Journalist and film critic
|KAAGAZ KE PHOOL
|Meghe Dhaka Tara
|Cléo from 5 to 7
|Where Is the Friend's House?
|In the Mood for Love
|Wong Kar Wai
Most seminal Indian film that brought the humane, neo-realistic aesthetic to filmmaking in the country and pioneered the New Wave cinema of the 60s-70s-80s. The evocation of the village of Nischindipur, the searing yet dignified portrayal of destitution, the resilience of its characters, their reconciliation with loss and the essential continuities of life--these emotional truths apart, there are some epiphanic moments, riding on Ravi Shankar's resonant background score, that refuse to get wiped out from our collective consciousness. Durga and Apu running through the fields to catch a glimpse of the train, the humming telegraph poles as the train passes by. I don't think we can ever forget these scenes from the film that we have seen far too often to know by heart. For a lot of us it marked the first brush with cinema that was real, not fantasy or entertainment. And Pather Panchali has been the face of Indian cinema on the world stage as well.
KAAGAZ KE PHOOL
I have chosen the film for the modernity that it ushered in to the realm of popular Hindi cinema while never letting go of its two essential characteristics--melodrama and music. The film, which is on the film industry, itself revolutionised filmmaking with the novel lighting, cinematography and song picturisation and the use of space and sets. The complex and mature themes of marriage and infidelity and showbiz, success and artistic ego run parallel in a multi-layered, unconventional (back in those times) narrative. It may not have been commercially successful in its day but is textbook popular Hindi cinema now for viewers, scholars and filmmakers alike.
This might seem like an odd choice. However, at a time when the West appears to have caught the RRR fever and is discovering popular Indian cinema beyond Bollywood, in languages other than Hindi, I thought it would be good to acknowledge and give its due to a path-breaking Tamil period-adventure of 1948 that defined Indian mass entertainment through sheer scale and spectacle, song and dance and stunts, sets and costumes and a massive budget. It was the earliest Tamil film to get nationwide reach and recognition and was also made in Hindi. S.S. Rajamouli (director of Baahubali and RRR) is S.S. Vasan's inheritor of cinematic legacy.
The simple story of two brothers (one good and other bad) fighting for the kingdom while vying for the affections of same girl called Chandralekha, the film is best remembered for an iconic dance sequence performed atop huge drums that are hiding the hero's soldiers. They burst forth after the song and some magnificent swordplay follows.
Meghe Dhaka Tara
Ritwik Ghatak's groundbreaking Meghe Dhaka Tara alongwith Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha, the other two of his Partition trilogy, documented an important moment in the nation's history and captured the lives of refugees from East Pakistan for eternity. Meghe... is powerful in its feminine perspective, centred on a woman who always puts others ahead of her own self. The film is also notable for the handling of sound and melodrama. The cry of its protagonist towards the finale--"Dada Ami Bachte Chai (Brother I want to survive)"--is one of the most haunting moments in Indian cinema.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of the most influential Indian filmmakers with an enviable body of work rooted in the culture, society and politics of the state of Kerala. Based on the autobiographical novel by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Mathilukal (Walls) is about the literary giant's prison years. A study in solitariness and the ache for companionship, freedom and imprisonment and the love that grows between Basheer and the woman (who we never see, she just remains a voice) he talks to across the wall in the neighbouring prison, Mathilukal is tender, heartbreaking and sensuous all at once with a poignant performance from popular star Mammootty in the lead role.
Timeless tale about how the skein of relationships changes over time within a family. Seemingly simple story-telling, lacking any deliberate flourishes it packs in a lot of meaning and reveals newer dimensions with each viewing. The themes of aging, loneliness, selfishness, manipulation resonate across countries despite it being rooted in society and culture of Japan. I have turned to it several times and each time it has felt as spiritual a visit as it has been cathartic. A true masterpiece.
What more to say about Psycho that hasn't been already said--about Bernard Herrmann's score, the performances, the iconic moments, the shower scene, the taxidermy, Marion, motel and materialism. The film is riveting despite several revisits. And in spite of all the spoilers the killing of Arbogast on the stairs and the close up Bates' face in the end with the mother surfacing in him can still send the chill down the spine. A film I can't have enough of.
Cléo from 5 to 7
There are many greats to choose from in the French New Wave but Agnes Varda and specially her Cleo from 5 to 7 were the earliest to define feminism in cinema and the female gaze for me. The many constructs it challenged, like the idea of beauty, the boxes men put the women in, the stereotypes that the women themselves act on. All of it within the larger ambit of the themes of life and death and the war.
Where Is the Friend's House?
My introduction to Abbas Kiarostami and cinema from Iran, it's unforgettable in how its cinematic simplicity, meditative quality parallels the innocence and care, concern and compassion of its young protagonist who is willing to go to any lengths to return a notebook of his fellow student that he mistakenly brought along from the school. A lovely ode to childhood and the emotions we need to get back to as adults.
In the Mood for Love
A lush, gorgeous evocation of love, desire and distances that are hard to bridge. An example of how cinema can be truly and eternally hypnotic. I can never not be in the grip of the mahjong games, the secrets in the hollow of the tree, the hotel room number 2046, Angkor Wat, the cheongsams, Maggie Cheung's walk to the noodle stall, the plaintive Yumeji's Theme. A film that looks beautiful and is delicate and affecting in equal measure.
This has been a tough call. Even as I have chosen ten I am constantly thinking about the ones I haven't included and am overwhelmed by the endlessness of that other list...
Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves, Battleship Potempkin, 8½, 400 Blows, Breathless, La Dolce Vita, Au Hazard Balthazar, Third Man, Taxi Driver, Godfather...
Kurosawa, Kieslowski, Almodovar, Chaplin, Keaton, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Lang...
Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob, Shantaram, Mani Ratnam, Girish Kasaravalli, Shyam Benegal...
My focus has been on picking a bunch of Indian films that moulded Indian filmmaking and defined cinema for me in my growing years. Films which I think need to be platformed better internationally though some have already found fame.
I wanted to put in more films by women filmmakers but could not. Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Celine Sciamma, Chantal Akerman, Vera Chytilova, Greta Gerwig, Maya Deren, Chloe Zhao, Sophia Coppola... May be that can be another list altogether...
For me great cinema is about timelessness and universality and how it defines and influences the work of other filmmakers. Irony is that in picking ten such greats, I have had to disregard hundreds and thousands of the rest...