Harsh Mander

Hope, in the darkest times

A scene from "Apart Together".  

I am sometimes asked what I love most in cinema. Why watching good films so stirs my heart. It is a question I asked myself when recently I made my annual solitary pilgrimage to Goa, to briefly lose myself watching films from around the world. This year, work and family obligations made it harder for me to make the time for the film festival. But still I felt compelled to tear myself away, if even for just three days.

I realised that what I love most in fine cinema is its affirmation of life. It is this affirmation which creates in me a hunger for images and voices from the world over — different histories, different cultures, different politics, and yet all testimonies of the same human condition. And of compassion and hope which survive even the darkest of times.

At Goa, many films focussed on the impact of conflict on people's lives. This is not surprising in today's troubled, fractured world. The one which most caught my imagination was Wang Quan'an's “Apart Together”. A retired nationalist soldier returns from Taiwan to mainland China after 50 years to visit his wife who he was forced to leave behind. He meets his son for the first time, born as he was after they were separated. He encounters her gentle husband, who married her for kindness as much as love, and a large brood of children and grandchildren. The reunited old couple wish to spend their last years together, reclaiming a love stolen from them half a century earlier by the division of their country. But the tender under-stated screenplay maps their discovery that the strides of time cannot be reversed. Set in mainland China and Taiwan, the tale could equally have been located across India and Pakistan, or East and West Germany, or in those many shared lands partitioned by the wars and cynical politics of the last century, which separated inexorably families and loved ones.

A film from Sri Lanka, Bennet Rathnayake's “Under the Sun and the Moon”, also looks back at the bitter ethnic conflict, which extinguished a hundred thousand lives, and destroyed many more. The grammar of the film is sometimes theatrical and melodramatic, in the style of a lot of South Asian cinema. But the narrative is compelling, of an idealistic officer with the Sri Lankan army, who dismays his mother with his decision to marry the sister of a Tamil rebel leader, after his colleagues kill her parents in a raid on their home. The officer dies in war, and a Sri Lankan soldier who feels he did not do enough to save the officer's life, seeks out his Tamil widow and their young daughter and risks his life in a vain bid to transport them to safety. The film speaks of ordinary people caught in the throes of bitter hatred engendered by civil war, while still seeking spaces for reconciliation and healing.

Lonely in the city

Another motif that I found running through many films from different corners of the world was of the loneliness of the city. I was moved in particular by the Hungarian “Adrienn Pal”, directed by Agnes Kocsis, which chronicles the uneventful life of an overweight nurse who works in a ward for terminal patients for 18 years. Her vocation is to keep her wasted dying patients clean and alive for as long as is medically possible, and to dispose their bodies and inform their families when they die. She finds herself emptied of emotion, mechanically dispensing life and death each day, between gorging herself with high-calorie snacks. The film tracks the journey of her rediscovery of her capacity to care.

The Mexican film Ernesto Contreras's “Parpados Azules”, is an engaging account of two very commonplace young people, lonely in their solitary ordinariness. A young employee in a clothes store wins a prize for two to holiday at an exotic seaside resort. But she discovers that she has no one she can induce to accompany her for the vacation. A chance encounter leads her to invite a virtual stranger, and he agrees in order to try to fill the empty spaces of his own life. In a film which is as unassuming as its main protagonists, we learn lessons about the possibilities of love in ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Loneliness is also the central symphony in the lives of all the main characters who work together in an office, in Selim Demirdelen's Turkish film “The Crossing”. One painfully shy executive must talk to his daughter every day at 4.00 p.m. when she returns from school, and her picture with her mother decorates his office table. But we discover slowly that the girl was never born, because his pregnant wife dies on her way to hospital, and he has built this world of fantasy to fill his loneliness. The daily phone-call was from an alarm company, and the photograph cut from a magazine. Another executive is coping painfully with her separation from an alcoholic spouse. A third is coping with the grave illness of his sister. The screenplay weaves together these different solitary lives, and the viewer realises that unexpected stories often hide behind people we may meet every day but never know. But the film also leaves a sense of wistful longing, and of the quiet dignity of ordinary people coping with great suffering.

I also discovered an exceptional Indian film, “Just Another Love Story”, directed by Kaushik Ganguly, and its complex, nuanced and non-judgmental portrayal of the loneliness of an apparently emancipated, openly gay filmmaker (portrayed with grace and insight in a remarkable acting debut by film-maker Rituparno Ghosh). The film works creatively at many levels. Chapal Bhaduri (who plays himself in the film), is now in his seventies. In real-life, he played women's characters in Bengali theatre, and was the first Bengali theatre actor to openly declare his sexual choices. The contemporary gay filmmaker sets out to make a documentary on Chapal's life and, through it, sub-consciously he tries to speak to the world of his own life. Both men like to dress as women, live with married men, and over time develop bonds of empathy with the wives of the men they love. And both men discover how essentially lonely they are in a world which marginalises them because of their sexual preferences.

And then there are in every festival, films about coming of age, of the pain of growing up. “Growing Up” is indeed the title of a Taiwanese film by Chen Kun-hou. A kind-hearted older man marries a bar-girl and accepts her little son. The boy is stubborn, spirited and a little rebellious — and makes some of the mistakes so many of us do as we grow. But the boy has to pay a particularly heavy price for his small misdemeanours, and as a young man resolves to construct for himself a new beginning.

Touching echoes

But the film that I found most endearing was one from New Zealand, simply called “Boy”, directed by Taika Waititi, about an aboriginal motherless boy, whose father is in jail. He fantasises that he is a loving parent with multiple accomplishments. But when his father returns after his release from jail, he painfully discovers instead that he is only a selfish lout. I work in Delhi with many children from the streets with similar stories, of fathers who betray them profoundly, with alcoholism, violence and above all by the absence of love. Like the “Boy” of the film, they deal with their pain and loss with spirit, resilience, humanity and a vulnerable early adulthood. Because this film told the story not just of an aboriginal boy in New Zealand, but my own children as well, this was the picture which most won my heart.

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