develop between Dheepan and Yalini, who adopts western clothes, discarding the sari. Col Cherian, a former Tamil Tiger Commander demands money from Dheepan to buy weapons. When Dheepan maintains that it is all over, he is beaten up.

Yalini and daughter Illayaal are caught in cross-fire of drug carriers. Dheepan catches Yaalini, when she is trying to escape to England, at a railway station. There is more gunfire amongst the smugglers. Reconciliation emerges, and the film concludes with Dheepan and Yalini at a get together, and Yalini holding a baby. ‘‘Dheepan’s’’ diverse tragectories of Sri Lanka’s war, new European society rules, life in a family, criminal drug battles and a critique of French immigration policy converge in immigrant tales and portraits of French banlieu life. Audiard maintains the tempo of a small scale thriller.

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 36, Mar 13 - 19, 2016