Abdellatif Kechiche

Films of Abdellatif Kechiche:

“The Secret of the Grain” - Abdellatif Kechiche (2007)

One of the more highly lauded French films of recent years was the Franco-Tunisian production The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet, 2007), which in English is also known as Couscous and Mullet and Couscous.  Written and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, this film received César Awards (the highest film awards in France) in 2008 for Best French Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Most Promising Actress (Hafsia Herzi).  Perhaps because the film has a cultural perspective of particular interest to the French – the nuances of French-Arab social and cultural relations – it has attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from the French public and critics.  But English-language critics have also been generally highly supportive [1-5], although not uniformly [6].  From my own perspective, I would say that there are some interesting positive and negative peculiarities about the film, which I will discuss below. 

The film’s story concerns events surrounding a Tunisian immigrant, Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares), who is an elderly dockside worker in the French Mediterranean seaport town of Sète.  Very early on in the piece, the viewer learns that the 61-year-old Slimane is a rather deliberate (and hence not quick enough) worker and that, due in part to declining import traffic at the port, his work is of reduced value to his employers, and so his hours are to be reduced.  Slimane suspects that soon he may even be let go.

Slimane has been working in the Sète docks for thirty-five years and presumably immigrated to France during the wave of Tunisian immigration that began in the 1960s following Tunisian independence.  His six children, being second-generation Tunisians in France, are much more comfortable with French and the French way of doing things.  That and the fact that Slimane is a particularly stoic and laconic individual mean that much of the film’s focus turns out to be on Slimane’s family and acquaintances.  They are a varied lot, the most prominent of whom are listed here:
  • Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) is Slimane’s vigorous ex-wife and the mother of his six children.  She is an excellent cook, and couscous is her specialty.  Every Sunday evening her extended family comes over to her home to feast on it and gab with each other.
     
  • Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) owns a tiny dockside hotel and is Slimane’s current partner.
     
  • Rym (Hafsia Herzi) is Latifa’s twenty-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage.  Because of her mother’s relationship with Slimane, she feels filial affection for Slimane and wants to help him.
     
  • Karima (Farida Benkhetache) is a married daughter of Slimane and Souad and has two little kids.
     
  • Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) is a younger, but still adult, daughter of Slimane and Souad.
     
  • Majid (Sami Zitouni) is Slimane Souad’s eldest son.  Although married and with a young  son, he pursues adulterous sex with other women.
     
  • Julia (Alice Houri) is a Russian immigrant and is Majid’s neglected wife.
     
  • Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) is Slimane and Souad’s youngest son.
A key weakness of The Secret of the Grain, however, is its generally slack narrative.  Instead of keeping an eye on the primary issue, which concerns what should be done about Slimane’s situation, it often gets sidetracked and wallows at times into various situations with Slimane’s family members, which seem little more than distractions.  And so what we often wind up with are extended sessions that, although featuring dramatic intensity, slow things down.  Paradoxically and at the same time, though, some of these intense encounters are what we take away as the film’s most memorable moments.

Overall, we can consider the narrative to be divided into three general sections.
1.  Slimane and his family
The first part of this section starts with an overview of Slimane’s dockside situation.  But then it moves, rather quickly and without much narrative motivation, over into a surveying coverage of his extended family.  The main vehicle for presenting the family together is Souad’s weekly couscous feasts, and the family are seen gathered around the table and enthusiastically gorging themselves on Souad’s cooking.  This is all shown using extreme wide-angle closeups, often with disruptive jump-cuts.  And it is all done with a shaky handheld camera.  This has a strange, disturbing effect, because the extreme facial closeups place the invisible viewer much closer to the faces under scrutiny than would be the case for someone occupying a place at the table.  Instead the viewer is placed almost on top of the respective person in view and is subjected to uncomfortably observing their eating in all its lip-smacking squishiness.  This is presumably intended to establish intimacy with the subject matter, but it didn’t work for me.  In fact the shaky handheld, wide-angle cinematography throughout the film is atrocious and is a considerable detriment to the overall viewing experience.

2.  Slimane’s project
After awhile Slimane decides to leave his dock-working job and use his redundancy payments to start his own business – a seafood/couscous (“la graine et le mulet”) restaurant to be situated inside an abandoned cargo ship at the dockside.  The featured food will be Souad’s couscous.  All of the family members pitch in to help with this project in whatever way they can.

A major problem to be surmounted with this project is securing all the licenses and permits that are needed from the government, and much of the focus of this section of the film is on this issue.  In this connection Rym comes to Slimane’s rescue as she passionately and patiently guides him through complex pathways of the government’s bureaucratic channels.  It is during this phase that Rym emerges as the real star of the film.

3.  Opening Night
After failing to get all the required permits, Slimane and his family resolve to hold a party at their new, not-yet-commissioned restaurant and invite all the city officials, including the recalcitrant ones.  They hope to wow their guests with good food and thereby get them to approve their remaining permit requests.  This turns out to be a lavish affair, and again the focus is on food.  But there is also on display the interesting contrast between French behavior (the guests) and Tunisian (the servers).  However, a serious problem arises when Majid’s narcissistic perambulations cause the crowning dish of the evening – Souad’s couscous – to go missing.  There ensues desperate efforts on the part of several principles to rectify the situation.  Some people try to find the missing dish, while others set about the arduous task of making a second batch.

Meanwhile, the hungry guests are waiting for their main dish and getting seriously impatient.  So Rym decides to entertain them all by performing an Arabic belly dance.  The passionate earthiness of Rym’s dance highlights the contrasts between French and Tunisian culture, and it arouses the rapt enthusiasm of the no-longer-bored dinner guests. 

So now the film is suspended in unbearable tension.  The guests are waiting.  The servers are scrambling.  And Rym is dancing.  What will happen?  Kechiche draws out this tense situation for an almost unbearable length of time.  In fact he seems to extend it indefinitely, as you will feel if you watch the film’s conclusion.

As I mentioned, there are some intense individual dramatic situations focusing on a single character that Kechiche dwells on for extended periods. 
  1. Julia engages in a long tearful tirade about her sufferings brought on by her irresponsible and unfaithful husband, Majid.
     
  2. Rym implores at great length for her jealous mother, Latifa, to attend Slimane’s opening night party, even though the featured food has been prepared by her paramour’s ex.
     
  3. Rym’s lengthy, exhausting, and fleshy belly dance.
These moments in the film hold the viewer in an extended emotional storm that has its own peculiar fascinations, irrespective of their pertinence to the overall narrative.  And they do exhibit a certain degree of moment-extending skill on the part of Kechiche and his actresses.

I have already alluded to three major themes in The Secret of the Grain – food, family, and Franco-Tunisian cultural contrasts.  There is a fourth theme worth mentioning – womanhood.  All of the women in this story are relatively responsible and ready to take the initiative.  The men around them are mostly powerless, and sometimes irresponsible.  This reminds me of another “food film”, The Fish Fall in Love (2006), in which the principal women had more initiative and more emotional fortitude than the men they encountered.  I wonder how much this is generally the case in food films.  In any case, your response to the film will depend on the degree to which the film’s presentation of these four themes resonate with your own feelings.
½

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The Secret of the Grain”, RogerEbert.com, (21 January 2009).    
  2. Philip French, “Couscous”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Couscous (La Graine et le Mulet)”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  4. Wesley Morris, “The Secret of the Grain: No Secrets”, The Criterion Collection, (27 July 2010).   
  5. J. Hoberman, “The Secret of the Grain”, The Village Voice, (24 December 2008).   
  6. Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban, “SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE”, Urban Cinefile, (n.d.).   

“Chhooti”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Chutti”, aka “Chhuti” or “The Homecoming” (1892-93) [1], concerns something that most all of us are familiar with but which all too rarely attracts our sympathies – the confused awkwardness of early teenage boys.  This story served as the basis for the 14th  episode, “Chhooti”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

The problem with boys of this age period (12-14-years-old) is that they are in-betweeners – no longer children, but not yet adults.  Thus they are no longer given the accommodating tolerance that little kids get, and at the same time their often confused early adult-like assertiveness is not tolerated and given gentle refinement, either.  This story “Chhooti” is about one such boy and his struggles.  In connection with this awkward age for boys, Tagore made these explicit authorial comments in his story [2,3], which were not included in the filmed episode under discussion:
“In this world of human affairs there is no worse nuisance than a boy at the age of fourteen. He is neither ornamental nor useful. It is impossible to shower affection on him as on a little boy; and he is always getting in the way. If he talks with a childish lisp he is called a baby, and if he answers in a grown-up way he is called impertinent. In fact any talk at all from him is resented. Then he is at the unattractive, growing age. He grows out of his clothes with indecent haste; his voice grows hoarse and breaks and quavers; his face grows suddenly angular and unsightly. It is easy to excuse the shortcomings of early childhood, but it is hard to tolerate even unavoidable lapses in a boy of fourteen. The lad himself becomes painfully self-conscious. When he talks with elderly people he is either unduly forward, or else so unduly shy that he appears ashamed of his very existence. “
Tagore goes on to say that what a young teenage boy in these circumstances needs – and what he for the first time in his life feels a craving for – is love [2,3]:
“Yet it is at this very age when, in his heart of hearts, a young lad most craves for recognition and love; and he becomes the devoted slave of any one who shows him consideration. But none dare openly love him, for that would be regarded as undue indulgence and therefore bad for the boy.”
Note that the anglicized version of the title of Tagore’s story “Chutti” is usually given as “The Homecoming”.  However, it is my understanding (using Google Translate) that the word ‘Chutti’ could be translated into English as ‘Holiday’, and this rendering seems meaningful at this story’s end.

The filmed version of this Tagore story, as is characteristic of the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series, once again makes excellent use of closeups and slow-motion sequences to shape the subjective ambience of the main character.  In addition the cinematography by Abhishek Basu (Anurag Basu’s brother) and film editing also effectively contribute to the emotive psychological atmosphere and is very well done throughout.

The story of “Chhooti” begins with a gang of young boys engaged in rambunctious game-playing in the sylvan outskirts of a rural village.  Their boisterous leader, Phatik Chakravorti (played by Suyash Shivaji Shirke), is by no means an attractive or winsome lad; he is just a naughty, self-centered boy up to no good.  When his pestering young brother Makhan gets in his way, he rudely pushes him to the ground, which evokes Makhan’s vow to run home and report Phatik’s misbehavior to their mother. 

Once Phatik is home, his widowed mother, Shanti, harshly scolds him for his habitual bullying of his younger brother.  It is clear that she is used to punishing him for his perpetual naughtiness.  In the middle of this, she looks up to see the surprising appearance of her older brother Bishamber (Ravi Gosain), who has come to visit her after a long absence.  Feeling guilty that he has not been fulfilling his traditional Indian familial duties by looking after his unattended younger sister, and also seeing that her sons Phatik and Makhan are incessantly quarreling, Bishamber asserts his family authority and tells Shanti that he will take Phatik away with him to his home in Calcutta.  There he will raise the boy as a member of his own family and enrol him in a proper school.  Phatik is delighted to hear this news, and Shanti, powerless to object, quietly submits to Bishamber’s intentions.

When they get to Calcutta, Bishamber introduces Phatik to his wife, Kumud, as their new son.  Kumud, though, is an urbanized woman and unabashed about expressing her displeasure over this new situation.  She complains that she already has two sons to look after, and she wasn’t even consulted about the idea of adding another one to her burden.  Her two sons, Sidhu and Kanai, are equally unwelcoming to Phatik and look down at the new arrival as an unsophisticated yokel to be laughed at.

Phatik, though, is at first oblivious of his unwelcoming surroundings, so dazzled is he over the wonders of the big city, Calcutta.  He is amazed that the city never seems to sleep; and he marvels at the way schoolboys spend so much time collectively chasing after and kicking a little round (soccer) ball.  But soon he begins to suffer from the scornful treatment he is getting from Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai.  After he gets into a scuffle with Sidhu at school, Kumud angrily calls Phatik an uncouth illiterate; and she wonders aloud why he just doesn’t go away.  Later, from his bed at night, Phatik overhears Bishamber and Kumud vehemently arguing about him.  There are few things more disturbing for a child than to hear his or her parents, even if they are surrogate parents as is the case here. engaged in an angry argument.  Then Phatik also overhears from the adjoining bedroom Sidhu and Kanai expressing their shared wish to each other that Phatik would go away.

Despite these negative signs, Phatik begins penning a letter to his real mom.  At first he lies and asserts to her that everything is rosy with his life in Calcutta.  But when he starts recollecting how harshly he was treated by his aunt Kumud on the occasion of his losing his school bag, he changes his tone – he writes that he wants to return home.  He promises that he will be a good boy from now on and do whatever his mother tells him to do. 

Then Phatik goes to his uncle Bishamber and tells him he wants to be taken back home.  Bishamber, though, is busy, and, besides this is the middle of the school term.  He tells Phatik that the soonest he can take him back to his home village is when Durga Puja holiday comes, which is several months away.  Phatik insists he wants to go right away, but he gets nowhere with the authoritative Bishamber.  That night Phatik goes to bed and makes a decision.

The next morning Bishamber and Kumud learn that Phatik has run away during the night, and Bishamber notifies the police about the missing boy.  Now for the first time Bishamber, Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai feel anxiety about their own culpability in Phatik’s disappearance. 

That evening in a pouring rain, the police carry the weakened-by-fever Phatik back to the Bishamber residence.  It is clear that the delirious boy is critically ill, and a summoned doctor is not optimistic.  Meanwhile, in his delirious state, Phatik has idyllic visions of his mother and little brother, evidently recalling, or dreaming of, some precious moments when he felt loved.

Soon Phatik’s mom Shanti, having been notified about her boy’s serious condition, tearfully rushes to his bedside and lovingly fondles his feverish head.  Phatik looks up at her, and in his closing words asks, “has the holiday finally come?”  Indeed it has.

The story is a sad one and reminds us that the awkward years of early adolescence, while exhibiting the first impulses of boastful assertiveness, also feature a newly intense, but unexpressed, need for love and affection.  It was love that Phatik so desperately needed but didn’t get.  And in the end Shanti, Bishamber, Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai, having failed to express to Phatik their love, could only express their remorse.


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “Chutti”, aka “Chhuti” (“The Homecoming”), (1892-93).  Available English translations:
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Home-Coming”, Wikisource, (1892-93/2014).   
  3. Rabindranath Tagore, “THE HOME-COMING/CHUTI”, Wattpad, (1892-93/n.d.).    

Sachin Deo

Stories by Sachin Deo:
  • "Wafadaar"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 11 – Sachin Deo (2015)

“Wafadaar”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Sachin Deo (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Khokababur Pratyabartan” (“The Return of Khokababu”, 1891) [1] features an interesting plot twist that triggers our consideration of several social themes.  It served as the basis for the 11th episode, “Wafadaar” (“Dutiful”), of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) created by and under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode directed by Sachin Deo.

This filming of Tagore’s story is relatively faithful to the original, but since many of the episodes in the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series are sequentially linked, there are slight narrative adjustments that serve to accommodate these linkages.  With the case of “Wafadaar”, for example, rather than follow the original story’s third-person presentation throughout, the story’s first two-thirds are presented as a narrative flashback – “Wafadaar’s” main character recounts his experiences to a character from Episodes 9 & 10 (“The Broken Nest”), Bhupati Babu, who is here only a passive listener and has no significance to this narrative.

As the story unfolds, we can make out some issues associated with three social themes that are of interest:
  • Duty  
    What is the scope of duty and what are its boundaries?  To what extent is one’s very identity, both as perceived by him/herself or by others, characterized by his or her adherence to socially prescribed duty?
     
  • Nature vs. Nurture 
    To what relative degrees are we the products of (a) our biological inheritances compared to (b) the behavioral moldings of the environments in which we are raised? 
     
  • Class in India 
    What is the relative significance of class loyalty, as compared to more instinctual loyalties such as those of the family?
The story of “Wafadaar” evolves over three acts, the first two of which are told in flashback.

1.  Raicharan and “Little Master”
As a young boy, Raicharan is assigned, in accordance with some deal arranged by his father, to move into the house of an upperclass family and be both the servant and playmate of their son, Anukul, who is the same age as Raicharan.  Raicharan willingly and enthusiastically accepts his assigned role, and over the years becomes Anukul’s inseparable companion.  When Anukul finally gets married, Raicharan is fearful that his lifelong role is threatened, but he is soon overjoyed when Anukul and his wife give him the assignment of looking after their newborn boy.

When the infant boy is first uttering sounds, he calls Raicharan, “Channa”; and the young servant is thrilled to be given a name by the boy, whom he calls, “Little Master”.  Raicharan’s loyalty  to serving his master is so strong that he leaves his pregnant wife to be looked after by his sister in their home village, and he accompanies Anukul’s family when they shift to another town.  So here is an example of socially-defined duties taking precedence over more basic, primordial loyalties.

Raicharan lovingly looks after his Little Master, but one day while taking the little boy to the riverside, he momentarily loses sight of his charge, and the little toddler wanders off into the water and is presumably drowned in the river.  Naturally, both Anukul’s wife and Raicharan are overwhelmed with grief over this tragic event. 

2.  A Second Little Master 
Having now lost his self-defining role, Raicharan returns to his home village.  While he is still wallowing in drunken grief over what has happened, his wife dies giving birth to their son, who is given the name “Phelna”.  The still-self-pitying Raicharan doesn’t pay much attention to the infant, but one day he hears Phelna say, “channa”.  Raicharan is instantly overjoyed to hear this, because he concludes that his former Little Master has now forgiven him for his earlier neglect of his caretaking duties and has come back to him in the form of Phelna.  In other words, Phelna is taken to be the reincarnation of Little Master.

Raicharan immediately sells his few assets and property so that he can raise Phelna properly as the son of an upper-class family.  He takes Phelna to be schooled in Kolkata.

3.  Return to the Present  
The recounting of Raicharan’s experiences in flashback now comes to an end, and we see that in the “present” Phelna, aka (to Raicharan) “Little Master”, is now 18-years-old.  Because of Phelna’s always having been told the story that he is the son of an upper-class couple who died long ago in an accident and that Raicharan was assigned to look after him, the young man has grown up to be spoiled.  He looks down on his real father as a mere servant.  So it is evident that Raicharan has fashioned a snobbish upper-class playboy out of his own lower-class flesh-and-blood (although Raicharan, himself, fervently believes that Phelna is truly his original Little Master’s reincarnation).

However, at this point Raicharan’s resources are utterly exhausted, and his sister is threatening to tell Phelna who his real father is.  So Raicharan decides to return to Anukul’s wealthy household and “return” their son (which is what Raicharan takes Phelna to be) to them.  In order to get Anukul and his wife to accept this transfer, Raicharan falsely confesses to them that he had stolen their young son years ago when he was lost by the riverbank and raised the boy on his own.  With this gift Raicharan now hopes that he can return to being a servant in the Anukul home and be permitted to see his prized Little Master from time to time.

But although Anukul and his wife accept that Phelna is their real son, and Phelna accepts the idea that Anukul is his father, the couple flatly reject Raicharan’s request to return to their fold.  To them, Raicharan has committed a heinous crime and has been profoundly disloyal.  Phelna, taking pity on the menial servant who raised him, condescendingly suggests to his newfound “dad”, Anukul, that Raicharan can be made to go away for good if he is just given a little cash.

Seeing this complete dismissal of his very personhood after all his years of personal sacrifice, Raicharan is crushed.  He disconsolately wanders over to the riverbank where he had originally lost his Little Master and mournfully walks into the streaming waters.

So Tagore’s tale of “Wafadaar” is a sad one.  Duty and loyalty, and the way they affect personal affection, are manifested differently by the various characters in this story.  For Raicharan, duty and loyalty fueled the genuine love he felt for the people he served.  But in the end it is sad that all his sincere and innocent efforts to support the people he served, misguided though they may have been, did not have better outcomes for him.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Child’s Return”, The Literature Network, (1891/1918).