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River to River, Florence, a bluesy Ramayana closes fest


















To start with last things first, this highly varied Indian film week came to a rousing close on December 11 with a brilliant feature length animation entitled "Sita Sings The Blues"   SITA is the heroine of the Indian national epic known as the Ramayana, a tale close to the heart of every Indian person. In the story she follows her husband Prince Rama into exile in a forest where she is kidnapped by the evil king Ravana of (Sri) Lanka. While remaining faithful to her husband, Sita is subjected to a variety of temptations. Director Nina Paley is an American animator who was inspired by a reading of the Ramayana in 2002.  In this hilarious semi-modern adaptation of the Indian epic Sita looks like a Sanskritic Betty Boop, and does indeed sing the blues at various stages of this rip-roaring 82 minute piece of work. In the film filmmaker Nina finds herself in a similar situation when her husband who is in India on business decides to break up their marriage via e-mail. Shadow puppets narrate both the ancient Indian tragedy and the modern Western comedy which are intertwined, all with musical numbers choreographed to 1920 Jazz standards.  The visuals are a juicy blend of Walt Disney and classic Indian imagery and the result is a totally enjoyable flick that I hope will be seen widely for the sheer joy it radiates.
Declared the Best Feature in the week's competition was Deepa Mehta's latest offering "A Heaven on Earth" , a more appropriate title for which would have been "A Hell On Earth".  Deepa, a Canada based offshore Indian filmmaker, has been turning out critically acclaimed award winning Indian films since 1991, but this story of a beautiful mail-order Indian bride who comes to Toronto to marry a despicable Punjabi psychotic named Rocky, and is subjected to nothing but brutal abuse by both him and his hateful mother, is arguably her worst film ever.  A magic love potion, given the hapless bride by a black Jamaican co-worker to change her husband's attitude, brings on (apparently) some sort of hallucinatory encounter with Rocky, who now inexplicably loves her tenderly. But the "old Rocky" sees this hallucination (or whatever it was) as a marital betrayal, and the poor girl is subjected to the good old Cobra Test to prove her fidelity. It so happens that a healthy Indian Cobra lives in their Canadian back yard and she has to reach into its nest and grab it, to prove her pure intentions -- if the snake doesn't kill her she will be accepted back into the fold to resume her role as the family punching bag. The only saving grace of this study in sadism, mixed with ridiculous metaphysics, is a gripping performance by one of Bollywood's prettiest leading ladies, Preity Zinta, in an uncharacteristically somber role, but looking prettier than ever. The selection of this horrid piece of domestic depredation as "Best film of the week" can only indicate that the selection committee must have been dominated by a team of hard-core Italian masochists.

On a much more pleasant note, what was actually the best film of the week, "Khargor", was a beautiful elegiac study of young love in remote village where a ten year old boy plays cupid between a shy young couple carrying messages back and forth between them, but finally falls hopelessly in love himself with the sloe-eyed maiden in question.  The young adult swain who regularly flies kites with the boy calls the crush of his heart "Death",  because every time he sees her "his heart stops beating". With brilliant photography, a very slow, almost hypnotic pace, and a complete absence of songs or music, this most carefully constructed piece of visual poetry is in a class of its own. I just hope somebody out there discovers it because it is a true gem and deserves to be widely seen. 
A fascinating shorter film was "Andhera" (RT '22) directed by Shushrut Jain, a Bombay born graduate of the USC film school in Los Angeles. "Andheri" is the story of Anita, a live-in maid, (Swati Sen) who is practically enslaved by a fat rich old woman who treats her like s-h-i-t.  One night she finds the courage to run away, packs a few things, leaves the apartment on the pretext of going out to do some shopping, and gets on a city bus going ... anywhere!  On the bus she is warmly befriended by a young Moslem woman in black robes, but their budding relationship is nipped in the bud when the husband of the friendly lady in black falls off the bus and is killed. Disoriented, in dismay she has no choice but to head back home. Surprisingly, during Anita's absence the old woman has had a minor epiphany, realizing how much she needs her maid, and now treats her with unaccustomed kindness.  The old woman played by Daisy Irani, is a veteran of more than forty Hindi films.  
Francais Langue Étrangere"
 or "French For Foreigners" by Kargit Singh is a savvy hard-hitting commentary on the highly controversial Moslem head-scarf issue in France. In 2004 a law was passed in France banning "overt symbols of religion" (in particular, the head scarf) from public institutions, such as schools and college campuses.  In a French for foreigners course in Paris a heated argument arises between two Muslim women over the right to wear a head scarf in class.  A middle aged Moslem woman with no head scarf claims that the wearing of the scarf only causes resentment towards Moslems among the French and is not even required by the religion. At one point she actually snatches the scarf from the head of the younger woman setting off a heated debate in the class on all sides of the issue with no final conclusion reached.  Director Kargit Singh was born, of all places, in the American outback of Kansas, and went on to Paris to study film at the Sorbonne. Here he has packed an amazing amount of information and drama into a mere twelve minutes running time and is clearly a new talent to keep an eye on. 
"Ganesh, Boy Wonder" (or "Son of Elephant Man" --my title) by Srinivas Krishna, another Canadian-Indian filmmaker, is listed as a documentary (RT '71) but what we see in the film is so strange that it looks almost like a put-up job. In India Ganesh, the elephant god with the body of a human but the head and trunk of an elephant, is one of the most popular deities in the great Indian pantheon. In the Telugu-speaking south Indian city of Hyderabad a childless couple prays to Ganesh for a son and their prayers are answered -- in Spades! A boy arrives with a monstrous hump in the middle of his face where the nose is normally located, almost as big as the rest of his head. Ganesh --the boy wonder! Aside from this egregious deformity the boy seems to have a normal personality, even a sunny disposition, but something obviously needs to be done and the poor couple is not in a position to foot whatever massive bills would devolve from medical intervention. After much agonizing a surgical team from Canada headed by a Telugu speaking surgeon originally from that part of India decide to take up this enormous medical challenge at no expense to the parents. After warning the parents that there might be side effects such as partial or complete blindness, the operation, performed in Hyderabad, is more or less successful, which is to say that most of the massive hump is removed and the boy's sight is not impaired, but he is left with a with a large proboscis in the shape of a shoe horn which, say the doctord --he will eventually grow into.  Intrigued, but extremely uncomfortable in the face of the matter-of-fact grotesqueness of what I was watching, I managed to sit through all 71 minutes, and am still not quite sure if this was for real or not ...  In any case, one for the books!  
And finally, "A Hindu Indictment of Heaven" by still another Canadian Hindu, Dev Khanna, was really short, twelve minutes, had no Indian actors, was set completely in Canada and really had no Indian content except for an oblique reference to Reincarnation at the end of this Pearly Gates package. A gal in gossamer white is at the Pearly Gates of Christian Heaven where a Peter O'Toole look-alike Peter, grants her an indefinite waiting period so she can enter with her boyfriend, her true love, when his time comes. Five minutes and ten years later, the boyfriend she left behind shows up, but with a different gal in tow.  What a disappointment! --But Peter lets her get herself reincarned so she can try for a better shot at eternal love next time around.  Dev Khanna was a lustrous jovial presence at Firenze and says he has a feature film in the works in Italy, with famous actor Gian-Carlo Giannini. Let's hope this one has a little more Indian content ...

Alex Deleon in Florence

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