Veenu Sandhu recommends some of the documentaries at the ongoing PSBT Open Frame that unearth little-heard narratives from remote corners of India
Charlie Chaplin is getting on in years. His hair is grey and there are several extra inches around his waist. But the toothbrush moustache is as black as ever and the striking blue eyes still have the power to look deep into your soul. He makes for a lonely figure in black, walking on the vast white expanse of the salt marshes of the Great Rann of Kutch.
This scene from Nimesh Desai’s The Ageless Tramp establishes like nothing else the bond that the town of Adipur in Gujarat shares with Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. The Ageless Tramp is one of 33 films being screened at Open Frame, a five-day festival of documentary films organised by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (on until September 11).
It tells the story of Ashok Aswani whose life changed forever after he saw Chaplin’s Gold Rush (1925) in 1966. Mesmerised, he saw it back to back thrice the same day. When he stepped out of the theatre, the sun had gone down and he’d been thrown out of his job because he’d forgotten to go to office. But the man with sparkling blue eyes, much like Chaplin’s, felt light and happy. He promptly enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where he hobnobbed with Jaya Bhaduri and other stars-in-the-making and soon came to be called ‘Charlie Chaplin’. Then one day he got chucked out of FTII for assaulting Asrani, then his teacher — a rather Chaplinesque thing to do. Remember how many times Chaplin’s movies had him stealing the chance to smack his supervisor or employer?
Back in Adipur, Aswani practises ayurveda and lives by the advice actor Raza Murad once gave him — “Never give up on Charlie Chaplin.” He didn’t. So, along with medicine, all his patients get a Chaplin DVD. Because of him the town now celebrates Chaplin’s birthday every year on April 16, and has an active Charlie Circle that screens movies of the world’s most loved tramp.
The Ageless Tramp could have ended up as a straightforward portrayal of one man’s obsession with Chaplin. But it goes beyond to capture the tragicomedy of Aswani’s life, linking him further to the legend who was called the ‘Master of Tragicomedy’. Through interviews with friends, his tailor who makes his Chaplin outfits and his wife, the film tells the story of lost opportunities. For example, Aswani’s wife hid every message that his actor friends sent him, asking him to return.
But this 52-minute film isn’t about tragedies alone. As it follows this homegrown Chaplin on the marshes, it captures with remarkable sensitivity how Aswani has found ‘The Ageless Tramp’ within himself.
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Thousands of miles away, in a remote corner of Northeast India, a group of tribals is convinced that their home lies in Israel. A Prayer for Aliyah, a 26-minute film by Zorawar Shukla, captures the lives of Manipuri Jews who believe that they are the descendants of the Menasseh, one of the Ten “Lost Tribes” of Israel who had been separated from the land of their forefathers 2,500 years ago. Now they are determined to go back. Born into Christianity, they now practise Orthodox Judaism, learn the language, the prayers, music and customs such as the proper practice of Shabbat, in the hope that they will be accepted as true Jews in Israel. However, “their aliyah [immigration to Israel] has been halted since 2005 due to complications in Israel,” the film tells us.
Beautifully shot, the film captures this deep sense of longing through the lives of, among others, a 75-year-old man who once served in the army and a young mother who fervently believes that her daughter’s future is in Jerusalem. A Prayer for Aliyah is an extraordinary documentary that makes your heart go out to these people who seem to be drawing from the past to look into the future.
Speaking of the past, actor-director Meeta Vashisht brings to the festival a film on Lal Ded, a young woman who became, in the 14th century, one of the greatest living poets/mystics of the region. Through a fictionalised portrayal of her life, personal narratives by Kashmiris, both Hindus and Muslims, and a powerful stage performance by Vashisht, She of the Four Names attempts to understand her life. Lal Ded was a poet of unsurpassed aesthetic and literary value, says one. She was a goddess, says another. She was a revolutionary who challenged political dogma and religious fundamentalism, says yet another. The 52-minute almost-surreal film offers glimpses into this or that aspect of Lal Ded, before concluding that she remained a mystery.
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Centuries on, women are continuing to revolutionise the way the world sees them. Farida Pacha’s The Women in Blue Berets is a tribute to the role an all-woman police contingent from India — the first such in the world — played in keeping peace in Liberia. They were assisting the UN peacekeeping operations as it readied Liberia, scarred by 14 years of brutal civil war, for its second democratic elections in 2011. The film follows the women — 102 of them assisted by 23 male support staff — through their training and night patrols, capturing the brief moments when they stop to share what keeps them going or talk about their families (many have children back home). Out on the dimly-lit streets at night, with crowds waving and running along their bus, the policewomen know their job is cut out. The Women in Blue Berets is a film by a woman sticking her neck out to capture the lives of women who take a sizeable risk in the line of duty.
Open Frame offers a vast canvas of films but a must-watch is M S Sathyu’s The Right to Live, which questions the validity of capital punishment. With file recordings and interviews of Dhananjay Chatterjee, who was hanged in 2004 for raping and murdering a minor, and his impoverished family, Sathyu builds a case against death penalty. Social scientists, judges and advocates try to answer the question whether the state has the right to take the life of a citizen. What defines “rarest of rare” crime? And does the death penalty truly act as a deterrent to crime? Sathyu, whose Garam Hawa remains his finest work, does not resort to sophisticated techniques of narration or film-making, but deals with the issue head on, keeping the camera still, giving people time to speak their mind. At 63 minutes, this is the longest film in the festival. But it’s not long enough to resolve the debate.
(For Open Frame schedule visit ww.psbt.org/general/programme)