Friday, June 22, 2007

Children of Heaven

In the past few months, thanks to the Hyderabad International Film Festival and a couple of friends (Sirisha and Prem), I have had the good fortune of being exposed to the world of international cinema, something which I have always wanted to but never could. Sometime back, I got a DVD version of an Iranian movie Children of Heaven, directed by Majid Majidi, a prominent member of the Iranian New Wave Cinema. The movie was nominated for the Best Foreign Feature Film in the Academy Awards (2003) but lost out to Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”.

Children of Heaven is the kind of movie you want to watch and recommend to others for viewing. The movie is stunningly simple and subtle but at the same time is highly engrossing and never for a second, do you feel bored with the proceedings. There is something about such movies which is refreshingly different – they are simple, unhurried and talk to your heart directly. Sometimes, in the name of art, directors complicate movies and make you wonder whether the art of story telling can be so convoluted after all.

Children of Heaven tells the story of two siblings, Ali and Zahrah. Ali takes his sister Zahrah’s shoes for repair but loses them on his way home. The entire movie revolves around their attempts to manage their lives with a single pair of sneakers. The family is poor and cannot afford to buy a new pair of shoes, so they hide the loss of the footwear from their parents. They come to an agreement where Zahrah wears Ali’s sneakers in the morning while attending school and Ali uses the same pair in the afternoon to attend noon classes.

There is a running competition in the area for kids and the third prize is a pair of shoes. Ali participates in the race hoping to come third but after a lot of effort, comes first. His coach and principal are all very happy but he is glum because he can no longer give the shoes to his sister. The film ends with Zahrah finding out that she will not get a new pair of shoes, but an epilogue explains that Ali eventually achieves the larger-scale success of having a racing career. (The epilogue in the DVD version does not carry sub-titles and I picked this part from the internet).

The story line is quite a basic one and some critics have found it just too simple. But I see this as more of a problem with the cynical times we live in. We are so desperate to complicate our lives and don’t have the time and patience to appreciate simplicity. Serious cinema is conveniently taken to comprise uncomfortable bouts of insufferable silence, long shots of unexplainable camerawork and dialogues which seem totally out of world; entertainment is confused with meaningless songs, action sequences and inane dialogues – all in the name of reaching out to the masses. But Majidi shows that there are no boundaries between class and mass cinema and that art can be both meaningful and entertaining at the same time and does not have be mutually exclusive.

The movie appeals to our heart because it manages to blend realism and beauty – something that people think is difficult to find. There are a few scenes that stand out like when Ali and his father go to the city in search of work and are wonderstruck by the urban life. The scene also shows the two disparate Irans that exist- one in the high rises and the other in the lanes and by lanes. His father fails to get work because of his communication skills (or rather lack of it) but Ali manages to get his father work by talking smartly, also possibly a generational change.

In another scene, Zahrah drops her brother’s shoes accidentally in the drain; she goes through a gamut of emotions till it is retrieved and we live those emotions, along with her. Her attempts to hide her shoes from the other kids and at the same time locate her pair of shoes are almost an ode to the world of innocence that we have long forgotten in the process of growing up.

Children of Heaven will appeal to children and the unfamiliarity in language is not a hindrance. The director manages to overcome the language barrier and bring into our midst a movie that not only enthralls visually but also tugs at our heart strings. However, classifying this as a children’s movie would be doing grave injustice to Majidi’s efforts at reaching out to a larger audience. In the cynical times we live in, children’s movies are looked as escapist fare catering to a slightly lower denomination of audience. But then, anyday, such a movie should be shown to kids rather than a “Spiderman” or a “Batman” which have nothing in it for children except the fact that they are cartoon strip characters.

The beauty of cinema lies in its ability to present a visual medium to the audience; exploring the sights and sounds can be a beautiful experience in itself. Many filmmakers do not use the power of visuals and bombard the screen with too many dialogues; you need to let the medium to speak for itself and not handicap it. However, at the same time, you must not get carried away by the beauty of the medium and subject your viewers to the agony of being thrashed with senseless visuals that do not speak anything coherent.

The movie is set in a primarily lower middle class milieu and the lens work gives us a peek into the world of lower rungs of Iranian culture, without passing judgments- something we have got used to doing whenever we think about the Islamic world. Human struggle (however insignificant) is always intimidating but it can also be shown beautifully, without allowing us to be cynical about the entire experience.

Kid movies often suffer from the problem of overplaying the cuteness of the kids (watch any Mani Ratnam movie) and irritating us but thankfully, Majidi ensures that they remain part of the medium and do not dominate it. In these days of fast paced action, isn’t it delightful to go through the small things in life in such an unhurried fashion? Finally, all I can say is – This is an excellent movie for both adults and children alike, and one that begs for further discussion with your kids.

Meanwhile, my tryst with Iranian cinema continues. A couple of weeks back, I managed to get a DVD copy of Samira Makhmalbaf’s acclaimed movie Blackboards which won her the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2001. Hopefully, this involvement will help me in exploring the world of international cinema, which has only meant Hollywood till now. I’d be grateful if anyone can suggest avenues to explore this world. I am not very sure where I can watch foreign movies in India.