classic film

Five stars only: ‘The Firemen’s Ball’

Milos Forman’s biting satire is a microcosm of all that was wrong with the Communist Czech state.

“From the director who brought you One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The People vs Larry Flynt comes a comedy about the wackiest party in town!”

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An introduction to ‘The Firemen’s Ball’.

Okay, so we flipped the order and put a Hollywood-style spin on the plot synopsis of The Firemen’s Ball in our enthusiasm to hard-sell an early masterwork from a leading Czech New Wave director. Milos Forman is one of the most well-known names of the 1960s filmmaking movement from the former Czech Republic simply because he later forged a successful career in America. The cultural moment under Communist rule resulted in censorship-bending films from such renowned directors as Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova and Ivan Passer. The movies usually deployed a verite shooting style and explored socially relevant themes that were often filmed on non-professional actors who represented the people being moulded into perfect comrades by the authoritarian state.

Dark, absurdist and surreal humour proved to be a useful tool to express the exasperation that the masses felt towards a regime high on moral righteousness but low on delivery. In The Firemen’s Ball (1967), a rapidly disappearing spread of food and other items that is to be auctioned during a celebration organised by the fire department of a Czech town is a perfect metaphor for the inability of the socialism-oriented state to provide for its people. When the wife of one of the organisers is caught stealing a prized chunk of cheese, she is unrepentant. “Everyone is stealing here and you only watch, you honest idiot!” she tells her horrified husband.

The mystery of the diminishing auction table.
The mystery of the diminishing auction table.

The comedy brilliantly lampoons a culture of officiousness and ceremony that will be intensely familiar to Indians. The 71-minute film follows the bumbling efforts of the fire department’s “entertainment committee” to organise a raffle and a party as a retirement gift for their 86-year-old chairman. An early warning that nothing will go according to plan comes when a poster for the event catches fire even as two of the committee members squabble over trifles.

As the fire officers and their families and locals gather in a large hall and dance to a waltz version of the Beatles song “From Me To You”, the elderly members of the organising committee get down to the very important business of shortlisting young women to participate in a beauty contest. The lechery on display gets its comeuppance when it is time to send the skittish young women on the stage.

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Checking out the wares for the beauty contest.

An actual fire later breaks out, prompting the buzzed guests to flee towards the next source of the evening’s entertainment. The food and beverages supplier will not allow his guests to escape without payment, and he relocates his business to a spot close to the raging fire, proving his entrepreneurial skills.

Forman made his debut in 1956 and earned a reputation with the romantic drama Loves of a Blonde in 1965. He had previously worked with non-professionals, but it must have taken some skill to choreograph the chaos of The Firemen’s Ball. Nothing goes according to plan, and everything is tightly controlled.

Order in the disorder.
Order in the disorder.

Cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek, who migrated to Hollywood like Forman and shot the director’s Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981) and Amadeus (1984), is everywhere with his camera, diving under tables where young men and women are discovering each other and capturing the reactions of the largely amateur cast. The frenetic pace relents only at the end, when all pretense at orderliness has been abandoned, the partygoers have fled, and the distinguished looking chairman in his neat suit patiently waits for his retirement gift – a carved knife that will provide a final jab of cruel humour.

The organising committee realises that one last deed needs to be done…
The organising committee realises that one last deed needs to be done…
…While the chairman awaits his reward.
…While the chairman awaits his reward.

The Firemen’s Ball is populated by professionals as well as real fire officers, whose untutored reactions are as organic to the humour as the absurd situations. These are people who know that they are in a movie that is uncomfortably close to real life in the former Czech Republic in the 1960s, and they inhabit their parts with a combination of gusto and bravado. The casting of non-professionals had some advantages when Forman faced double censorship, first from the government, which was angered by what it considered the belittlement of the working class, and then the movie’s producer. The state organised a screening of The Firemen’s Ball in the town in which it was shot, says Forman in an interview on the Criterion Collection DVD. The men who had appeared in the film stood up to say that it wasn’t as fanciful as the government claimed.

Producer Carlo Ponti despised the film and refused to distribute it, proving that censorship can be economic as well as political. A group of French cineastes rescued the movie from oblivion. The Firemen’s Ball was supposed to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but that event was cancelled after the May rebellion. The film was screened for three weeks domestically and pulled out after the former Soviet republic invaded Forman’s country in 1968. The year proved advantageous for Hollywood: Forman went into exile and moved to the United States of America, where he continued his quest for cinematic truth through such acclaimed films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Man on the Moon, and the heavily absurdist The People vs Larry Flynt.

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A clip from ‘The People vs Larry Flynt’.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.