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.  

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Immortals (2011)

Hollywood is now officially crazy about Greek mythology and graphic novels that are inspired by Greek mythology (note Troy, 300, Clash of the Titans, Immortals), and there will be lots more ahead thanks to the ever-growing fan base of this newfound mania.

From wafer-thin exotic female seers, to muscle popping masculine heroes, these Greek mythology inspired films seem to get their bucks from the eye-candy they provide. This seems to be a consistent trait that has helped push the box office successes of these films.

‘Immortals’ is no different. Tarsem Singh’s latest mythology inspired story is about the poor son of a single mother who learns of his purpose (thanks to being favoured by the Gods) of defeating a ruthless king who wants to free the Titans using the fabled Epirus Bow.

The name of the hero is Theseus, but he has no bearing to the original Greek mythology hero of the same name. There are a few sprinkles of what can be called ‘a homage’ to original Greek mythology – but nothing more.

Our hero is a self doubting one, who does not believe in the Gods. He however learns that his destiny is to defeat an evil king and stop him from unleashing the Titans who could destroy humanity as well as the Gods.

Additionally there is a love story with the virgin Oracle, Phaedra.

This film boasts some stunning visuals, with crystal clear images of water flowing, metal shining, and blood splattering (unfortunately). The earthy hues used as the colour palette for the film, remind one of the imagery in 300. Ultimately, the film never fails at being beautiful, visually.

Anyone looking for a lot of action and violence is sure to be thrilled. There is also a lot of eye-candy for everyone. The men have six packs and the women are your typical ramp-walking models.

The acting is far from top notch and the music is nothing note-worthy and mostly escapes attention.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you really like Freida Pinto or if you like Greek mythology inspired stories and don’t mind if they deviate from the original. There’s also a lot of action and sword clanking if you enjoy that.

Avoid it if you really can’t stand Greek mythology being butchered. Also stay away if you want to see an action movie that has true emotional impact.

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.

The Colour of Pomegranates – Sayat-Nova (1968)

Country: Armenia (at that time the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic)

There are some films that choose not to tell stories, but choose instead to show slices of art. The Colour of Pomegranates, directed by the acclaimed Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, is exactly that kind of film. If you’re looking for a plot line, you’ve chosen the wrong film. But if you go with an open mind to enjoy art for its own sake, The Colour of Pomegranates is one movie you should not miss.

You will perhaps never see such stunning and sometimes surreal visuals on screen. And though the film is dated now, the composition of frames, the use of colour, and the stark imagery is still unforgettable.

The film is based on the poems of a famous Armenian bard – Sayat Nova. Though the film is not a biography of the poet’s life (as it clearly mentions in the opening credits), it goes through his life using the imagery in his poems.

For non-Armenians, this film is sure to be confusing. It may also be confusing for Armenians. The best way to go about watching this film is knowing that the film is about the life of the poet and it does not attempt to be biographical. Instead it is made to resemble Armenian illuminated miniatures and the imagery is supposed to make the most impact.

This is not a high budget film and it is shot primarily in Armenian monasteries. The colours are stark and symbolic, and the music by Tigran Mansuryan is definitely surreal and haunting.

If you’re looking for something experimental, The Colour of Pomegranates is the right film to pick. It may not leave you with the satisfaction of having watched a film with a coherent plot line, but its visuals will stay in your mind long after you have watched the film.

Ever heard of the term ‘visual poetry’? This is it.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you like experimental cinema or want to watch l’art pour l’art.

Avoid it if you get bored easily. Also avoid it if you do not like to watch films without a storyline.

The Infernal Affairs Trilogy (2002-2003)

Country: Hong Kong (China)

Those who have watched the much-acclaimed and award-winning movie ‘The Departed’ might want to go back to experience the film that started it all. Though Infernal Affairs (Mou Gaan Dou) is not a household name outside Hong Kong, it is worth seeing the film that ultimately became the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’.

The story is about cops and criminals – where drug operatives put their own mole in the police department as a spy and where the cops put their own man in the drug triads to spy. What ensues is a thrilling tale of cat and mouse chases and alternate personalities. The ‘moles’, both of whom live double lives, have to make choices based on what is most important to them.

Whereas the first film, starring Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong, et al, is the captivating tale of how both the mafia and the police department discovers that moles from opposing sides have infiltrated their teams, the subsequent films act as prequels and sequels, adding more layers to the story of the first film.

The films feature a stellar cast (but note that Tony Leung and Andy Lau are not there in the second film, where their ‘young’ versions are played by Shawn Yue and Edison Chen.)

Infernal Affairs II is a prequel, throwing more light onto the characters in the first film. Not much can be said about it without revealing spoilers. There is more about the protagonists (the moles), as well as the drug triad bosses and the police chiefs. Though there is no strong link between the first and second film (apart from the characters), it cannot be ignored as part of the trilogy.

Infernal Affairs III is a sequel to the first film but it brings back all the characters from the trilogy (including Andy Lau and Tony Leung), and is less of a crime thriller and more of a psychological thriller which attempts to weave the story subtly around Buddhist concepts of good and bad.

Do not go to watch these films expecting the protagonists to speak English and act all American. Yes, one is bound to make comparisons with the Departed. However, what one has to understand is that the Departed took some ideas from all three films and put it in one. However, the concept is still a clear winner here, and it’s quite sad that when the Departed won the Oscars that year, they hailed Infernal Affairs as a Japanese movie. Ouch.

It is a Hong Kong film, with its stunning cityscape present in many scenes. It is not your normal Hollywood fare but the trilogy definitely gets addictive and is really a good example of top class Asian cinema.

The trilogy also benefits from having two directors who made all three movies consistently. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak create a compelling set of films that you are sure to watch with full attention.

Also check out the soundtracks of all three films, which feature some great music by famed Hong Kong composer Chan Kwong Wing.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you want to enjoy an engrossing piece of action-drama that also draws from Buddhist philosophy.

Avoid it if you think that the Departed is the best in its genre and if you do not think Asian cinema can stand up against Hollywood cinema.