Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy

Films of Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy:

Kireet Khurana

Films of Kireet Khurana:

“Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi” - Kireet Khurana and Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy (2016)

Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi (2016) is a documentary film about an esteemed writer and director of arthouse films in India, Saeed Akhtar Mirza.  The film, directed by Kireet Khurana and Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy and based on a conceptualization by Khurana, appears to be an  attempt to explore Mirza’s artistic and philosophical underpinnings that have inspired his thoughtful cinematic themes. 

Mirza’s career flourished from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, and it featured a number of somewhat offbeat films that were hits with both the critics and the public.  Although I referred to him as an arthouse filmmaker, this was merely to distinguish his work from the Bollywood entertainment industry, placing him instead in the category of “serious” filmmakers sometimes referred to in India as “Parallel Cinema” [1].  His films were not overly intellectual, and indeed many of them had a visceral quality to them.  Among the hit films that Mirza made (co-wrote and directed) in his heyday are:
  • Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
  • Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (Why Does Albert Pinto Get Angry?, 1980) 
  • Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984)
  • Nukkad (Street Corner, TV series, 1986) 
  • Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don't Cry over the Lame Salim's Death, 1989)
  • Naseem (The Morning Breeze, 1995)
Most of these films show a man who has been made wrathful by a corrupted social milieu that is stacked against him.  As such, these films angrily serve to expose social injustices prevailing in Indian society and so supposedly may help to qualify Mirza as a leftist.  However, the degree to which the present film under discussion, Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi, actually reveals Mirza to be both a leftist and a Sufi is something that needs to be considered further.

The film Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi is made up of three basic interleaved components:
  1. A set of extended monologues of Saeed Mirza talking about his past experiences and his thoughts about Indian society and life in general.
  2. A set of testimonials from some of Mirza’s professional colleagues and contemporaries,  including Saeed’s own younger brother Aziz Mirza, who is also a film director but who, unlike Saeed, makes films more along the lines of mainstream Bollywood musical comedies.
  3. A set of montage-like snippet collections from Saeed Mirza’s feature films.  These are presumably intended to give a flavor of his work.
These three components are supposed to contribute to our understanding of Saeed Mirza and the degrees to which he is a leftist and a Sufi.  But two of those components are not effective in this regard.

Component #2, the collection of testimonials, is devoted mostly to people testifying to what a good guy Saeed Mirza is.  But they don’t tell us much about Mirza or provide interesting personal anecdotes describing how he thinks or operates.  They just tell us that he is good.

And component #3, the collection of film snippets, doesn’t provide enough information for this situation, either.  First of all, although the film is in spoken English, the snippets are from Hindi language films and are not provided with English-language subtitling.  Apparently the makers of this film were assuming that all their viewers would be bilingual in Hindi and English.  Moreover, the individual snippets shown in the film are so short that they collectively fail to provide a narrative feel of the films from which they are drawn, even for those viewers who are bilingual.  For example, there is a shot of a one-man demolition of a building that is taken from the film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!  But it is not evident from just seeing this clip alone that this is a culminating event for Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!s narrative.  So these clips shown here are likely only to serve as reminders to those who have already seen those original films. And in general they don’t contribute to our understanding of the narrative themes that underlay Saeed Mirza’s films.

So this leaves us only with component #1, Saeed Mirza’s extended commentary addressed directly to the camera, to hopefully provide the substance and insights we are looking for.  And here we do find material of interest.  Mirza comes across in these bits as a reflective person, as he recounts his thoughts about his past and about Indian society. He reminisces about his time spent studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).  And in general, he reveals himself to be not so much a clear-cut leftist, in my view, but more like a universal humanist – someone who embraces an inclusive and progressive view of humanity and human rights.  Thus he was disturbed by the rise of fanatic communalism in India in the 1980s [2].  In particular, the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics in 1992, which was a key thematic element in Mirza’s 1995 film Naseem, was so depressing for Mirza that it induced him to take an extended leave from filmmaking.

More recently Mirza has successfully turned to writing, where his prose has been praised by his colleagues, and it has been characterized by them as an imaginative blend of fiction and autobiography that blurs the boundaries between the two [3,4].

Interesting as some of this Mirza commentary is, though, the film as a whole suffers from some further deficiencies in connection with its production values.  Basically, apart from the not-very-helpful film clippings, we have a film mostly of talking heads.  And there is no real dialogue; these are individual heads talking straight to the camera.  In addition, many of these talking-head shots are sloppily conducted with a shaky hand-held camera, which is distracting to the viewer.  Moreover, there are also issues with the soundtrack.  When Mirza is shown out on the street, there is often so much ambient noise that it is hard to hear what he is saying.  And in other parts of the film, the sound dubbing is not synced very well.

Thus overall, the film Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi gave me sparse information about a very interesting Indian filmmaker; but it was only in small fragments, and it left me wanting more than what this film could give me.

  1. “Parallel cinema”, Wikipedia, (22 July 2018).   
  2. ‘Communalism’ is a word that has many interpretations around the world.  Here I am using it in the way it is usually understood in South Asia.
  3. Saeed Mirza, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, (2008).
  4. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Memory In The Age of Amnesia: A personal history of our times, Westland Publications Limited, (2018).

“The Golden Fortress” - Satyajit Ray (1974)

As I have mentioned previously, Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker and musical composer, he was also a prolific author of popular fiction [1].  A particular genre interest of Ray’s along this line of creative work was detective fiction, and he published 17 novels and 18 additional stories featuring his canny private investigator Feluda, who served for Ray as his Sherlock Holmes.

One might have expected that this interest of Ray‘s in detective fiction would have overlapped with and spilled over into his cinematic work, but it seems that perhaps the intellectual machinations of detective stories didn’t match particularly well with Ray’s characteristically poignant cinematic expression.  Over his career Ray only made three detective movies – The Zoo (Chiriyakhana, 1967), The Golden Fortress (Sonar Kella, 1974), and Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (Joi Baba Felunath, 1979) – the latter two of which were based on his Feluda novels.  Nevertheless, these three films were all hits with the public, particularly The Golden Fortress [2].

The story of The Golden Fortress concerns events surrounding a young boy’s memories, or dreams, of a past life when he supposedly lived in a golden fortress.  In particular the boy’s vivid memories of seeing many jewels there inspire some criminals to kidnap him in hopes that he will lead them to a lost treasure.  Ray has fashioned this tale as something of a family-oriented adventure, using typecast characters, comedic elements, and some exotic backgrounds to liven up the proceedings.  In addition Ray colored things further by employing some motifs to stimulate the viewer’s fancy:
  • Travel 
    There are many journeys shown, with a number of means of conveyance – taxis, trains, even camels.  Trains, in particular, have always held a fascination for Ray, and perhaps this is the case for most people of his generation: trains were a means for introducing novelty into traditional Indian life, and they symbolized change and excitement.
  • Clocks 
    There are numerous images of clocks, and references to time; so time, including travel time, seems to be a subtheme in the story.
  • Identity 
    Several characters take on false identities, and it is often the case that people are not who they appear to be to other characters.  So mistaken identity is a common occurrence throughout the tale.
The film’s storyline moves through four stages.

1.  Mukul’s dreams 
The film begins in Calcutta (Kolkata), where six-year-old Mukul Dhar (played by Kusal Chakravarty) upsets his parents with his bizarre behavior at night.  He gets up in the middle of  the night and obsessively draws pictures of peacocks and foreign settings, which he claims he remembers from his past life. Mukul’s father takes him and his drawings to a parapsychologist, Dr. Hemanga Hajra (Sailen Mukherjee), who notices that Mukul’s drawings of fortresses look like some of those in Rajasthan, in western India. Hajra suggests that he take Mukul there to see if he can jog the boy’s memory and work out what all these visions mean.  The boy agrees, but as luck would have it, a journalist was present for this consultation session, and so Mukul’s bizarre story, including his claim to remember his past-life home having many jewels stored there, is reported as a curiosity piece in the city newspaper. 

The newspaper article attracts the attention of the two villains of this story, Amiyanath Burman (Ajoy Banerjee) and Mandar Bose (Kamu Mukherjee), who decide to kidnap Mukul and see if he can lead them to the purported real treasure hidden somewhere.  Ray ensures that the viewer is aware of the shadiness of these two scoundrels by averting the camera from showing their faces in the early scenes in which they appear.  The first thing these bumblers do is kidnap the wrong Mukul, when they snatch a kid who happens to have the same name and who is an acquaintance of our Mukul.  Before drugging and turning loose their mistakenly held captive, they do manage to extract from him some important information – that our Mukul has already left Calcutta with Dr. Hajra and is headed for Jodhpur in Rajasthan. 

When our Mukul’s father learns about the other Mukul being abducted, he fears for his own son’s safety and engages private detective Pradosh Mitra (Soumitra Chatterjee), known as Feluda, to go out to Rajasthan and protect his boy from the predators.  What will impress the viewer about Feluda in this film is not so much his powers of ratiocination, but more his keen observation and memory of seemingly insignificant details.

So now we have three groups of figures all making the 1400-mile train trip from Calcutta to Rajasthan:
  • Mukul, the boy with the fantasies about a golden fortress, along with Dr. Hajra, the parapsychologist;
  • Burman and Bose, the two crooks looking for a treasure trove of jewels;
  • Feluda, who is accompanied by his young cousin and assistant Topshe (Siddartha Chatterjee).
2.  Travel to Rajasthan  
The film now moves into the always fascinating train-travel mode.  Burman and Bose are surprised to discover that Mukul is on the same train with them. So they opportunistically assume false identities and make friends with Mukul and Hajra.  When they get to Jaipur in Rajasthan, they start touring around a local fortress, and when noone is looking, they push Hajra off a high cliff, presumably killing him.  (However, we later see that Hajra, though badly injured, does survive the fall.)  Then when Mukul shows up, they fool the boy into believing that they have magic powers and that they have made that Dr. Hajra disappear and that Burman has now taken on Dr. Hajra’s identity.

Meanwhile Feluda and Topshe, on a following train to Rajasthan, are joined in their train compartment by a jocular and naive novelist known as Jatayu (Santosh Dutta).  Jatayu teams up with Feluda and Topshe, but his presence in this story only serves to provide comic relief.

3.  Travel to Jodhpur 
Once they all, including the badly injured Dr. Hajra, arrive separately in Jodhpur, there are further misrepresentations of identity.  Hajra, fearing that he is still a murder target, is masquerading as a Rajasthani peasant.  Feluda, never having met Hajra, is fooled into believing that Burman is the parapsychologist.  There are further shenanigans, including Bose’s failed attempt to murder Feluda with a poisonous scorpion.  Finally Burman hypnotizes Mukul and manages to learn from the boy that the real fortress they should be looking for is further west of Jodhpur, in the city of Jaisalmer.  So he quickly heads off with Mukul in that direction.

4.  The Golden Fortress at Jaisalmer  
Meanwhile Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu are looking over the fort in Jodhpur.  Eventually, however, the hyper-observant Feluda figures out that Burman and Bose are not who they claim to be.  In addition Feluda, despite getting what the viewer knows is misleading information from Bose, intuitively guesses that Burman and Mukul have headed off for Jaisalmer.

This sets the stage for a mad race to the Jaisalmer fortress on the separate parts of (1) Burman and Mukul, (2) Bose, (3) Hajra, and (4) Feluda, with circumstances arising that variously entail travel by car, by train, and by camel riding.  There are more unexpected encounters and violent events along the way, which create a mounting tension and sense of expectation on the part of the viewer.  And eventually the principal figures do come together for a final confrontation in the fortress.  In the end you will find out about the nature of the hidden jewels and see that, in keeping with the requirements of family-oriented entertainment, things come to a satisfactory resolution.

Throughout The Golden Fortress Ray adeptly maintains the three parallel narrative threads involving Hajra, the two villains, and Feluda’s team.  This effectively maintains a dynamic pace to the film and holds the viewer’s attention.  However, the subtlety of character depiction and development characteristic of Ray’s greatest films is missing in The Golden Fortress, particularly in connection with the exaggerated histrionics associated with the villainous Burman and Bose characters.  And one wonders if the film might have benefited from the inclusion of a significant female character or two in the story (there are none). Nevertheless, Ray does display an impressive expressive facility with a genre, detective fiction, that is distinct from his usual fare. So the film is likely to have considerable appeal to young people and others who like wholesome adventure stories of that ilk.

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Zoo’ - Satyajit Ray (1967)”, The Film Sufi, (3 May 2018).   
  2. Arup K Chatterjee, “Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella: The train to a golden fortress that wasn't”, daily O, (19 May 2017).   

“The Trial” - Orson Welles (1962)

Franz Kafka’s haunting novel The Trial (1925) is justly famous, but its enigmatic nature left it open to multiple interpretations and presented challenges to any filmmaker wishing to adapt it to the screen. It was left up to an intrepid filmmaker like Orson Welles to take on the challenge with his 1962 film of Kafka’s tale.  Welles had had early commercial success with films like Citizen Kane (1941)  and The Stranger (1946), but he was subsequently more or less banished from Hollywood and was at this point working in Europe under constrained budgets.  For example in connection with this film production, Welles, who usually strove for an expressionistic atmosphere, was not given the finances to construct his own sets and was forced to look for existing premises in which to shoot his dramatic scenes.  He ultimately found locations and settings appropriate for his film in Paris, Milan, Zagreb, and Rome.  For example, he  shot much of the film in the abandoned Parisian train station (now a museum) Gare d’Orsay. Nevertheless and despite these limitations, he came up with a masterwork [1].

Kafka’s story of The Trial was actually written during 1914-15 and, like most of his work, was never fully completed during his lifetime.  His friend Max Brod edited and finished off the manuscript for posthumous publication in 1925.  And Welles then did some of his own reediting by reordering some of the chapters when he wrote his screenplay for the film.

The story of The Trial concerns a young man, Joseph K., who is awakened early one morning and told by the intruding plainclothes police officers that he has been accused of a serious crime.  But K is not informed of what he has been accused, nor is he immediately incarcerated.  He is merely told that he must report to government offices to face the so-far unstated charges. The rest of the story concerns K’s frustrating and ultimately in-vain efforts to find out just what he has been accused of so that he can make efforts to clear himself of the charges.  As such the story has been considered to be an example of absurdist fiction and existentialist narrative, as well as offering a metaphor for man’s obsession with guilt [2,3].

Besides these more personal and individualistic themes, though, many commentators also attribute themes associated with more exterior, social issues to Kafka’s story.  In particular, the depiction of an obscure and oppressive bureaucracy that intrudes into every corner of one’s personal life seems to anticipate for many people the 20th-century horrors of Stalinism, Naziism, and the Holocaust. In fact in this connection, Welles’s, himself, was once under FBI investigation [4].  Even today, there is a pervasive sense of uneasiness concerning how vast and inscrutable organizations may mysteriously use hidden surveillance technologies to invade our privacy and exert control over our lives.

So we may attribute two separate streams of interpretation to The Trial – the existential and the social.  In Welles’s film there is a particular focus on the existential side of things, though at the film’s conclusion there is imagery that invokes horrors on the social side, as well.

Welles said he did not make his film “based on” on Kafka ‘s book, but, rather, “inspired by” Kafka’s work [5].  In particular, Welles altered the character of Joseph K. somewhat, making him more assertive than Kafka’s character, and he also introduced elements of what might be said to be black comedy into his film.  Despite these alterations, though, I would say that Welles’s The Trial very much captures the anxious spirit of Kafka’s work.

Welles achieved these moody effects by means of his characteristic expressionistic mise en scene, which he admitted was inspired by his viewing of the works of early German Expressionistic filmmakers [6].  This involved high-contrast black-and-white photography, as well as many extreme high- and low-angle shots that present the story’s principals from a psychologically disturbing perspective.

The Trial’s narrative meanders through three general phases.

1.  Guilt
In the beginning the focus is on the disturbing and encompassing nature of guilt.  In the opening sequence Joseph K. (played by Anthony Perkins, who had recently starred in another noirish masterpiece Psycho (1960)) is shown (in a carefully crafted tracking shot of 3:40 duration) being awakened in his room at 6am by plainclothesmen.  Even though he doesn’t know what he has been charged with, K acts guiltily.  Later he talks to another boarder in his rooming house, Marika Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), and again their conversation is clouded by concerns of guilt – on this occasion in connection with their tentative romantic relationship.  Then K is shown in his vast, desks-in-a-row office where he is made to feel guilty by insinuations made by his boss when K’s teenage cousin stops by for a visit.  These and other similar scenes all highlight that our lives are infused with guilt.

Indeed our social institutions, particularly our religions, are dominated by notions of guilt.  Humans are called upon to take responsibility for their actions that have negative outcomes, and the principal mechanism to place a behavior-modifying burden on people for these unwanted actions is guilt.  In addition, humans are presumably the only animals that know that death is inevitable for everyone.  But we don’t know why we are faced with this punishment.  So our institutions tend to proclaim that we all must be intrinsically guilty for this situation – we are all guilty at birth.  But why?  This is the question the underlies Joseph K.’s situation in The Trial, and its understanding points to the idea that guilt is a man-made construction [3].

2.  The Law and Its Execution
The second phase of the film shifts the main focus from personal guilt to an immersion into a vast and unknowably labyrinthine legal system – the instrument for adjudicating and punishing guilt.  While attending an opera, K is interrupted and escorted to an obscure courtroom building where a hearing on his case is being conducted in a crowded auditorium.  K ascends to the stand and makes an impassioned speech dismissing the still-unstated charges against him and then walks out of the room.  So K is shown not to be a passive victim but an assertive responder, if only he could figure out where he stands in the legal system.

Later K’s uncle Max takes him to his lawyer friend, the advocate Albert Hastler (Orson Welles).  But K is distracted by Hastler’s beautiful assistant, Leni (Romy Schneider), who tries to seduce K and who also urges K to confess to his guilt.

Subsequently K returns to the courtroom where he had made his speech and is surprised to find it empty.  The only person around is the beautiful wife of the courtroom guard, Hilda (Elsa Martinelli), who also offers herself to him without qualification.

When K later does talk to the advocate Hastler, he soon sees that the advocate is a cynical manipulator and is of no use in connection with K’s legal difficulties.  So K eventually dismisses Hastler, but before he leaves the office, Leni urges him to visit the official court portraitist, Titorelli, who supposedly knows all the ins and outs of the legal system and the people at the top.

On the way to visit Titorelli, K is hounded by a frenetic pack of giggling and laughing young girls who seem to be aggressively after him.  Titorelli’s room turns out be a small, slatted enclosure, through the slats of which the loudly cackling pack of young girls can be seen and heard.  All of this creates a claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere for the conversation between Titorelli that ensues. 
With his insider knowledge Titorelli explains to K that there are three possible types of acquittal:
  • definite acquittal – this is a theoretical designation that nobody knows how to achieve.
  • ostensible acquittal – rearrests for the same charges are inevitable, and one will be involved in an endless cycle of court cases.
  • indefinite deferment – one’s court case will get tied up in a literally endless sequence of proceedings  
K departs from Titorelli’s premises under a cloud and hurries down a surrealistic slatted corridor  with the shrieking girls in pursuit.

3.  Closing In
Commanding voices now direct K through further mazes until he reaches the basement of a cathedral, where a priest emphasizes to him the hopelessness of his situation.  Then Hastler mysteriously shows up, and he tells him about the cryptic and fatalistic “Before the Law” parable that is a metaphor for the eternal mystery of every man’s ultimately doomed fate [7].

Finally, K is grabbed by two rough-looking police guards, who usher K to the outskirts of town and down into a large hole in the ground, where they apparently intend to execute him with a large butcher’s knife.  With K lying submissively on the ground between them, they lean over their victim and hesitantly pass the knife back and forth between them, apparently waiting for K to do the job himself.  In Kafka’s story, K is knifed “like a dog” at this point, but in the film K just laughs derisively at the two men, who then scramble up out of the hole.  Once out on top, they toss a pack of dynamite down into the hole where K is.  K grabs the bomb and throws it, but we immediately see a massive explosion that apparently destroys everything in the vicinity.  The final images are those of the mushroom cloud from the explosion.

That final shot of the mushroom cloud was Welles’s way of reminding us that we live under the cloud of likely nuclear annihilation.  In other words, we face a self-imposed death sentence, the current collective mindfulness of which is much lower today, by the way, than it was back in 1962, even though its danger and likelihood is undiminished from that time.  This is something, like the horrors of the Holocaust, which Kafka also could not have anticipated in his day, but the universality of this deranged death sentence makes it particularly appropriate to connect with Kafka’s tale.

Another interesting subtheme of Kafka’s that appears throughout the film concerns the take on femininity in the story.  Many of the women that K encounters – Marika Burstner, Leni, Hilda, and the pack of young girls – are aggressively seductive and represent lascivious distractions from K’s serious concerns.  In casting Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli for these cameo roles, Welles was presenting some of the most alluring feminine European movie stars to portray this notion of feminine distraction and devotion to sensual physicality.  Their presence in the film is likely to give the viewer a different feeling than what one probably gets from reading Kafka’s story.

So we can say that Welles did inject references to significant social themes in his rendition of The Trial.  But nevertheless and as mentioned above, the principal focus and aesthetic virtue of his film concerns his presentation of Kafka’s existentialist theme.  This was accomplished by means of Welles’s well-developed film noir mise en scene, which he had honed in connection with his earlier works along these noirish lines – The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958).  But The Trial represented the culmination of Welles’s film-noir aesthetics.

We can observe that the film noir is actually the ideal mode for Kafka, because it employs emphatic expressionist techniques to convey paranoia, hopelessness, and fear of incarceration – just what Kafka was talking about [6].  As filmmaker and writer Paul Schrader remarked regarding the aesthetics of film noir [8]:
“The actors and setting are often given equal emphasis. . . . When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood.”
Certainly this is the case in The Trial, where Welles’s expressionistic settings and camera arrangements constantly impose a threatening surroundings on the beleaguered Joseph K.  The positive effects of this moody atmosphere more than compensate for some minor deficiencies in the finished product.  The background music, while often evocative, is sometimes too jazzy and distracting. And the dubbed dialogue (Welles is said to have used his own voice to dub eleven of the characters’ spoken lines [9]) is sometimes unclear and too rushed. But overall, Welles’s The Trial is a masterpiece.  In fact even though Welles’s Citizen Kane has often been ranked as the greatest film of all time [10], Welles, himself, regarded The Trial as his best work [5].  And it truly is worthy of being considered a film classic.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Trial”,, (25 February 2000).  
  2. Jean-Philippe Deranty, “Existentialist Aesthetics”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (17 February 2015).   
  3. Temenuga Trifonova, “The Trial”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 38, Senses of Cinema, (February 2006).    
  4. Cristina Vatulescu, “The Medium on Trial: Orson Welles Takes on Kafka and Cinema”, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2013).    
  5. Huw Wheldon, "Orson Welles on THE TRIAL", Interviewed on the BBC in 1962, Wellesnet, (1962).   
  6. Jeffrey Adams, “Orson Welles's ‘The Trial:’ Film Noir and the Kafkaesque”, College Literature, Vol. 29, No. 3, Literature and the Visual Arts (Summer, 2002), pp. 140-157.
  7. Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”, (translation by Ian Johnston), Franz Kafka online, (1915).   
  8. Paul Schrader, “notes on film noir”, Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1 (SPRING 1972), pp. 8-13.     
  9. “The Trial (1962 film)”, Wikipedia, (30 August 2018).    
  10. “Sight and Sound: Critics’ Top Ten Poll”, Wikipedia, (26 August 2018).