World Cinema

Fateless (Sorstalanság) directed by Lajos Koltai

Fateless_poster_405x571 A Holocaust movie based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same title by the Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertész, who wrote the screenplay…

Before I started this, I felt that I have had enough of Holocaust movies . For anyone who has been fed on Hollywood fare for a long time, a natural impulse is to compare any concentration camp movie to Schlinder’s List, which, as I have realized in time to be melodramatic and a one-sided portrayal (Hollywood would make us feel that only Jews died in the camps). The overdoing of the topic has unfortunately given license to Israelites to claim the mantle of victims – so that they can do to Palestinians what Hitler did to them.

But a few minutes into the movie, you realize that it is different. It has a quietness to it, almost an indifference to it, as if you are watching it from a distance. There are no gunshots, hectic action or any bravado. It populated by people who don't really know what's going to happen next, who feel that nothing terrible can really happen, believing in their own luck and following the herd – something that is all too human and completely real. The father is called for labour camp and is given a farewell dinner. No one can really fathom where he is going, beyond a vague notion of dread.

This is a movie that is almost a quiet reflection of how people behavefateless during times of unimaginable horror – survival by any means for those who are caught in hell and denial by those on the outside.

For me, the most beautiful part of the movie is the last quarter, when our protagonist comes back to his homeland, a home that has changed and not only due to the bombed out buildings. The movie before this is about how different people try to survive – some by ruthlessly practical, some by having a dream (like walking on the streets he has left behind), some by turning to religion and some by compromising. Morality and ethics, construct of a peaceful society ceases to exist in the face of extermination at any moment. In the midst, flashes of humanity sometimes sparks, if only for a few moments…

fateless-6 The last part brings to mind the last part of “All quiet on the western front”. A person who has suffered something that is beyond understanding, realizes that outsiders can be curious, be in denial or be sympathetic, all without ever understanding. The outsider expects explanations in normal day-to-day terms, which the insider is incapable and ultimately unwilling to provide.

György realizes that he has to come to terms with it himself and has to try to find a ‘future’, as he is advised by all those who keep saying that its ‘all over now’. Everyone wants him (and by reflection themselves) to forget what has happened and look ahead. The fate of the victims and survivors…

What you take away from this movie is the feeling that there is no point in pointing fingers at those who ran the camps. We are betrayed as much by our own people (the camp overseers, the policemen whofateless2 rounded up the Jews were all compatriots) as much by the invader. The greatest criminal is the art of forgetting that is perfected once the crisis is over.

The film is shot in beautiful chrome and has some stunning camera-work. There are not as much words spoken as emotions generated by the lights and shadows. You realize that sometimes words are truly insufficient to make the  mind grasp – we are left with only visuals that can penetrate.

A narrative that is a commentary on how we grapple with something we don't understand and which we are then unwilling to remember, unless we mythologize and glorify.

The drowned and the saved sometimes share similar fates…


Book Review, Historical

Raiders from the North written by Alex Rutherford

book3.jpg.display There is a shortage of good historical novels about Indian history. All that we usually get are history books, which though well written, can never get you into the skin of the character, cant let you see their own world with your eyes.

For all those reasons, this is a welcome book, being first of a quintet about the greatest of the Mughal emperors. The Mughal empire was one of the greatest of the world and should be rightly the pride of India. However, whether due to political reasons or due to ignorance (I suspect both and one feeding the other), few of us have any intimate knowledge about the empire during which time India was truly a superpower and one of the richest in the world.

This first book is about Babur, who overcame extraordinary odds to lay the foundation for Mughals. Starting from the time when he is thrust into kingship at the age of 13 for the small kingdom of Ferghana, near Samarkand, we follow his journey as he see-saws between victory and defeat, gaining everything and losing it the next moment. We see his  growing maturity as a leader of men and his instincts as a survivor.

We see the founder of the Mughal empire fighting for his existence as ababur_1526 guerrilla leader, fighting for scraps of good luck thrown at him, having to sacrifice his sister to an enemy so that he can live to fight another day. We see how he never lets go of a dream – to be worthy of being a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan and how he finally accomplishes it. You follow him as he crosses the Hindukush and into Kabul from where he dreams of Hindustan. You are witness to the First battle of Panipat and witness to Babur being crowned the emperor in Delhi.

The book is written in a linear, chronological narrative and is written simply, with one event following another. Though that made it easier to read (too easily, perhaps – the book finishing within a couple of hours), I found it to be somewhat short of drama. The twists and turns came as simply as the normal events. At the end of it, you feel that you just about missed knowing Babur, having gotten tantalisingly close. You don’t really get to be a part of his life, just a third person hovering around the battle, without being able to smell the blood and sweat. This is much unlike the “Book of Saladin” written by Tariq Ali, where you almost feel the pain of Saladin (one of my favourite characters from history)

Another shortcoming is that the book seemed shallow when you consider that Babur was an exceedingly complex man – destroyer of temples and yet secular, calling a jihad and yet contemptuous of mullahs. There are mentions of this complexity in the narraclip_image00222tive (like destroying of temples to draw in Rana Sanga) but they come in short bursts and don’t really mesh with the character as such. So, character development is a bit of a problem. Babur seemed two-dimensional most of the times, floating like a leaf in the wind of fate.

So, even though the book is a commendable achievement if only for bringing focus on the neglected Mughals, for me, it falls short of being a great read, both from a historical point of view and from a immersive read point of view.

That said,  I am still going to buy the next book of the series – if for nothing else, to know a little bit more about the empire that shaped much of our cultural (and architectural) psyche.


ramanujan the man who knew infinity
Book Review, Non-Fiction

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan written by Robert Kanigel

9780349104522 One of the most engrossing biographies that I have read. Not only is it a feat of writing because of the eclectic nature of the subject matter – about a mathematical genius whose area of working can seem very obscure to a layman. But also because, to do justice to the subject, the author had to bring alive a vanished world. A world that we have only tenuous links to. The world of the colonial India and a British empire that was still at the height of its powers.

The best part about this book is that not only is a vanished world brought alive but also that the two men who are the main characters in the narrative – Ramanujan and Hardy, from two wildly different worlds, come across as almost in flesh and blood. And if you are put off by the fear that this book may contain reference to some arcane mathematics – perish the thought. Even if you don’t know who Pythagoras was, you would enjoy the book as much as if you knew who he was.

The story is incredible in itself. An untrained genius waiting to be recognized in the dusty backlanes of Madras, who on his own, rediscovered two centuries of western mathematics working with a slate and a few rags of paper. A man who abhorred proofs, preferring to work out solutions in his head. A man whose astonishing leaps of intuition baffle mathematicians to this day. And a man who eventually would come to influence the modern mathematical world like few following him.

On the other side a man who embodies the best in English education. A man whose talent was recognized early on and who got all the advantages of that time. A man who was considered a genius in his own right. A man who was as eccentric as he was fiercely unconventional.

The unlikely meeting of these two men, leapfrogging geographies and more importantly prejudices, resulting in some of the most exciting and original works is considered a romantic lore in the world of science. And that story is told with love here – right from the genesis to the tragic end

The personality of the two men also determined the way the partnership progressed. Ramanujan, always in need of a hassle free environment and in need of professional validation was tailor-made for the mentorship of Hardy, who was selfless in promoting Ramanujan and who took care to nurture the genius in the Indian.

But the tragic part of the story was also probably largely due to their

personalities (and also due to the war – WWI). The unravelling of a partnership, which, if it had survived for some more years, could have yielded who knows what revelations, is a story in itself.

As you move through the pages, you are struck by the care and love with which the author has studied the people populating the book; by how much the author has immersed himself in the world that they lived in – from rustic and warm Madras to the ramparts of cold and forbidding Cambridge. You get to know the two men – Ramanujan and Hardy quite well before we come to the meat of the story. The telling of the story never flags in its pace and you can understand the race against time that Ramanujan must have felt when was working in Cambridge. At times the book almost reads like a thriller!

Robert Kanigel puts care in the way he portrays his characters. He does not mythify them and does not try to gloss over drawbacks in the two men. He takes care to nurture the grey part of his characters, which is what mainly makes the story comes alive – none of his characters seem one-dimensional.

The best biographies are those in which you can breathe the air that the characters breathe and you understand why they did what they did, even if you are culturally and historically removed from them. And the best of them are the ones which you enjoy even if you don’t relate to the subject matter. If that’s the yardstick taken, this book would rank right there at the top.