Bewildering Stories

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At the Alternate Academies

by Thomas R.

The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in Bombay has nominated these five films:

Manock (India)
The Genius of Erode (India)
Iskander (India)
The God of the City (Brazil)
Pavilion (Brazil/China co-production)

Only The God of the City is genre, but Pavilion has a kind of odd fusion of Magic Realism and Chinese Opera. The rest are based on real people or events, but may still have some interest in various ways. Though this is a genre place it may be acceptable to review these nonetheless.

Manock: This film traces the rise and fall of this Parsi merchant family. It traces their story through several generations. A central concern is their dealings with the British East India Company in the eighteenth century. The story goes through various twists and turns that are not entirely related to the supposed central point. Oddly none of those equal the twists and turns of the film itself. It has become one of the more controversial films in recent years, even provoking a minor international incident.

In the beginning the film had the general approval of the Parsi community. Then after being more widely distributed protests began stating it promoted stereotypes and impugned the Zoroastrian faith. Seizing a perceived opportunity the Mahdist state of Persia declared that this meant the film showed “The Pagans shall never treat a people of the book as well as us, return to the home of Zoroaster.” After that its nomination bid has been promoted by leading Parsi businessman and the protests largely ended. However the Indian government’s efforts to show this supports their claim they are wanting Parsi scientists to aid a missile program have received a mixed reaction in the international community.

The Genius of Erode: This chronicles the life of Indian mathematician Ramanujan. He managed, with little formal training, to discover entire branches of mathematics unknown to him. Sadly much of these turned out to simply be recreations of the works of Gauss and others. This itself tends to be viewed as an achievement for someone unaware of such thinkers. More remarkable some of his work on elliptics and hypergeometric series have proved unique to him and of some significance. In the end he even gained honors from Cambridge, but sadly died at the age of 32 after a life often full of poverty and illness. Yet since his death he has become folk hero to the world and almost a legend in his native India.

The film itself does a masterful job of being respectful without becoming too reverential. In so doing it dispels some of the more absurd notions and casts him in a more human light than previous treatments. However it does emphasize his orthodox Brahmin upbringing and retains a certain conservative Hindu outlook. Further his bride’s age at marriage is raised to fourteen to avoid offending modern sensibilities or an international audience. Curiously the actor who played the adult Ramanujan, the twice nominated Rajeev Tagore, received no nomination for this despite its being his best performance to date.

Iskander: This epic Bollywood Musical is the odds on favorite to win. It chronicles the campaign of Iskander, or as many know him, Alexander the Great, through India and its aftermath. Its U.S. premier is greeted with some anticipation, although some fear the older generation will have a problem with an eight-hour film where people break into song with no warning.

The film places most of its emphasis on the campaign in India, the Battle of Hyderbasis scene being the most climactic. In an hour-long period a cast of thousands manage to sing, dance, and stab each other in a well choreographed manner. In Bollywood tradition this large cast is not done through trick photography or other effects. They actually had somehow managed to get thousands of people who could do all these things, including the stunts. To even find a thousand actors or stunt men in most nations would be a difficult feat. More remarkably many of the actors had been Jains so they had to do all this with no loss of any kind of life. However the director later admitted that a cat belonging to an extra had been trampled by an elephant and, more troubling, a gaffer ate a rabbit that had briefly wandered into a shot. He added though that restitution had been given to the extra for the loss of her pet while prayers had been offered for the rabbit and his family. This is not a joke; recordings of the prayer service are available on request.

The God of the City: This is the sole SF nominee. This film, based on the novel by Brazilian author Flavio Gilbretto, portrays the evolving consciousness of a computer network in a space city. Since this network must provide their needs the citizens grow increasingly dependent and worshipful, until eventually it is as the title describes.

Despite that description the movie does not go the direction you might expect. It is not about a revolt against the machine, indeed the machine is the main character; nor is about criticism of religion. Instead it focuses on the machine’s awareness that it has become “a God” in the eyes of its citizens and tries to come to terms with what that means. The other element is the evolution of the religion and what value that might have.

Pavilion is the weakest entry. It is based on an old Chinese Opera, but with a mostly Brazilian cast. The script by Wei Yongheng is interesting in resetting the story in Imperial Era Brazil and having some funny moments, but mostly the cast is ill-equipped for this attempted merger of Chinese Opera and Magic Realism.

In closing Maria Etxea from my previous review segment was nominated for Best Actress. She is only the third non-Indian to be so nominated.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.