The Cannes Film Festival packs the known and the unknown in its basket of selections. India's Gurvinder Singh is a fresher here at the Croisette, his first movie, Alms for the Blind Horse, having premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few years ago.
Singh's second work, The Fourth Direction or Chauthi Koot (screened here as part of A Certain Regard), is a vast improvement on his first -- which though a well meant exercise, was raw, unpolished and a trifle ponderous. The Fourth Direction deftly negotiates all of these.
Set in the 1980s Punjab that was in the grip of the Khalistan movement, a bloody insurgency which finally led to the storming of the Golden Temple by the armed forces and flushing out the militants holed in there, The Fourth Direction reminded me of a Hitchcockian trait. Singh recreates fear with just a hint of violence. While we see plenty of anxiety on the faces of the actors, we see virtually no bloodshed and just a trace of physical brutality.
Gurvinder Singh (L) and actor Vikky Suvinder during a photocall for the film Chauthi Koot. (Reuters)
The movie pictures two unrelated stories. The first focuses on how three men force their way into the guard's compartment of a train that has been ordered by the military to run between two stations absolutely empty. The men, one Sikh and two Hindus, having missed their last train are left with no choice but to finally push their way into the coach.
In the second story, which is the main one, Singh takes us to a farmhouse, far removed from habitation, where a family of father, mother, son, daughter and their grandmother, lives in mortal fear of not just the militants but also the armed forces. Their pet dog, Tommy, is a source of irritation for the insurgents, who find its barking a giveaway as they pass by the farmhouse under the cover of darkness. They walk into the house one night, accept the family's hospitality and suggest (maybe order) that the animal be put to death. The family abhors the very idea of doing this.
The following morning, the troops arrive, search the house, turning it upside down, and even rough up the man there in their vain effort to find arms or even militants hidden away.
The dark days in Punjab which eventually culminated in the assassination of Indira Gandhi are retold by Singh most vividly through the haunted eyes of the small family that lives with the fear of both the military and the militants.
Singh tells us that the real victims of the 1980s insurgency were the ordinary people whose lives were shattered -- not the hundreds who fell to bullets on either side.
The Fourth Direction is certainly a marvellous attempt at narrating a bloody part of history without actually resorting to an exhibition of bullets and blood.Yes, the pace could have been quicker, and the narration less repetitive.
The Italian master, Nanni Moretti, presents another kind of upheaval in his Competition entry, My Mother. Mostly playing out within the confines of a studio in Rome, the film centres on a woman helmer who is grappling with a haughty actor and her own inner turmoil as she watches her mother die.
It is Moretti's most sombre work after The Son's Room, and while My Mother is warm (with even his signature scooter making an appearance in a scene where a teenage girl is taught how to ride one by her parents) and intimate, it is not half as humorous is We Have A Pope -- that captured the dilemma of a priest ordained to lead the Catholic world from the Vatican.
Margherita (Margherita Buy) is shooting a movie. Though outwardly calm, she finds its almost impossible to the handle her lead star (a big brag, insubordinate to the core). Adding to this is her breakup with her latest boyfriend and her sorrow at seeing her mother's life ebb away. Though she feels , she is capable of calling the shots both in the studio and outside, she does not realise how imperiously insensitive she really is.It is her brother, Giovanni (essayed by Moretti himself) who ultimately helps her tackle the ill-behaved star and the family's tragedy.
There are some brilliant moments in the My Mother , but the subject of a film within a film has been done to death, and nobody, really nobody, has been able to better it than Truffaut's Day for Night. Fellini's 81/2 came somewhat close to Truffaut's.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for the 26th year)