Osama (2003)

Country: Afghanistan

Looking at the title of the film, one immediately assumes that this film is about Osama Bin Laden – but that would be a completely wrong thought. However, even without a mention of Bin Laden, Osama manages to be just as emotionally scarring.

The film follows the story of a young girl (probably of 11 years of age), who has to become the breadwinner of her family after her father is killed. The only other members of her family are her mother and grandmother, both women.  In this strict Taliban regime, women are not allowed to work – which is what puts her mother out of work in the first place. To make sure that they do not go hungry, her mother chops off the young girl’s hair and disguises her as a boy so that she can work with the local milk vendor. Her true identity is only known to her family and to another male friend, who gives her the name ‘Osama’.

However, fate has its say in another manner, and the Taliban come to enlist all young boys. She is scooped up by them forcibly and is trained in military school. But this becomes a disturbing journey for her as she has to protect her real identity – because she knows that if she is discovered she will be killed.

How long can she hide this truth? And does she ever return to her family? Osama leaves you both shocked and disturbed as you undertake the harrowing road to life in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Thankfully this is not a film about how good the Americans are to wage war in Afghanistan, or is not about how evil the Taliban are for their support of Bin Laden and 9/11. This is the story of a young girl, and nothing more.

The acting is top-notch, and Marina Golbahari (Osama) performs completely realistically, making her the ray of light in this otherwise dark and depressing tale directed by Siddiq Barmak.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you would like to watch a film about the effect of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Avoid it completely if you do not want to be depressed. Though this film is not physically violent or gory, it is emotionally draining and distressing.

Phörpa ~ The Cup (1999)

Country: Bhutan

A couple of youngsters wanting to watch the FIFA World Cup may not sound so unusual. After all, most people do that anyway, don’t they? But, what if these youngsters were Tibetan students living in a religious monastery in India?

Phorpa is far from typical Hollywood fare, relying on its unusual, yet delightful story to catch the attention of its viewers. Interesting questions are raised over the course of the film.

First is the Tibetan question itself. This amazing part of the world has seen so much strife over its history, and so many of its people are still scattered all over the world, not knowing whether they will ever get back to their homeland. In spite of this, Tibetans living abroad in countries like India still continue to follow their culture and their religious duties and this is apparent in Phorpa.

Another question is raised regarding the impact of popular culture and modernity over a very old religious way of life. The Lamas discuss whether it is right for the young ones to be pulled in by the material lure of the world cup. Is material pleasure the ultimate source of evil? Or does religion have to give place to modernity as well?

As the film progresses, the young novices try to find a way to watch the world cup. They are forced to rent a TV from an Indian dealer. However, things don’t go as smoothly as planned and a number of problems cause obstructions. However, these problems only test the solidarity of the young students.

There is no action in this film – no catfights or rat races. The film is realistic and visually beautiful. The music, like the film, is completely fresh and unique.

Bhutanese filmmaker/Lama Khyentse Norbu’s film is definitely worth watching for its wit and humour.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it to see the lifestyle and beliefs of Tibetan monks as they try to accept modernity in an old way of life. Also watch it for a heartwarming story.

Avoid it if you are looking for something big to happen every two minutes. Also miss it if you are easily disappointed with subtle climaxes.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Country: Japan

War is sometimes called inevitable. It is glorified as being necessary in order to eliminate certain evil, to protect one’s country, to defend its people. But what is mostly missed is the story of those caught up in a war that is not theirs.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) is an animated film about World War II and the lives of two orphans at a time when compassion and humanity are seemingly lost. 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko lose their mother during a bombing incident. Seita, who now finds responsibility hanging on his shoulders, has to take the help of his aunt, who slowly grows to resent the children during the difficult times. Unable to bear her selling his mother’s kimonos, Seita takes Setsuko along with him to an isolated bomb shelter where he thinks they can live independently.

However, food grows scarce, and though the children find temporary happiness by catching fireflies and watch them circle the bomb shelter at night, they are faced with despair in the morning, when the short-lived fireflies are all dead. These beautifully executed scenes are very symbolic in nature and help explain the futility and the death of hope in wartime.

If your exposure to animated films has been restricted to the ones made by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, this film can come as quite a shock. This is no fairy tale. There are no heroes or villains. Deaths are not implied, they are shown. The film is not gory, but some images may definitely be emotionally disturbing to sensitive viewers.

Isao Takahata, who established Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, is no unknown filmmaker. Along with Miyazaki, Takahata has created a number of wonderful animated films. To those who are unacquainted with his work, this is the first film Takahata has made on such a tragic subject. Due to its emotional impact and importance in retelling Japanese history, this film is shown in schools around the country, but is accompanied with Miyazaki’s heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) on DVD to lessen its depression quotient.

Considered by Roger Ebert to be ‘the greatest war film ever made’, Grave of the Fireflies does not take sides. Seita and Setsuko’s father is fighting the war on the Japanese side, and the children root for their father, who tells them that the Japanese side will win. Eventually though, the film does not take any side, apart from that of humanity.

Whether war is inevitable or glorious, or whether it is painful and futile is up for the viewer to judge. Without being didactic, Takahata’s masterpiece goes into the heart of war and uncovers the emotionally impactful story of two orphans.

The haunting score by Michio Mamiya is perfectly played with the visuals. It is sure to stay on your mind long after watching the film.

Note that the film is based on a novel by WWII survivor Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story as an apology to his younger sister. You might wonder what this apology was for, but for that it is either necessary to read the book or to watch the film.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch what can be called one of the most emotionally affecting films of all time. Watch it to see how realistic animation can be and how animated characters can be more real than actors.

Avoid it if you do not want to be depressed for days. Also avoid it if you expect characters to break out into song every once in a while and if you think animated films are for children and therefore have happy endings.

A Moment To Remember (2004)

Country: South Korea

The lure of a touching love story is hard to resist. That is perhaps why many people turn to Korean cinema. There is something about Korean romantic films that creates a warm feeling inside, but at the same time, helps in catharsis. If there is one movie that meets these criteria perfectly, and still stands out as a memorable film in its genre, it is ‘A Moment To Remember’.

A Moment To Remember is the story of a couple from different social classes. When they fight the odds to get married, a shocking twist in fate tests their love for each other. This is the story of love’s fight in the face of adversity, and the emotional tale of enduring love.

Son Ye-jin and Jung Woo-sung play the protagonists and make a realistic ‘in-love couple’. Woo-sung’s seeming stoicism and Ye-jin’s cherubic personality clash, but this contrast is what gets this film’s point across. You can be very different in terms of social standing and personalities, but love knows no bounds.

The film, directed by Lee Jae-han, is an engaging one and will keep viewers interested in love stories engrossed. While the first third of the film takes on the form of a romantic comedy, that ‘mood’ soon dies down, and more serious matters come to the forefront.

The acting, by two of South Korea’s famous actors is noteworthy, and they are convincing in their roles. The film is structured well and flows coherently, highlighting apparently unimportant details in the beginning, which end up making sense as the story progresses.

The film does get melodramatic at points, but it does not ruin the overall experience.

A Moment To Remember is shot well and though the cinematography is not brilliant, it works for the film. The music plays out as a companion piece to the film, but is not exceptional as a standalone soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you like to ‘indulge in’ emotional love stories every now and then. Also watch it if you’re trying to get yourself to cry.

Avoid it if you think romantic films about enduring love are just not for you. Also avoid it if you would pick action over drama any day.

Devdas (1955)

Country: India

A few love stories have made a real impact on Indian consciousness; Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Anarkali-Salim, and Devdas. Whereas the former three are legendary and have been passed on for years, Devdas stemmed from the creative and mature mind of a young and prolific writer in 1901 (though the book was published in 1917).

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the Bengali writer who became one of the most revered intellectuals of his time, might never have dreamed that Indian cinema would be fascinated by one particular story he wrote about doomed love. However, Devdas has been made and remade several times in many Indian languages including Hindi, Telugu and Bengali. In 2010, a Pakistani film was made on the same story.

Devdas is the story of two childhood friends – Devdas, the son of a rich landowner, and Paro (Parvati), his poorer neighbour. Devdas is sent away to boarding school in Calcutta when he grows troublesome. He returns as a man. The latent love that existed in the childhood friends awakens, and Paro’s family approaches Devdas’s family with an offer of marriage. However, they are shunned because of their low social standing and Devdas is unable to fight for his love. Disillusioned, he flees to Calcutta, leaving Paro alone to her fate.

In Calcutta, Devdas meets Chandramukhi, the courtesan with a heart of gold. He despises her for her profession, but Chandramukhi is drawn to him. Devdas wastes away his life drinking alcohol, with his childhood love forever in his mind.

The fate of these characters is very well known to Indians, but The Movie Matriarch will not reveal the rest of the plot in consideration of other non-Indian moviegoers.

The 1955 version of Devdas, directed by the renowned filmmaker Bimal Roy, is considered to be a classic in Indian (Hindi) cinema. It stays true to the spirit of the book, and features some of the best actors of their time; Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyajanthimala.

The authenticity of the film is one of its greatest strengths. Shot very much on location in a village area, the film completely captures the feel of rural Bengal in the early 20th Century. Whereas some later versions of Devdas resorted to using opulence and glamour as a selling point, Roy’s Devdas gains its reputation from its realistic portrayal of settings, emotions, and societal attitudes of its time.

The story of Devdas is essentially a psychological study into the mind of a character who is too weak to take any action. What makes this story different is that the female protagonists are much stronger than he is, but their strength is tested as a result of their weakness for him.

Roy perfectly captures the psychological aspects of the story and gives Dilip Kumar a chance to immortalise the character of Devdas on celluloid.

The music in the film is one of its highlights. The songs and background music were composed by S.D. Burman, who provided the film with an iconic soundtrack. Songs such as ‘Jise tu kabool karle’, ‘Mitwa laagi re ye kaisi’, ‘Ab aage teri marzi’, ‘Woh na aayenge palat kar’, are appropriately placed in the film, without being saccharine or wearisome.

The film is in black and white and that does not necessarily take anything away from its brilliance.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you are interested in a film based on a love story that India loves. Also watch it for the well fleshed out characters, realism, and emotional depth.

Avoid it if black and white movies are not your cup of tea. Also skip it if doomed love is not your kind of genre.  

Svani (2007)

Country: Georgia

Not many people know that there is a country in the Caucasus named Georgia, because there is a US state with the same name that is more popular. However, for those who do know, Georgia is a country with rich culture and history, being the second country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion. It is also known in mythology for being the country (then called Colchis) where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. Apart from that, Georgia had been a part of the USSR until its independence in 1991.

Georgia also has a very old cinema industry – one that unfortunately goes unnoticed in the wider world. However, one film that might have gained some international exposure in the recent past due to its projection during some film festivals around the world is Svani.

Svani depicts life in Georgia (not mainland Georgia mind you) but in a remote part of Georgia known as the Svaneti region. The Svaneti (which coincidentally is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is known for its ancient race of inhabitants called the Svans. Their watch towers are as old as hundreds and hundreds of years, and Svan society is generally closed from the rest of the world. What makes this group of people more enigmatic (and scary) is their practice of blood revenge.

Now at this point, this may sound like an alien culture for many uninitiated non-Georgian filmgoers. However, one of the main points of appreciating films is understanding the culture depicted in them. And if viewed with similar appreciation, this film will definitely turn out to be quite a gripping one.

Since the film is about the Svans, expect blood revenge to be a main theme. The ‘background’ of the story is encapsulated in the following words which appear after the opening credits: “When it became dark in the gorge of Mulakhi, a white angel would descend from the mountain of Tetnuldi to the Jachvliani family tower. The residents of the tower would begin praying. The angel protected them until those who lived in the tower killed a man from another tribe. Since then, the white angel has never been seen.”

Ironic that such a beautiful place becomes godforsaken because of an act of violence – and the film makes this contrast pretty clear.

Soso Jachvliani and Badri Jachvliani are the directors of this film, and Badri Jachvliani plays the protagonist who falls in love with a Russian woman and brings her to the Svaneti. But family feuds and vendetta take centre stage and form a sharp contrast, making the beauty of the Svaneti seem cruel in some ways.

There is a lot of beautiful imagery and there is a lot you can learn about Svan culture and traditions just by watching the film.

Chabuka Amiranashvili’s score is captivating, and complete perfection for the beautiful rolling hills and watch towers of Svaneti.

The film is visually spectacular, with on-location shooting done at the Svaneti acting as one of the strongest points. The film may not be one of the best ever made, but it is indeed a captivating watch and provides a non-Georgian film aficionado with a lot of information about the Svans.

This film needs to be watched with an open mind because blood revenge does not always sound like the most normal thing to do.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it to gain insight into another culture, and for the marvellous scenery. The music is also brilliant.

Avoid it if watching cultures alien to you makes you uncomfortable. Also avoid it if you are not too keen on watching something about blood revenge (because this is the main theme of the film).

Baran (2001)

Country: Iran

Very few films about love touch you in a way you cannot explain. What is love exactly? How does one depict it in films? Is it about conversations and coffees, or suffering and anxiety? Is it physical, or platonic?

While most love stories follow the same pattern of two people falling in love and then fighting the odds to be together, or basically ending up with heartbreak or death, a few love stories are depicted in a way you cannot possibly predict, and Majid Majidi’s Baran is one such film.

Iranian New Wave cinema has a lot of feathers in its cap for its projection of everyday life – the ‘mundane’. Only that ultimately we discover that everyday life is not as mundane as we would like to think. There are small things, that usually go unnoticed, that are beautiful.

Majidi is one such director who stuns. Though his focus on the everyday ‘mundane’ is as realistic as life itself, his stories never run dry and they never become predictable. Just as unpredictable as life, his stories keep you guessing (not like a suspense film) because they are like unraveling the uncertainty of real life.

Baran is a film that is not only visually spectacular, but is emotionally profound. It is a story about love; love that transcends cultures, languages, and ultimately, egos. It is like a visual poem that unfolds the story of two young protagonists and their love against the backdrop of a building under construction.

Set in modern day Iran, the story revolves around a Kurdish Iranian construction worker and an Afghan girl. Though resentful of the girl initially, the boy eventually finds himself in love with her after he discovers a certain secret about her. It is this love that drives him to protect her from a distance so that she is unaware of his involvement in helping her.

Their love is a silent one – where any conversation between the two is barely present. Instead, what is apparent is the extent to which a person is willing to change for a change in heart.

There are no green fields and stolen glances in this film. There are only fuming tar drums and concrete, and a lot of mud and rain. But one has to see Baran just to appreciate how the bleakest imagery can be made beautiful.

To watch Baran, you need to put aside everything you know about conventional love stories, because ultimately we know how to expect complications and conflicts in films we watch, and Baran may be a let-down if it is viewed with similar expectations.

Instead, watch it as one watches real life from a distance, and you will not be disappointed.

The smoke from the tar drums, pigeons flapping their wings, and Ahmad Pejman’s emotive soundtrack are sure not to elude you.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you do not always expect a physical angle in a love story. Also watch it if you want to see a completely realistic way of life.

Avoid it if you are looking for action, climaxes and denouements.