What a time to be living in. Who would have thought even a few weeks ago that we would be practising self-isolation in varying degrees of comfort, working from home (or at least pretending to), and scrubbing centuries of dirt off our hands? There are some advantages for the privileged who are in self-quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic: as the days stretch on, seemingly forever, they finally have the time to watch or re-watch films and documentaries from around the world.
Over the next few weeks, Scroll.in will be bringing you watchlists of varying sizes grouped around themes. The first list features 21 titles that deconstruct the art and allure of motion pictures. These films-within-films bring out unseen aspects of the storytelling process, examine characters typically found lurking around the sets, and question the artifice involved in the creation of cinema.
If cinema is the seventh art, meta-cinema can be counted as the eight-and-a-half portion.
The list is potted rather than definitive, and some titles are missing because they are not available on any platform, legitimate or otherwise (such as Khamosh, which converts a movie set into a crime scene, or Shukno Lanka, starring Mithun Chakraborty as an extra).
Streaming on a screen very close to you
Satyajit Ray’s 1966 production is a crisp and yet profound exploration of the inner life of a movie star. He is played, fittingly, by a movie star: the Bengali acting legend Uttam Kumar. On a train from Kolkata to Delhi to receive an important award, Arindam Mukherjee has a series of influential encounters, with the journalist Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) especially provoking a journey within.
A dream sequence appears to be a hat-tip to Federico Fellini, but the perspicacious exploration of the hollowness of fame and the emptiness of the revered public figure can be attributed to Satyajit Ray’s original, and singular, vision.
Where to watch: A YouTube link contains a rip of the Criterion DVD.
In the 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, Iranian director Jafar Panahi defied a government-imposed ban on filmmaking by training his camera on his immediate surroundings. Taxi Tehran (2015) is an even more audacious follow-up. Panahi poses as a taxi driver and travels through the Iranian capital, conversing about the state of the country with his passengers. Borrowing a travelogue style popularised by Abbas Kiarostami (Ten), Panahi expertly rubs out the line between actual and staged conversations, proving that cinema has no boundaries, nor does the filmmaker.
Where to watch: Hotstar.
Mrinal Sen’s meta-movie contains his life-long concerns about the ability of cinema to present the truth. Akaler Shandhaney (1980) stars Dhritiman Chatterjee, Smita Patil as a version of herself, Gita Sen, and Sreela Majumdar. A film unit led by a scruffy director lands up in rural Bengal for a period production on the 1943 Bengal Famine. The process of revisiting the older tragedy leads to uncomfortable questions about the slipperiness of fiction inspired by fact and the ethics of dramatising rural poverty. Sen’s honesty, which shone through in every one of his films, is delivered by a top-rate cast and is beautifully lensed by long-time collaborator KK Mahajan.
Where to watch: An adequately subtitled print is on YouTube.
Paresh Mokashi’s account of the making of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s first movie Raja Harishchandra (1913) unfolds as a comic and happy adventure. Nandu Madhav is in top form as Phalke, the multi-hyphenate talent who achieves the impossible by refusing to put a lid on his dreams.
Where to watch: Netflix, YouTube Movies, Google Play.
Directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, Bombay Talkie (1970) anticipated the global interest in what came to be known as Bollywood. The cross-section of characters includes a writer (Jennifer Kendal) who comes to Mumbai to scope out material on popular Hindi cinema, a philandering movie star (Shashi Kapoor), his miserable wife (Aparna Sen), a bitter screenwriter (Zia Mohyeddin), an oily producer (Utpal Dutt) and the one and only Helen perched atop a giant typewriter.
Where to watch: Look no further than below.
Luck By Chance
Zoya Akhtar’s assured directorial debut relocates Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 to the film world. Struggling actor Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) and Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma) become friends and then lovers on their way to the top. Only one succeeds, but by selling a part of the soul. The raft of cameos, which are often more interesting than the lead pair’s story, include Hrithik Roshan as a self-absorbed movie star, Rishi Kapoor as an old-fashioned producer, Dimple Kapadia as a former actor grooming her daughter, and Shah Rukh Khan, as himself.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Movies.
Mani Ratnam’s period drama is baggily based on the fallout between Tamil Nadu politicians MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi, shown here as ambitious movie star Anandan (Mohanlal) and fiery writer Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj). Despite an astounding performance by Mohanlal, the movie isn’t equipped to deal with the complexities of the lasting rivalry between the two men. What Iruvar does beautifully is explore the theme of doubling – the title does mean duo, after all.
Anandan is married to Pushpavalli (Aishwarya Rai, in her screen debut), who dies from an illness. Some years later, Anandan meets her lookalike in the form of Kalpana (Rai again), an aspiring actor who bewitches him. Of all the tributes to MGR’s former partner and Tamil Nadu’s chief minister J Jayalalithaa, this sideways one is the smartest.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Movies, Google Play.
In Anurag Kashyap’s underappreciated nightmare from 2007, John Abraham plays one of his best roles: a businessman named K who wants to quit smoking. The arrogant K signs up with a draconian programme whose leader resembles a minor dictator rather than a healer. No Smoking has several allegorical possibilities. Replace K with the independent-minded filmmaker and the de-addiction programme with the Hindi film industry that sucks the life out of talent before casting it aside, and you have a movie about the pain of doing what you love in Mumbai.
Where to watch: on Zee5, Airtelxstream.
Not available on Indian streamers, but seek and you shall find
Italian director Federico Fellini’s masterpiece summarised the pleasures and perils of filmmaking in 1963 itself. As Marcello Mastroianni’s director Guido succumbs to a creative funk and struggles to complete his latest science-fiction production, Fellini rolls out the sumptuous visuals, the pointed character sketches, and the surrealist fantasy sequences.
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami blends fiction and documentary, and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Hossein Sabzian, an obsessive fan of Kiarostami’s contemporary Mohsen Makhmalbaf, poses as Makhmalbaf and befriends a gullible family. Makhmalbaf intervenes when Hossein is arrested. The explanation for Hossein’s behaviour will touch cinephiles anywhere on the planet.
The Coen brothers classic is also about a creative block, this time experienced by an earnest Broadway writer who relocates to Los Angeles to work on a big Hollywood film. Holed up in a seedy but atmospheric hotel, the titular writer meets his neighbour, the salesman Charlie Meadows, and has a series of experiences so strange they could only take place in a movie. John Turturro and long-time Coen co-conspirator John Goodman lead the cast.
Day For Night
French director Francois Truffaut was a great admirer of 8½, and in 1973, he made his own meta-movie. As Ferrand (played by Truffaut) tries to herd his actors through his latest production, there are link-ups, break-ups and breakdowns that are suffused with typical Truffautian tendresse.
Robert Altman’s biting satire from 1992 is set in La-La Land. A smooth studio boss (Tim Burton) is ruffled when he starts receiving death threats from a rejected scriptwriter. The studio boss kills the writer by accident, and finds that it’s easier to cover a crime in the movies than in real life. Altmanesque flourishes abound – long takes, sharp character sketches, black comedy, and an impatience with BS.
Barry Levinson’s insider take-down revolves around a witty script by Scott Frank. A loan shark (John Travolta) ends up producing a movie while hunting down his debtor, who just happens to be a B-movie maven (the great Gene Hackman). Travolta and Rene Russo – the latter is a “Scream Queen” in horror films – are beautifully matched, and the mood is funny, smooth, and cutting.
Of course it’s not a movie about the movies! Of course it is! Every Quentin Tarantino film is a bricolage of older films. Pulp Fiction (1994), the intertwining tales of a pair of lowly hitmen, a boxer who throws a match, and the boss of the hitmen and his drug-addled wife, is one of the cleverest examples of meta-cinema – it would not have existed without predecessors, and yet stands on its own as a new and original work of art.
Eddie Murphy + Steve Martin = comic gold. Frank Oz’s 1999 movie, based on a screenplay by Martin, is the very sly and very funny account of low-life producer Bobby Bowfinger’s mission to become a director. Low on funds but high on ingenuity, Bowfinger (Martin) contrives to create a film around matinee idol Kit Ramsey (Murphy) without his knowledge. When Ramsay loses his mind, lookalike Jif (Murphy again) steps in with rib-cracking results.
Beware of a Holy Whore
There’s no magic but plenty of madness in prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s withering look at the people who make movies. The self-reflexivity runs deep – Fassbinder was revisiting the tortured production of his Whity (1971). The cast and crew of a film unit teeters on the edge as they wait for their director to arrive. He does, and twists the power dynamics out of shape. Passion-for-cinema types, this is what filmmaking can sometimes look like.
The clue lies in the title. Oliver Assayas directs Maggie Cheung (playing herself) as the Chinese actor cast in a remake of the French silent film Les Vampires. Both Cheung and the director (French acting legend Jean-Pierre Leaud) struggle to sink their teeth into the production –Assayas’s way of commenting on the limitations of homage as well as the insularity of the French film industry.
Shadow of the Vampire
Did FW Murnau cast a real vampire in his silent film Nosferatu (1922)? Was Max Schreck, who memorably played a version of Dracula in Nosferatu, actually an immortal bloodsucker?
E Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000) claims to be a fictionalised account of the horror classic, but don’t fall for that one. Rather, Shadow of the Vampire provides a clever spin on behind-the-scenes movies, even as it takes several liberties. John Malkovich plays the German director, while Willem Dafoe is riveting as the sinister Schreck.
Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
An animated meta-movie? That’s not the only wondrous thing about Salvador Simo’s adaptation of Fermin Solis’s graphic novel of the same name. Simo traces the back story of Bunuel’s Land Without Bread. The 1933 documentary, set in the dirt-poor Extremadura region in Spain, involved several scenes staged for effect (including chickens being beheaded and mountain goats being pushed to their deaths). Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles also reveals the invaluable contributions of anarchist Ramon Acin, who donated the money he won in a lottery towards the production of Land Without Bread.
Why so serious? Preston Sturges anticipated meta-cinema in his 1941 satire about a successful filmmaker who decides to explore his serious side by adapting the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (also the title of the sly Coen brothers comedy from 2000). Sullivan (Joel McCrea) disguises himself as a tramp to get a first-hand feel of the American that lies beyond Hollywood. Along the way, he meets a struggling actor (Veronica Lake) and has a series of experiences that convinces him that comedy is just as valuable as tragedy.