Friday, October 30, 2020

In the Mood for Love—Maybe, Maybe, Maybe

Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is one of those films that I always wanted to watch but never actually got around to watching it. After seeing it featured in Sachin Kundalkar's Gandha, I finally saw it and was left amazed by its beauty and grace. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the film is the story of two lonely neighbors, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), whose spouses have an affair together and then they develop feelings for each other. The film has an underlying core filled with melancholy that is deeply moving.
In the Mood for Love is a film about the appearance that we show to the world, the courage that we lack to make difficult decisions, and the chances that we miss and regret. All through the film, Mrs. Chan is impeccably dressed in her cheongsams. Her neighbors are amazed that she goes to buy noodles all decked up. Mr. Chow, too, is dressed sharply throughout. He always wears suits and ties. His hair is neatly combed and gelled. Not one strand of his hair seems out of place. The outward appearance of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow serves as a mask to hide their inner turmoil. They are lonely and unfulfilled deep inside. Her husband is out on long overseas trips. His wife works long nights. They do not see their spouses for weeks and months. But they are conscious of revealing anything to the world and pretend that everything is fine in front of others.
Once they find about the infidelity of their spouses, they start role-playing the other's spouse to understand them better. And in the process, they develop feelings for each other. However, they choose not to act on them because they want to be morally better than their spouses. It is also about the lack of courage on their part. The opening lines of the film say: "It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away." The two of them also do not have the courage to come out of the chains of their lives. Mr. Chow knows that Mrs. Chan does not have the courage to leave her husband. So, he decides to move away.
In one of their meetings, Mr. Chow talks to Mrs. Chan about he was free to do many things when he was single. After getting married, he has to do things together with his wife. They wonder about their life if they had not been married. Mrs. Chan thinks she would have been happier if she was single. Marriage has trapped them. During their night-time walks, they are often framed behind prison-like bars. One of the most evocative images associated with the film shows the reflections of the bars falling on them as if they are trapped in a prison. They are afraid to come out of these cages. They take great pains to avoid being seen together. They will enter the house at different times. At one point, they had to spend a night trapped together because their neighbors came home earlier than expected. Mr. Chow even books a separate room where they can meet without the prying eyes of their neighbors.
They are trapped in prison-like bars
In the Mood for Love is also about the chances that we let go in our lives that become our lasting regrets. Mrs. Chan rushes to meet Mr. Chan in his room but he had left by the time she arrives there. She missed her chance. Later, she secretly enters his apartment, and calls him up but is not able to speak to him once he is on the line, letting go of another chance. In the final moments of the film, Mr. Chow visits his old apartment and peeps at Mrs. Chan's place from the window. He is told by the owner that a woman and her son stay there. Unaware that the woman is none other than Mrs. Chan, he walks by her apartment missing the chance to meet her once again. Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss
Wong Kar-wai uses vivid filmmaking styles in In the Mood for Love. The cheongsams that Mrs. Chan wears almost always merge with the background. A red cheongsam matches the red curtains. A floral cheongsam matches the floral curtains. Also, we never see the faces of the spouses of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. However, the most remarkable thing that stands out is the way the film has been shot. The perspective of the camera is that of the viewer who is looking at the proceedings from the outside. It is placed near the windows, the corridors, and the alleys. It is trying to peep in the story of the characters. We never get to see the interior of the house where they stay. Many a scene has also been shot where the characters are seen from behind or stuck in a frame.
Her cheongsams match the background
The camera is peeping in their lives from the outside
The shots from the corridors
The frame freezes to represent Mr. Chow's wish of freezing the time
Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow learn about the affair of their spouses at a dinner date. He casually asks her about the handbag she was carrying with her earlier in the day. She replies that her husband brought it for her on a business trip abroad. Likewise, she asks him about the tie he was wearing. He says his wife buys all his ties. Mrs. Chan's husband had got two handbags—one for his wife—and one for his lover who turns out to be Mr. Chow's wife. Likewise, Mr. Chow's wife got two ties—one for her husband—and one for her lover who turns out to be Mrs. Chan's husband. Their spouses were not only having an affair but having one with their neighbors. It confirms the suspicion that Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow had in their minds along.
Early in the film, Mrs. Chan asks her husband to bring two handbags for her boss. She does not mention the reason clearly but says she is fine even if they are of the same color. Her boss at the shipping company where she works was having an affair and she helps manage his relationship with the two women. The two handbags scene also gave the premonition of the way she learns about her own husband's affair. In another scene, Mrs. Chan notices the new tie of her boss. Her boss is impressed by her observation. She replies that you notice things if you pay attention. Moments later, her boss changes the tie, and Mrs. Chan again asks him the reason for the same. Her boss replies the new one was too showy which was a gift from his mistress. Given her noticing powers, it is not surprising that Mrs. Chan sees the tie that Mr. Chow wears. It was exactly the same as her husband's. If one revisits the scene where the two of them see each other earlier in the day, the perturbed expressions of both of them give away what they had been thinking all along at that precise moment when they bumped into each other. 
While watching In the Mood for Love, the one film that kept coming to me was the equally melancholic The Lunchbox. Directed by Ritesh Batra, the film is an epistolary romance that develops between Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan (Irrfan) when a lunchbox meant for Ila's husband is accidentally delivered to Saajan. Compensating for the lack of love through food is a running theme in In the Mood for Love and The Lunchbox. Mrs. Chan goes to pick-up noodles almost every day from a nearby shop. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are frequently seen eating togetherAt one stage in the film, they order the food that their spouses would like. Mr. Chan offers her a spicy sauce that his wife would prefer. Later in the film, a friend informs Mrs. Chan that Mr. Chow is craving sesame soup. She surprises him by preparing the same. In their last meeting, before she leaves, she asks him if he wants some food that she can bring for him. Likewise in The Lunchbox, Ila and Saajan are two lonely people who develop an unlikely relationship over food and letters. Ila is in a marriage that seems to have lost its flavor and Saajan is a widower whose wife died years ago. She sends her husband's favorite dishes to Saajan. At another stage, Saajan casually mentions that his favorite dish is eggplants. She prepares them, too, and sends them to him. Food is a metaphor for the love they crave in their lives. Even the other characters are hungry for food—or love. The orphan Aslam craves delicious food so that he does not have to eat bananas every single day. Ila's mother feels hungry when her husband dies as if his death drained everything out of her.
Food as desire
In In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow decides to move to Singapore to have a better life for him. He asks Mrs. Chan that he has an extra ticket if she will like to come along with him. Singapore becomes Bhutan in The Lunchbox where Ila after discovering her husband's affair wonders if she can move there. In response, Saajan writes to her what if he comes to Bhutan with her.
Both films also talk about the chances that we let go of in life. Mrs. Chan dashes to the room where Mr. Chow was staying but he had left for Singapore by the time she reaches. Later, she enters his apartment in Singapore and calls him but stays absolutely quiet on the phone. She takes the pink slippers, which were originally hers, and leaves behind a pink lipstick-stained cigarette. Somehow, she could not take the next step to be with him. Nat King Cole's Quizás, Quizás, Quizás plays all through the film showing their indecision. Every time I ask. What, when, how, and where. You always reply. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Something similar happens between Ila and Saajan. After exchanging letters for some time, they decide to meet each other. On the day he is to meet Ila, the smell in his bathroom reminds Saajan of his grandfather. It struck him that he has become old. "Just me and the smell of an old man," he writes to her. He goes to the restaurant and keeps watching her but could not muster the courage to talk to her in person. Later, Ila goes to his office to meet him but he had left his job and moved to Nasik. In the end, Saajan comes back and tries to find Ila. It is never shown as to what happens to them. Maybe they met and went to Bhutan. Maybe they did not. 
She calls but does not speak.
He arrives but does not meet.
Not only do the two films have similarities in their story, but also in some filmmaking elements. The faces of Mrs. Chan's husband and Mr. Chow's wife are never seen in the film. Barring a few scenes where they are seen from behind, it is only their voice that is heard in the film. There is Deshpande Aunty (Bharti Achrekar), Ila's friendly neighbor, in The Lunchbox whose face is also never seen in the film but her presence is noted by her voice in the film. In an interview with The Aerogram, Batra also said that a lot of people tell him that his film reminds them of In the Mood for Love
He has left for Singapore by the time she reaches his room.
He has left for Nasik by the time she reaches his office.
In the final moments of In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow travels to the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. In complete contrast to the dark bylanes of Hong Kong, it is the first time that wide expansive shots are seen in the film. Mr. Chow walks up to one of the holes in the walls and whispers a secret in it. It is a deeply poignant moment where a man buries the story of his past in the very ruins that represent the past. I was reminded of Aandhi where the estranged couple Arti (Suchitra Sen) and JK (Sanjeev Kumar) walk in the ruins of the gorgeous Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir and talk about their own ruined relationship. "Shayad un dino ki baad hogi, jab yeh imarat abhi ujdi nahi thi," says JK where the imarat represented their relationship as they reminisce about their past. In the world of Gulzar, it becomes Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi Shikwa Toh Nahin. In the worlds of Wong Kar-wai, it becomes, "He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch."
Trivia:
In the Mood for Love is featured in Sachin Kundalkar's anthology Gandha. The second story in the film A Man on Medicines begins with the scene from In the Mood for Love where Mrs. Chan goes to buy noodles from the nearby shop. A Man on Medicines is about an estranged couple who reminisce over the past and think of giving their marriage another chance.
Other Reading:
1) The post on The LunchboxLink
2) The screenplay of In the Mood for LoveLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"You notice things if you pay attention."
—Mrs. Chan, In the Mood for Love

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Serious Men—Finding the Light

Serious Men is the story of the desperation of a man to move up the social mobility ladder. Directed by Sudhir Mishra and adapted from Manu Joseph's novel by Abhijeet Khuman and Bhavesh Mandalia, the film tells the story of Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Dalit man working as a personal assistant to a Brahmin scientist Arvind Acharya (Nassar) at one of India's premier research institutes. Ayyan stays with his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) and son Adi (Aakshath Das) in a chawl in Mumbai. Ayyan is willing to go to extreme lengths to make his son rise the social and economic ladder and give him the things that he was never allowed in his life. He hatches a secret plan with Adi and presents him as a genius to the world. He makes Adi rote learn a few scientific concepts and tutors him through an earpiece which Adi spouts with confidence. Fake it till you make it. The world starts to believe that Adi is a precocious scientist and calls him Junior Abdul Kalam. Adi becomes a celebrity and everyone wants to use his ingenuity for their self-interest. 
Serious Men shows how far a father is willing to go to make his child succeed in life. Early in the film, Ayyan brings a lamp to his house and says to a newborn Adi, "Sunlight kam hai to kya hua, tu apne talent se chamakna." It's dark but you can light it up with your talent. This light becomes a recurring motif that is used throughout the film. Many a time, Ayyan refers to himself as a small molecule. He compares himself to gravity as he is invisible to the upper-caste people. The film uses light to represent Ayyan's desperate desire to succeed and to be seen. 
At a press conference, a reporter (Manu Joseph in a special appearance) questions Acharya on his quest to find space microbes. Ayyan enters the room and sees all the camera lights focused on the panelists. He stands behind one of the bright lights and listens to the answers in rapt attention. The conference ends; everyone leaves. The stage now has six light stands; three on each side. Ayyan walks on the stage; all the lights gradually dim out. A spotlight falls on him as he sits on the chair while everything else around him is dark. It is at that precise moment that he decided to make a plan. His son, too, will have the lights shining on him someday. 
In the next scene, six years pass by and a young Adi is seen sitting by the window in his school. He is playing with the light falling on his hands. His teacher reprimands him for his distraction. Adi replies to her that he is looking at photosynthesis—a natural phenomenon that uses light.
At Ayyan's workplace, there is an argument between Nambodari (Udhayabhanu Maheswaran) and Acharya related to funds for research. Acharya is withholding funds for Nambodari's telescope program as he has not seen any progress in the project for over twenty-five years. A disgruntled Nambodari brings up light again and replies, "Universe is vast, Arvind. Even light takes time." He meant that even light takes some time to travel and reach earth. In the same sequence, there is Ayyan who feels exasperated as he wants to go home but Acharya refuses to let him leave. A television channel wants to interview Adi and Ayyan wants to be there to make sure his son does not say anything untoward that can give away their secret. Ayyan manages to reach home and admonishes his wife for trying to put make-up on Adi and make him fairer. He takes him to wash his face and the screen goes totally dark for a few seconds. Ayyan and Adi emerge from the darkness and the interview takes place with camera lights zoomed on Adi.
Adi becomes a celebrity after the interview. Everyone wants to use him for their benefit. The political leader Keshav Dhavre (Sanjay Narvekar) and his daughter Anuja (Shweta Basu Prasad) visit Ayyan and offer to make Adi an icon of their political party. There is Ganesha Puja where Ayyan creates a Statue of Liberty-inspired Ganesha which leaves the spectators a bit flabbergasted. Ayyan defends his creation and says he gave it a torch. In her raised right hand, the Statue of Liberty holds a torch that represents the light that shows observers the path to freedom. Ayyan's Global Ganesha is holding a similar torch of light that represents freedom for him. 
Another photoshoot happens where Adi is clicked from behind the bars of a window while holding a board that says 100% Shuddh Dalit like prisoners are asked to do. The chawl where Adi stayed was, in fact, a jail earlier. The bars on the windows give the feeling that the people are still trapped. Adi is again shot with a spotlight falling on his face as his parents look at him. Thereafter, Ayyan starts preparing Adi for political speeches. At one point, they both are sitting by the roadside. Adi sees a young boy wearing sneakers with light. Ayyan promises Adi that he will get him the same sneakers if he manages to learn the speech by heart. The desire for light is again seen here.
At an earlier stage, a journalist had said, "Mumbai ka vikas in andheri galiyon tak nahi pahuncha." Mumbai's glittering lights never reached these dark corridors. Adi again brings up this darkness when he gives a speech on redevelopment to the residents of the chawl. He also wears those sneakers with light that his father had promised. He says to the audience, "Is andhere se baahar nikalne ka ek hi raasta hai hamare paas. Redevelopment se iss chawl ke har bachche ka future bright hoga." There is only one way out of this darkness. The redevelopment will brighten the future of every child. The point here is in line with the theme of light
There are many more instances where the use of light can be prominently seen. When Ayyan frees the pigeons, a light bulb again hangs over his head. Another well-lit scene is when Ayyan guides Adi on his speech on space microbes to make a case for Acharya's reinstatement. Ayyan is in a secluded building and he is standing in a way that the light falls on him in a perfectly-shaped rectangular area.
Later, Sayali's father Satish (Sharad Jhadav) finds exam question papers at his house. He confronts Ayyan and threatens to expose his fraud to the public. Ayyan hits back and intimidates him by mentioning the power of his political connections. Ayyan mentions that he struggled all his life but his son will rise above it and get all that his community was deprived for thousands of years. In the next few seconds, a bunch of bikers passes by and the blinding headlights of their bikes fall on Ayyan bringing a glint on his face. Here, again the film uses light as a symbol of emancipation.
Adi starts to crumble under the pressure of his father's harsh demands to continue their fake-genius act in front of the world. Oja also gets to know of their secret and feels betrayed. A pensive Ayyan then starts talking about black holes. He remarks that the force of gravity is so strong in black holes that even light cannot escape them. Every star ends up as a black hole collapsing into itself. Like a star, Adi, too, starts collapsing under pressure. Ayyan further adds, "Aise dark moments me dimaag bhi dark memories ko yaad karta hai jo hum kabhi bhula nahi paaye the." Dark moments remind you of the darkest memories—the ones we can never forget. The shining light that Ayyan wanted for his son to escape seems elusive as his son is falling apart.
Towards the end, Ayyan calls Acharya for a meeting and gets an exit strategy where he can come out of the mess he made for himself. Adi gives a final speech to the world where he partially reveals the truth to everyone. He says he learned everything from his father but the audience takes it as a sign of his humility. The speech ends with the camera panning towards a giant spotlight falling on Adi and then it moves to a bunch of smaller lights that gradually reveal Ayyan's face. Ayyan silently sheds a tear or two and it feels like the closure of the earlier press conference scene in the auditorium where he had probably first thought the idea of his son becoming a star.
The lighting sequences in Serious Men reminded of the car light scene in Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy where also the light was used similarly. Murad (Ranveer Singh) sits in a car is parked under a canopy of lights in a square area. The reflection of the lights falls all over the car while Murad sits in darkness inside, having moments of self-reflection, that lead to his soliloquy, "Apna time aayega." He attains enlightenment at that particular moment under the lights and the stars. Later, Murad's time eventually comes, and he gets an opportunity to sing in front of a huge audience and the lights shine on him, in contrast to the previous scene. Avant-garde filmmaking techniques often incite the debate if they add much to the overall narrative in the film. In Serious Men, Alexander Surkala's stylized lighting brings about character aspirations and does play a role in the proceedings of the film. There is definitely something interesting going on with the lights in the film which I tried to elaborate on above.
One of the other scenes in Serious Men that I liked is the one at the art gallery where Ayyan shows the award-winning photograph of his mother to Acharya. He narrates the story of how the picture came into existence. Ayyan's father made his pregnant wife lose weight dramatically in a few weeks which led her to be selected for the photograph. Likewise, Ayyan did the same to his son pressuring him to be a genius. Acharya says, "Your son has replaced you in the photograph." His angst was right but his actions were not. I kept thinking that Ayyan had made up a fake story about the photograph. It appeared to me that he was telling another lie but it was not the case. It was a genuine story. But it made me think of how as we grow old, we start behaving like our parents do.
In 2005, Dalit entrepreneur and writer Chandra Bhan Prasad had proposed the idea of the Goddess of English. The goddess was modeled after the Statue of Liberty. She holds a pen in her right hand which shows that she is literate. She has a copy of the constitution of India in her left hand, a book that gave equal rights to the Dalits and was written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. She stands on the top of a computer that signifies that Dalits will use English to rise the ladder and become free forever. In a moving article, Prasad also wrote, "English makes it much easier for all Dalits to leave caste-based occupations. Will English-speaking Dalits, for instance, be asked to skin dead cows? Will English-speaking Dalits be expected to clean gutters and roads? Will English-speaking Dalits be content to work as menials at landlords' farms? Goddess English can empower Dalits, giving them a chance to break free from centuries of oppression." A temple of the Goddess of English was initially constructed in Uttar Pradesh but it withered away due to the politics of the region. 
Serious Men also talks about this Goddess of English. After the redevelopment project is approved, Ayyan says he will construct a temple for the Goddess of English. The Global Ganesha idol created by Ayyan also seems inspired by Prasad's Goddess of English. Early in the film, Ayyan writes a letter requesting paternity leave from his boss. He sits with an Oxford English dictionary and uses complicated synonyms that do not fit with his intended meaning. He uses the word 'contemporary' for wife, 'subjugate' for care, and 'Homo Sapiens' for humans but he gets the task done. With English education, he was able to move up the professional ladder while Sayali's father who lived in the same chawl and worked in the same office could not. Like the pigeons freed from the cages by Ayyan, millions of people escape from the cages of brutal oppression using the English language. It is not surprising that they'd rather worship this Goddess and sing her aarti—A, B, C, D, E—as she is the one that gives them the dignity of life. 
Trivia:
1) Whistle in the ending credits of Serious Men.
2) I liked the way these scenes are shot as well.
3) Manu Joseph in a special appearance in Serious Men.
4) Also, remember this Hansie Cronje-Bob Woolmer earpiece controversy during the 1999 cricket world cup. 

Other Reading:
1) Hail English, the Dalit Goddess—Link
2) A temple for a language—Link
3) A critique of Serious Men as to how it confuses caste and class—Link

Dialogue of the Day:
"Arrogance me bhool gaya ki IQ aur social status me koi connection nahi hota."
—Ayyan, Serious Men