Utpal Borpujari

March 5, 2012

Still Standing: Chronicling an inspiring life

By Utpal Borpujari

A documentary film on the life of a disabled person has every chance of becoming a sob story, especially if it is made by a family member. Still Standing surely triumphs on this score. Pankaj Johar, who has just won the Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari Trophy for the best debut director in the international competition section of the 12th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films (MIFF), never allows the personal to bog down the professional in his film based on his father Rajinder Johar’s life.

Johar senior’s story is inspiring to say the least. He was shot by a colleague soon after joining as a physiotherapist in Lucknow’s King George’s Medical College way back in 1986. Shot twice, he miraculously did not die, but a bullet injury in the spine ensured that he would have to leave a life of a quadriplegic – in other words, completely bedridden for the rest of his life. He could have very easily gone into depression, but instead, after an initial phase of that, he chose to live life. And how!

He started what is known as Family of Disabled (FoD), an NGO that has over the years provided help to thousands of disabled people in Delhi to be self-dependant and live without pity, either self or from others. From his bed, Johar coordinates a team that provides help to disabled people from various strata of society to overcome their physical problems and become self-sufficient and confident to live life.

Johar junior has captured in the film, structured as a simple narrative, his father’s life as he has seen it over the years – how he has fought his own demons and overcome them, how he started his mission to help others and how through his own life, he has inspired many. But while doing so, he has completely eschewed all things personal. It must have been quite a tough task for the son in him, but Pankaj Johar has remained focused on his father’s inspirational role in society throughout the film, refusing to even once let it peek into the family’s travails over the years, especially in the initial years when his father was attacked and he and his sister were small kids.

The film encompasses two parallel narratives actually. One is the life of Rajinder Johar itself – how he fought destiny and turned it into his favour. And the other is how he has played an inspirational role in changing the lives of many others. “Still Standing” starts with the visual of a bed-ridden Johar meeting streams of people. From there, the film moves into Johar’s daily life and also the lives of people like disabled artists Sheila and Imamuddin or roadside tea stall vendor Sabina, who had lost her legs in an accident as a child and has now been helped by Johar to get a better life.

The film is minimalistic in its visual design, and obviously has been made with very limited budget – Pankaj Johar says that he left his job as an accountant to pursue his mission to enter filmmaking with this film – but where it scores is its inspirational tone, which comes clearly from the protagonist. The director’s success comes from the fact that he has only barely let the son come to the fore in the film, letting it become inspirational rather than emotional cinema.

(Published in The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com, 26-02-2012)



February 16, 2012

Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing : Lyrical Documentation of a Disaster

By Utpal Borpujari

It’s quite easy to shoot a post-natural disaster region – just go there, aim your camera, and start recording the miseries of the people affected, and how the relief and rehabilitation is happening, or not happening. But it’s not easy to create cinema out of it, giving those little sensitive touches that would lift it above television features. Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing, the 90-minute documentary on the impact of the devastating Nargis Cyclone that hit the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar in 2008, scores exactly on that score.

The film, shot stealthily by its makers as the military Junta had banned entry of any outsider into the cyclone-hit region, probably to hide the real impact of Nargis (which estimates say killed 1,40,000 people and left 2.4 million homeless), does not even give the real names of its directors in the credits, lest they are persecuted by the government.

But that does not lessen the visual sensitivity of directors Kyaw Kyaw Oo & Maung Myint Aung (both pseudonyms). The film starts at a point seven days after the cyclone that hit the Delta on May 2, 2008, the day when the film crew could reach the region evading government restrictions. As evident from the film, they did not face much problem in shooting the film, moving from one ravaged place to another, clearly since there is not much official structure present – either to offer relief to people or to implement its own restrictions effectively! And wherever there were any potential danger, they had to avoid shooting…as the voiceover says at one point, “Some pictures we could take with only our eyes…eyes were everywhere.”

The film is basically a recollection and recording of people’s memories about the devastation that has happened around them, and of stories of personal loss and grief, interspersed with sparse narration that lends a philosophical touch to the impact of nature’s fury. Despite the gloomy scenario, the filmmakers are able to present a story of hope, as character after character interviewed stoically speak about their personal loss with a calmness that can probably come from either their religion, Buddhism, or from a realisation of the fact that it is not the time to mourn, but to be calm and rebuild on whatever strand remains of one’s life. At one point, one of the survivors quote a Buddhist thought about five enemies of a human being – fire, water, thieves, hateful people and the ruling class – and the need to be careful when they are in proximity.

Indeed, the film’s success comes from the fact that it is able to present the incident as one of human perseverance rather than one of human tragedy. Nargis is an important film as it is perhaps the only visual documentation of a humongous natural disaster the extent of which otherwise would have remained unknown to the outside world as the military Junta prevented anyone from going into the region and even rejected humanitarian aid from other countries, thus practically putting a tough iron curtain around the Delta.

The landscape captured by the camera would have surely looked ethereally pleasant at any other time, but when the images were captures, it was twisted trees, raged paddy fields, destroyed houses all around. At certain points, it seems unreal that those affected by the tragedy are so stoically calm and cool all throughout the film’s journey from one place to another – whether it’s a couple who is rebuilding their house with their bare hands after losing all their children, or a 10-year-old who is surviving at a tent with some other children after having lost all his family members. The only visible relief in the film is through the Buddhist monks, who are seen going from one place to another providing food and clothing to the victims.
In the film, neither the places shown nor the people interviewed are ever identified. For the viewer, it remains a story about humanity and hope, and not a story of some individual faces in a far-off, unknown place. It is a courageous film with a lyrical beauty that transcends beyond the drama of politics, society and peoples.

(Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing was awarded the FIPRESCI international critics award at the 12th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films – MIFF – held during February 3-9. The author was a member of the 3-member FIPRESCI jury)

(Published on http://www.dearcinema.com; 16-02-2012)


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