Film Review: ‘Bitter Chestnut’ explores a contemporary quandary

The story is set after Operation Blue Star. (Supplied)
Updated 07 October 2019

Film Review: ‘Bitter Chestnut’ explores a contemporary quandary

CHENNAI: It can be fascinating when a filmmaker surprises us by transcending genres. While Indian Director Gurvinder Singh told us in his debut 2011 feature “Alms for a Blind Horse” (which premiered at Venice) about the struggles of a village against land grabs and ruthless industrialization, his second outing in 2015, “The Fourth Direction,” took Cannes by storm.

The story is set after Operation Blue Star (when the Indian military stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out militants), and examines the dilemma of a people caught between the excesses of government forces and rebels.

In his latest foray into cinema, “Bitter Chestnut” (“Khanaur”), which had its world premiere at the 24th Busan International Film Festival, Singh completely changes track. This time, he takes us to the tranquil environs of the Himalayas, to a small but idyllic town called Bir. There, 17-year-old Kishan (Kishan Katwal) works in a little cafe run by an elderly woman from Kerala, played by Monisha Mukundan.

She, like some others, have left the hustle and bustle of city life for peace and quiet. The tourists who stop by at Bir (a center for paragliding) are her only source of diversion, maybe distraction. Her motherly instincts are etched sharply when we see her relationship with Kishan, who has left behind his family in Baragraan, many miles away. 

Kishan is torn between his desire to explore new frontiers, a fresh lifestyle with a job in the city, and the demand of his family to take up its traditional profession of carpentry. He cannot decide, his dreams to move away clashing with his own insecurities of a life he has no clue about.

He watches how guests at the cafe seem distraught and disgruntled with the modern, urban existence. He contrasts this with his own life, amidst a people who have learnt to live with a multitude of cultures and in perfect harmony with nature. 

In 100 minutes, Singh explores a giant of an idea — the conflict between tradition and modernism — by using non-professionals. Katwal actually works in the cafe, his parents are his own, and Mukundan lives in Bir. It could not have been easy to direct such a group to narrate a story that tugs at your heart.

For all those used to Hollywood cinema’s pace, Singh’s latest outing may seem stretched and ponderous, but “Bitter Chestnut” hides a spirited message. 


‘It Must Be Heaven’: Elia Suleiman’s sardonic take on the world

Suleiman, who plays the lead role as himself, explores identity, nationality and belonging. (Supplied)
Updated 23 October 2019

‘It Must Be Heaven’: Elia Suleiman’s sardonic take on the world

MUMBAI: Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven,” which was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, is pure cinema. Like his earlier works, here too the Palestinian director uses wit, sarcasm and minimalism, this time to present a series of vignettes that are funny but also a powerful lambast of the world we live in. Suleiman, who plays the lead role as himself, explores identity, nationality and belonging.

He says people worldwide now live in fear amid global geopolitical tensions. Today, checkpoints are just about everywhere: In airports, shopping malls, cinemas, highways — the list is endless.

“It Must Be Heaven” was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival. (Supplied) 

Suleiman’s earlier features, such as “Chronicle of a Disappearance” and “Divine Intervention,” showed us everyday life in the occupied Palestinian territories. This time, it is Paris and New York. 

The first scene is hilarious, with a bishop trying to enter a church with his followers. The gatekeeper on the other side of the heavy wooden door is probably too intoxicated and refuses to let the priest in, leading to a comical situation. Suleiman’s life in Nazareth is filled with such incidents — snippets that have been strung together to tell us of tension in society. Neighbors turn out to be selfish, and only generous when they know they are being watched. 

The Palestinian director uses wit, sarcasm and minimalism, to present a series of vignettes that are funny but also a powerful lambast of the world we live in. (Supplied)

In Paris, the cafes along the grand boulevards, and the young women who pass by, are typical of France’s capital. But a cut to Bastille Day, with tanks rolling by in a show of strength, jolts us back to harsh reality. In New York, Suleiman’s cab driver is excited at driving a Palestinian. 

The film has an interesting way of storytelling. The scenes begin as observational shots, but the camera quickly changes positions to show Suleiman watching from the other side of the room or a street. The camera then returns to where it first stood, and this back-and-forth movement is delightfully engaging.

The framing is so perfect, and the colors so bright and beautiful, that each scene looks magical. And as the director looks on at all this with his usual deadpan expression, a sardonic twitch at the corner of his mouth, we know all this is but illusion. There is bitter truth ahead!