Archive | Movie Reviews

‘My Barefoot Friend:’ The story of Kolkata’s rickshaw pullers

Posted on 11 May 2011 by admin

“All foreigners say they are friends. You may be, but only when you are here.”

The film ‘My Barefoot Friend’ was screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival this past week. Directed by Seong-Gyou Lee, the film tells the story of Shallim – a rickshaw puller – trying to make it in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). Shallim and his fellow rickshaw pullers target the tourist area of Sudden Street, negotiating with cars, buses, and motorcycles on a daily basis. Lee’s film comes in the shadow of a law passed in West Bengal banning rickshaw pulling in 2006. The law has yet to be imposed in Kolkata. In passing the legislation, arguments for human rights, dignity, and decency were used to justify banning rickshaws. Simply put, the image of one man pulling another on his back is too stark a depiction of desperate poverty and inequality, and certainly not one that lawmakers want to be iconic of Kolkata.

Lee’s film introduces us to some of these rickshaw pullers who would have their livelihoods taken away from them, were the law was to be imposed. Many are essentially economic refugees from the neighbouring state of Bihar, who come to Kolkata looking for money. Running barefoot in Kolkata, these men have a camaraderie that translates well onto the screen, caring for and counseling each other through bouts with illness and dejection on hostile city streets that at times seem to be closing in on them. Lee’s film captures the juxtaposition of cars against the old-world low-tech transportation of rickshaws. But even as the cars seem to be slowly squeezing out their older predecessors, Shallim vows, “We will never stop running.”

Lee’s film takes us into Shallim’s world, where we find a responsible husband and father trying to balance his family with his own dreams and aspirations. The film is in many ways a tribute to this family man as he struggles with medical costs for his ailing son and wife, while also trying to hold onto his dream of buying an auto rickshaw. The film also traces Shallim’s mentorship of Manoj, a young man who comes to Kolkata to support his family after his father is killed by their landlord in Bihar. But Manoj is visibly despondent and struggles to find and hold onto customers, as Shallim observes, “Kolkata was like a cloth that didn’t fit him.”

The film’s opening and closing scenes also point towards the decade long friendship between the director Lee, and Shallim. The film opens with Shallim rejecting the director, and in turn the audience by demanding that the cameras be turned off. Shallim complains that the crew films him doing everything; even drinking his chai and states “I don’t need foreign friends.” He tells Lee, as the filmmaker pleads with him in Hindi, “All foreigners say they are friends. You may be, but only when you are here.” Shallim’s retort is certainly an apt observation on the power dynamics of both tourism and documentary filmmaking. Shallim’s realistic expectations jar the viewer, making the film difficult to watch as one becomes conscious of intruding upon this family’s attempt to face their struggles with dignity. As we watch, the plastic bag full of the money Shallim has saved for his auto rickshaw dwindles. At the same time costs for hospital treatment and medications mount. Yet it is also through the process of documentation that Lee is able to widen his lens and offer his audience a broader view of how the experiences of his subjects relate to larger themes of modernization, family, sacrifice, and dreaming.

‘My Barefoot Friend’ is not only a moving film about a rickshaw puller trying to make it against the odds; the film also offers a pressing reflection on the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Lee manages to investigate several themes without sacrificing depth of inquiry, creating a rich tapestry that mimics the chaotic flow of the streets of Kolkata that his lens artfully captures. Rather than simply glorifying poverty and romanticizing the hardship of his subjects, Lee’s treatment carefully invokes respect for the dignity his subjects exhibit.

Hot Docs documentary film festival ran from April 28th to May 8th. The festival included several documentary films set in India, including; ‘The Bengali Detective,’ a look at Rajesh Ji a private detective, ‘Life in Loops,’ an exploration of megacities including Mumbai, and ‘Love Arranged,’ on arranged marriage in the internet age.

By Gillian Philipupillai


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Avatar: Far from being a Masterpiece

Posted on 07 January 2010 by .

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars

Like many of you, I had been anticipating the release of Avatar since it was announced. First of all because it is the most expensive movie ever made, secondly the movie was created using new 3D technology that blurs the rift between reality and imagination, and lastly the movie was produced and directed by James Cameron. For those of you that are not movie buffs, James Cameron is a well known director in Hollywood known mostly for his movies that take special effects to the limit. He is mostly famous for his previous blockbusters such as, Titanic, Terminator 1 and 2, and Aliens.

First things first, Avatar was created to be a showcase of the special effects technology that was created by James Cameron for Avatar. If you are planning to go watch this movie (which you most likely are) expect to be blown away by the realism of the alien-world known as Pandora, but don’t expect to be drawn away by the story.

The story of Avatar can be rounded down to a “Pocahantes” with aliens instead of natives. The movie’s plot rolls around the similar age old story of xenophobia and misunderstanding resulting in war. The film features a paraplegic ex-marine who is sent to Pandora to fill in for his dead brother in a mission that leads to him and puts him in a position where he must either follow orders or protect the aliens he has come to call his own.

Other than the fact that this movie is basically “Dances with Wolves” in space, it is a special effects spectacle like no other science fiction movie ever made. When you put on the 3D glasses on (if you are watching it in 3D, which you should be) you will become enveloped in a world filled with wonderful creatures, shiny and lethal machines, and extremely realistic aliens. Another plus in Avatar is that the cast of the film is composed of sci-fi veterans and big names, such as Sigourney Weaver from the Aliens series, Sam Worthington from Terminator Salvation, and Zoe Saldana from Star Trek. This cast was the first of its kind to act out complete scenes dressed up as their CGI characters using their own movements and their own likeness, by James Cameron’s face imaging technology and “Virtual cameras”. So all the aliens you see in the movie are actually modeled onto the actors themselves, you are not watching some puppets being voiced by actors but the actors themselves dressing up in a sort of “digital” costume.

Now if you look past the special effects and the slightly stale story line, Avatar is far from being a masterpiece, instead it is a first in a new wave of movies that will soon take over movie theaters and eventually our hearts. Movies like this will become a standard with in the coming years and we can expect to eventually reach a point where we will literally be watching holograms coming out of the screens.

My final Verdict: Avatar is no masterpiece, but it is something that has set a new standard and will be remembered for its special effects and not for the story.

Author: Daanish Maan

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3 Idiots – ‘All is well’. Burry your worry!

Posted on 07 January 2010 by .

I heard Chetan Bhagat’s name the first time in 2008 when an Indian movie ‘Hello’ released. It was based on one of Chetan’s bestselling novels, ‘One Night @ the Call Center’. ‘Hello’ was a classic example of the movie-based-on-promising-story-gone-wrong. The movie sank without creating any ripples although Chetan had co-scripted it.

Chetan Bhagat is one of the widely read young, Indian authors. Two of his novels have inspired major Indian movies while the rights of his third book, ‘3 Mistakes’ have been acquired by Farhan Akhter’s Excel Entertainment. The most anticipated release of the season, ‘3 Idiots’, starring Aamir Khan is loosely based on Chetan’s debut novel, ‘Five Point Someone’.

Unfortunately, I have never read any of Chetan’s books so I can’t comment on that but what motivated me to write down my views was the movie ‘3 Idiots’. The movie is about three students from different social backgrounds studying at the Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi. The movie talks about living life on one’s own terms and chasing one’s dreams. However, chasing one’s dreams is not a piece cake if you are living someone else’s dreams.

In subcontinent a common mindset is that children are told since beginning the career they would choose. No one pays heed to the child’s aptitude or his/her own choice of profession. Similarly the absence of career counseling in the educational institutes makes things worse. Talking of careers, there are especially two professions considered lucrative, stylish and appealing in every sense of the word. First is the medical profession and second is the engineering.

According to the latest statistics released by the government, female literacy rate in Pakistan stands on 42% – out of that only 15-25% seeks higher education. Majority of those seeking higher education compete for a place in medical schools. Those who are left out later on change career plans. Has anyone ever wondered why all the young ladies like to end up in the medical profession? The answer to this question is quite simple. In most cases the girl is fulfilling her parent’s expectations. She’s been told and trained since childhood as to what she would become and this leaves almost no room for making her own choices. I can totally relate to that. When I was a kid and someone would ask me what I would like to become when I grow up, I would instantly say, ‘doctor’. I knew nothing about this profession. Doctors were scarce in our family so there was no question of idealizing anyone either. Actually my father wanted me to pursue medicine. He would often tell me, while helping me solve the math problems, that I had to work hard because he wanted me to be a doctor. For years, I remained under that pressure. In ninth standard I realized, I wasn’t cut for medical profession. The sight of blood would invariably make me queasy. I was having hard time studying Physics and Chemistry. So one day, I mustered up courage and with pounding heart told my father that I lacked an aptitude for studying medicine. The expression that spread across his face was something I would never forget. His head hung down in disappointment and he only asked me that much, ‘then what?’ As if there weren’t other professions left in the world to pursue? How I convinced him is a long story but his disappointed tone still resonates in my ears.

Is it fine for parents to realize their dreams through their kids? Having gone through it personally I’d do my child a favor and would never force him/her to become a tennis player or a movie director because I wanted to become those at one time.

In the South Asian society there is another aspect of forcing girls into medical profession. Being a doctor means not only a secure financial future but it also guarantees good match in the marriage market. The match making aunties look for girls, who have a medicine degree, are tall and fair because that’s what the demand is. They can compromise on the last two credentials as long as the girl is a doctor and is making good money. Needless to say this attitude is sickening to the core and reflects a strange collective behavior of the society.

Like girls, the boys also live with the dilemma of forced career. Although it’s not a written rule but is followed religiously that if the father is a doctor, an engineer or a civil servant the son will have to follow his footsteps irrespective of his own choice. In ‘3 Idiots’ this issue has been raised quite effectively. Besides, the movie also questions the rat race of getting good scores by cramming text books and less focus on the practical or out of the box approach to the teaching and studying methods. Those people who have been part of the Indian or Pakistani education system would relate to that movie.

It was so refreshing to watch ‘3 Idiots.’ It raised so many thought provoking questions without getting preachy. It is one of those rare Indian movies where entertainment meets substance and you end up feeling enlightened and rejuvenated because you feel as if your own thoughts found voice on the big screen. All the actors have acted well but ‘3 Idiots’ is Aamir Khan’s movie all the way. Only a perfectionist like him could pull off a role of 20-something college student. He did lose oodles of weight for that role.

After this movie, the director Rajkumar Hirani has become one of my favorites in the business. Through his first two movies, ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ and ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’ he spread Gandhi’s message of universal peace and love and also introduced the world to the ‘magical hug’ – a sincere hug that was bound to eliminate all tensions. And the mantra of ‘3 Idiots’ is, ‘All is well’. Burry your worry! That may not solve the problem but will give you enough strength to cope with it. Hats off to Chetan Bhagat, to Hirani, to Aamir and to everyone connected with the project for making a genuine movie with the powerful message.

Author: Ayesha Umer

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