Two movies: Monsieur Klein & Toyland

May 15, 2020

Monsieur Klein (1976) is a disturbing French movie by the American director in exile, Joseph Losey (blacklisted in Hollywood as communist), set during the second world war during the Nazi occupation of France. The movie has an explosive opening scene in which a woman is being profiled rudely by a male doctor who inspects her nose, teeth, mouth, jaws, forehead, facial expression, body, hips and heels, and marks her as Jewish or Armenian or Arab. The woman pays fifteen francs for his services and leaves with her husband who had also come for profiling.

Robert Klein (Alain Delon) is a French art dealer who buys works of art at bargain prices from Jews who are looking to make money before escaping. He suddenly starts getting letters meant for another Robert Klein, a Jew living elsewhere in Paris. He traces his house but could not find him. He is desperate to find the motives of that person but is unable to make headway.

When Klein goes to meet the editor of a Jewish newsletter, which was sent to him unsolicited, the editor opines a friend might perhaps have subscribed for him. Klein says, “No one would play that sort of joke on me.” The editor asks the awkward Klein, “Do you think we are a subject for jokes?”

The police start suspecting Klein and ask him to prove his true-blue French identity.

Klein goes in search of the birth certificates of his parents and grandparents, and meets his old father. His father tells him there were Kleins in Holland and implies they could be Jews. He asks his father if they could be related to the Dutch Kleins and his father howls that they have been French and Catholic since Louis XIV. He is unable to get the certificate of his maternal grandmother who was born in Algiers.

The rest of the movie is about him trying to find and establish his identity, and the identity and motive of the other Robert Klein. The threat of a concentration camp looms over his head.

I cannot decide whether it is a historical or a futuristic movie. Needless to say, CAA,NPR,NRC were on my mind throughout.

Toyland – Spielzeugland (2007)

A wonderful World war II-Nazi era short flim that achieves in 12 minutes what others rarely achieve in a few hours and a lifetime.

Watch it – with children if you can.

[The film is on the link – read further after watching it, in case you are worried about spoilers.]

It’s intensely tragic but also offers a bright spark of hope. We (with our daughter) had to watch it twice back to back to let it sink in.

You can’t find a better way to tell your children people can’t be identified by their clothes and looks. And how humanity can somehow, sometimes if not always, triumph over fascism.

‘We shall not want for our daily bread.’

April 23, 2020


The Daily Bread, a 1934 movie by King Vidor, is a simple, well-made, uplifting film from the depression era, most apt for these times.

A young couple go back to the land – a large, abandoned desolate tract, after they are left with no options in the city. They start farming though they have no clue of how to do it. They invite out of job, homeless passers-by, heading nowhere on cars running out of gas, to live on the land and a vibrant, versatile community gets formed. As one can expect, there are challenges. And the movie ends with a predictable but a spectacular, rousing climax.

This dialogue when the first sprouts of corn come out of the barren land sums up the spirit of the movie.

“It makes you feel safe. Confident. Like somebody was watching over you.
There is nothing to worry about. Not when we’ve got the earth. It’s…it’s like a…A mother. It’s wonderful.”


இலமென்று அசைஇ இருப்பாரைக் காணின்
நிலமென்னும் நல்லாள் நகும்.

Seeing them say, “We’ve not,” and loiter,
The Good Lady Earth shall snigger. (Kural #1040)

Dr.Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani : The Indian doctor in China

March 27, 2020

18,March, 2020

I happened to watch the Hindi movie ‘Dr.Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ on Mubi (gone now), written by K.A.Abbas, directed by V.Shantaram and released in 1946. It is based on the real-life story of Dr.Kotnis who went to China to help them during the Japanese invasion in 1938.

In the movie, Dr.Kotnis, fresh out of college, goes to China to serve them. He falls in love with a Chinese girl, marries her and fathers a son. He gets captured by the Japanese but escapes from them. There is an outbreak of a contagious blister which takes many lives. The doctor injects himself with the pus from the blisters, and treats himself with many self-made medicines before finally finding a cure for it. But he develops seizures due to the disease/experiments and finally succumbs to it.

The real Dr.Dwarakanath Kotnis is one of the most respected foreign doctors to have worked in China. There is even a statue for him in China. Various Chinese Premiers have met and honoured the family of Dr.Kotnis in India. President K.R.Narayanan had met Dr.Kotnis’ wife, Guo Qinglan, in China.

Dr.Kotnis was part of a 5-member Congress medical mission which was sent to China in 1938. Dr.Kotnis stayed there and toiled strenuosly for 4 years before dying due to epileptic seizures. Mao Zedong had calligraphed a tribute to Dr.Kotnis on his death, “The Chinese Army has lost its arm and the nation its friend.”

The Congress medical mission was sent due to an initiative by Jawaharlal Nehru and the then President Subhas Chandra Bose, heeding to the request of the Chinese Communist leaders.

Ironically, Subhas Bose had written, “She[Japan] is determined to drive out the Western powers from the Far East. But could not all this have been achieved without Imperialism, without dismembering the Chinese Republic, without humiliating another proud, cultured and ancient race? No, with all our admiration for Japan, where such admiration is due, our whole heart goes out to China in her hour of trial.”

However Nehru had observed in his Discovery of India, “In 1938 the Congress sent a medical unit consisting of a number of doctors and necessary equipment and material to China. For several years this unit did good work there. When this was organized, Subhas Bose was president of the Congress. He did not approve of any step being taken by the Congress which was anti-Japanese or anti-German or anti-Italian. And yet such was the feeling in the Congress and the country that he did not oppose this or many other manifestations of Congress sympathy with China and the victims of fascist and nazi aggression. “

Nehru also says in the book, “It is surprising how internationally minded we grew in spite of our intense nationalism.” It is this international minded intense nationalism that pervades the movie.

The movie is actually an interesting one for its times. The scene where Dr.Kotnis tells his father about a speech by a National Leader (Nehru?) which convinced him to commit to going to China is a very innovative one, even by today’s standards. He juxtaposes the audio of the speech with his own narration about it to his father. Shantaram managed to place patriotic songs and dialogues in the movie in the Chinese context. It must have been a clever ploy to beat the British censors. Casting Indian actors as Chinese characters, speaking and singing in Hindi, is quite pardonable given that even a big Hollywood movie like ‘A Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ cast the American actor Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man, 15 years later (which was also pardonable because of Audrey Hepburn).

Later a Chinese movie was also made on Dr.Kotnis in 1982.

On a different note, we had an insufferable movie by A.R.Murugadoss early this decade in which Bodhidharma goes from India to stop a pandemic in China. And he is sort of brought back ‘genetically’ to defeat a biological war waged by the Chinese. Hope he is not thinking of a sequel.

Anand Patwardhan : A Narmada Diary

August 5, 2014

I recently watched two hard hitting documentaries by Anand Patwardhan, screened by Konangal Film Society at Coimbatore – Fishing: In the sea of greed and A Narmada Diary. The latter was especially moving. The grit and grace of Medha Patkar, captured wonderfully in this film, may just about force even her harshest critics to reconsider their positions. In the days, when handy cameras may not have been available, it is quite incredible that many of those events could even be shot. The confrontation with the then Environment Minister, Kamal Nath, at his office, shows that no door can remain closed for a few determined fighters.

“We look forward to the day when people of Kutch and Saurashtra will say we don’t need that water if people are evicted by force – for that would be blood and not water,” says Medha in a fiery, teary speech. Recent history is showing no indications of such a day dawning in this consumerist world – the popular support for the Kudankulam plant in a power starved/hungry Tamilnadu is a case in point. But hope is immortal.

A Narmada Diary is on youtube. Recommendation: Watch it even if you don’t agree with the cause.

Dasavatharam – Only Kamal…

June 23, 2008

Because of all the hype surrounding the movie, because of the sheer impossibility of having to do the balancing act with 10 characters, because of the presence of an outright-commercial director and an unbelievably ridiculous choice of music director for a movie of this scale, I went into the movie expecting it to be nothing more than 3 hours of incoherent histrionics exhibition from a master.

But the movie was stunning. I realized, it was not just 3 hours of only Kamal but only Kamal could have made this. In place of an expected-mind-numbing masala mix was a mind-blowing screenplay.

There are enough faults in the movie, if one cares to look for them. But who cares? When a master-piece unfolds before you, you just sit back and watch; enjoy; be enthralled. Leave the fault-finding to the professional critics, who need to make a living out of it.

Somewhere, after the introductory scenes, I stopped looking at Fletcher as being another role played by Kamal. For the unsuspecting outsider, he could have easily passed off as a top-drawer Hollywood villain. Same with the short old-lady and the tall Muslim – they could be anybody.

There were very knowledgeable digs about Bush, and God. Is Q, the Bofors Q? Not many would have even noticed.

Bush saying “If it is too complex, don’t explain”, is cruel humour subtly masked.

Is Govind Ramasamy Naicker, a parallel to Rama, as most commentators are mentioning, or a tribute to E.V.R.Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar)? Kamal must be smiling unknown to the masses, at the joke that he has played on them, having gone completely unnoticed.

Govind’s “I am not saying there is no God; I only wish God were there”, rivals Voltaire (If there were no God, it would have been necessary to create one)  for its incisive precision on this subject.

The momentary wavering look in Nambi’seyes, when his son cries out to him to concede to the King’s wish, was understated brilliance. Avatar Singh’s willingness to give up his singing career to prolong his life with his wife, was a study in contrast to Nambi’s uncompromising attitude.

And, why did God save the man who probably failed a typical test of God by his willingness to compromise, while He deserted the man who was willing to die for his God?

If God is needed, because, otherwise, as Dostoevsky says, everything is permitted, then what explains atheistic Govind’s single minded devotion to being good, just for the sake of goodness and his love for mankind? Is he more like Camus’ Stranger? Is his life more meaningful than the martyr Nambi’s?

These are hidden questions that even the director, K.S.Ravikumar, being a believer and a superstitious man, may not have comprehended, and therefore let them be.

The great part of the movie, inspite of the complex layers of philosophy, religion, atheism, science, the technical wizadry (or at times, lack of it) and the sheer audacity to attempt something like this, lies in its simplicity; the ability to tell a taut story, with an universal appeal, in an entertaining manner.