March 18, 2012 1 Comment
By Rob Packer
London is in film festival season: the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival both start next week. But this week is the London Asian Film Festival, which started on Friday with Michael (2011), director Ribhu Dasgupta’s first film, and was opened by Bollywood superstar Abhishek Bachchan and British comic, Meera Syal (“so a not desi” as she tripped over the lead actor’s name).
The film, part of “India’s emerging cinema landscape”, is the story of Michael Rodriguez (Naseeruddin Shah), who is dismissed from the Kolkata police force after he is made a scapegoat for following orders to fire on a peaceful demonstration and (accidentally) killing a 12-year-old boy. Soon after, he begins to receive phone calls from the boy’s father who threatens to kill Michael’s own son on his 12th birthday.
The film plays like a thriller, but more engrossing is the figure of Michael as he struggles with guilt, being cast adrift in the city and his diminished masculinity: his lost livelihood means he can no longer provide materially for his son, but worse is his progressive blindness meaning he can’t protect his son from harm. A leitmotiv is the Happy Birthday jingle of Michael’s lighter—potentially very cheesy in other situations—that here signifies something different each time, ranging from a boy’s pre-birthday excitement and familial happiness to a lament. And one of the most affecting scenes is where Michael is given dark glasses by an optician and he travels through Kolkata, eventually coming across a blind beggar singing: as Michael squats down, his fear about his and his son’s future is palpable.
The film, always grainy, shifts in and out of focus more and more in point-of-view shots as Michael’s eyesight deteriorates and the viewer’s eyes are drawn towards Naseeruddin Shah’s own, often unblinking eyes, like pools of darkness that speak of Michael’s helplessness.
In its commentary on the precariousness of life in contemporary India, the film also has a contemporary feel, most obviously in the anti-government demonstration at the start of the film against the Communist party that ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011; and echoes (deliberately or accidentally) the anti-corruption mass movements of last year.
But the film’s other real star is monsoon Kolkata, which adds an incredibly atmospheric touch to the film: whether in the rain, the disorienting cacophony of the horns of passing cars in the opening scene as Michael stands on a traffic island, the jostling crowds and flocks of pigeons of central Kolkata, and (above all) in the monumental and neglected Victorian architecture of the city.
I won’t get the chance to go to any other showings at the London Asian Film Festival, but as an opener, Michael promises great things for the festival. And as Ribhu Dasguptu’s directorial debut this gripping and mature, it promises much more.
Michael is showing as part of the London Asian Film Festival at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road on 19 March at 18:00 and Watermans, 40 High Street Brentford on 21 March at 20:00.