The Tree of Life Review

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The Tree of Life (2011) is not an entertaining movie. It’s utterly realistic, short on explanations, deliberative, existential. The film begins with its premise, of death. The universe, natural landmarks, oceans, volcanoes, cells. Everything separating, clashing, gushing, dividing, merging, forming.

One cannot directly dive into the story in this movie. First, it becomes an issue of understanding the filmmaker’s vision. His preferred way of presenting information to us. Which is not primarily through narrative, but rather through images– a series of remarkable, meaningful, often breathtaking, images. As much as one contemplates the story, one contemplates how it is presented.

The use of the camera and its angles are unique. The camera is very dynamic, always moving, and the angles, unusual. It creates a feeling as though we are moving through the character’s lives, observing them, without their awareness. It makes everything more natural, because the odd, disordered angles that concentrate on specific things, seems very similar to the way we use our eyes. How we tend to pay attention to specific objects, and its details, rather than observing the bigger picture. At the same time, the dynamic movement which follows the character’s movements, who also happen to be constantly moving around, creates a sense of attachment to them, as we are repeatedly urged to see things through their view.

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Periodically throughout the film, there is a low-angle shot. It forces us to reconsider things from a new position, a new perspective. It also feels like a reminder, of how small we are in comparison to everything else. As the film progresses, we also progress, through different landscapes, and different eras of the world. We are made to attain a greater perspective, a grand perspective, yet without detaching from the feeling of loss, which we are reminded of through the narration. The narration is an existential one, people trying to understand loss, through which they also appear to be understanding bonds, and love. But the narration, is bare minimum. Its the images, which are telling us the story.

The lighting is bright and realistic, but with very little sunlight, and often resembling a documentary. There is an abundance in green, the characters generally being outdoors. The crispness of the colors, the emphasis on nature, adds a harsh quality to the vision of the movie. A slight feeling of insecurity, but also of freedom. The seasons, all seem to be the same. Comforting memories are characterized by a greater use of yellow lighting.

The sounds and the music, just as the use of the camera, are disorienting, alarming, threatening. Telling us that what’s happening, is natural, yet dramatic, and difficult… as death. What loss feels like is portrayed through the struggles in nature, through the natural cycles in all existing things.

The movie shifts, from fragmented memories, to nature and existence, and again to memories. Not all memories are alarming, some are comforting, calming, even fun. Until when one sees, the reality of the situation. This family, which appeared perfectly happy until now, does not seem so happy anymore. It’s not a household devoid of love, but one of rules and boundaries. Of pressure, and intimidation. Everything is enforced, even love and affection. One feels, as those boys do, worried, frightened, and unsure. Their desire to be free, from the restrictions with which they live. Their mother, a flying fairy, of goodness and love. Then comes horror. These boys are not prepared for the horrors life has to show them. They’re good at heart, and wish to remain good; protected, yet curious to know more.

Their father is very strict, disciplined and keen to teach his sons. One can tell he has high expectations from them and wants to make sure they live up to it. But his harsh demeanor, his aggression, is hard for these boys to handle, they react better to the loving compassion of their mother. Grown men in pain have a hard time showing love to vulnerable children.

The boy who died– there is a strong impression throughout the movie, of how out of place he feels, almost all the time. The way he observes his world, in doubt and hesitation. One can sense the comforting he needs but is unable to ask for. It is clear that he desires to be accepted and loved for what he is, and not what his father wants to make him into. The rules and warnings constrict him, make him feel helpless, and unwanted. His first feeling, which doesn’t involve self-judgement, appears to be longing, when a girl throws her long brown hair.

Then, he witnesses death. He thinks about death, and what it would be like to lose someone he loves. The movie, and their life, appears to take on a more and more gloomy nature. This little boy, is too young for existential thoughts, but he has them. He talks to God, prays to God, then questions God, unable to understand why things are the way they are. He’s fascinated with his mother. It’s not that his father is unable to see his sensitivity, or his need for care, but he doesn’t know how to provide it. His father is frightened to be or to appear weak, even to his own children. The disorientation of the boy’s character grows, and takes on more intensity. Meaning he seeks, but is unable to find.

Their mother is as helpless as they are. A homemaker, she stays quiet during family dinners, as her husband intimidates their children. Isn’t it utterly devastating that these boys feel freedom and happiness, only when a member of the family is no longer there? That they feel like a guest in their own home? When a home becomes a personal prison? His return, the return of hopelessness? When one is so utterly desperate, that death seems to be the only solution? Either his death, or one’s own?

The boy’s strange attraction to his mother, presents a more complicated view of him. It becomes clear, that the attachment he feels for her, is too intense, and possibly a little unnatural. Is he clinging to her more, for his need of affection?

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His frustration is slowly transforming into rage. So much rage, that he even starts having outbursts in front of his father. His father dumbfounded, for he has no clue, of the kind of effect he has on him. Utter and complete constriction, the farthest edges of helplessness he now feels. Yet, a slight feeling of satisfaction, of peace, of believing in his bond with God.

The father’s remorse, we get a view of it, in the beginning of the movie and at the end. But how we see his remorse, changes in between the two. And slowly the movie quietens, calms, into greater peace. The music changes, the fear reduces. This is where mourning is completed, and wounds start to heal. Where, somehow, you start to find hope once again. Albeit, not without feeling lost every now and again. The vast, barren landscapes generally fulfill the feelings of being lost in this movie.

And we return to creation once again. To flowing hot lava, the dust storms of outer space, a plead to their creator, for eternal guidance. This is where endings and beginnings merge, in a sort of beginning of time. Where light shared, illuminates the paths of many. The endless journey, continues.

The movie, which began in chaos and upheaval, its sounds, alarming and worrying, ends, in en inexplicable peace and content. A kind of divine conclusion, to hurts once felt. A triumph of forgiveness and compassion, and the reuniting of loved ones, in a place where there is no fear. Where we get to embrace them, and ourselves. Our self, the young and afraid one, and the old and afraid one. And finally, we’re left on our own, for that last journey, the last few steps, into eternity.  THIS is a story of acceptance.

Watch this movie, only if you feel it would resonate with you. It’s too unique and abstract I think for most people, and in most situations. It requires intent and a specific type of mindset. Watch it only if you found this description of it meaningful.

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A Death in the Gunj Review

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You have no idea how much I had been looking forward to A Death in the Gunj, written and directed by Konkona Sensharma and starring some great actors like Kalki Koechlin. I saw some wonderful reviews of the film online before it even released in mainstream cinemas, as some people had the chance to see the film in screenings at film festivals early on. This further increased my anticipation of what I expected to be an impactful film at the least. If you are just as excited about the film, haven’t seen it yet and would like to form your own opinion of it, I suggest you stop reading the remaining part of the review.

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The matter of fact is, A Death in the Gunj was disappointing. It was shockingly underwhelming and predictable, and not the least thrilling if you ask me. There is only one point of mystery in the film, which I admit was delivered effectively and connected the very first scene with the very last one. But the middle of that story, was nothing special.

A Death in the Gunj is about a young man struggling with life after the death of his father, and how his depression and emotional struggle reaches a sad climax amidst indifferent and selfish relatives with whom he is spending the holidays.

While I enjoy slow-paced  but meaningful films that create a sense of comfort and ease, like Piku for example, I believe it only works when we are able to establish a genuine and positive connection with the characters early on in the story. I was unfortunately not able to connect with any of the characters in this film. In fact, I felt the film did an excellent job of making the characters repugnant, not just to the lead character Shyamal, but to me, the audience. Maybe that was the point. But the issue is that, I also did not feel any connection to Shyamal.

I think the struggle of Shyamal remained as much of a mystery to the audience as it did to his relatives. Shyamal as a character is such an unbearing personality, that it is easy to dismiss him although he is the eyes through which we experience the story. He is much like an object in the film, represented by his father’s old sweater, his notebook, a moth… but the meanings and emotions that he attaches to those objects were never quite explained to us. So as I watched his turmoil intensify and grow on screen, I did not understand him and his reasons, and after a while, it was just watching a man who has lost his mental stability and getting ever yet closer to the edge without anyone else noticing.

When I read my own words describing the film, I wonder if this was Konkona’s intention all along? –Making the Shyamal character so unimpressive that even we would nearly forget his presence… Could it be that the film  has been implemented so utterly realistically that I’ve failed to get the point? Perhaps… I’m not sure.

I AM sure that knowing the excellence of Konkona’s art may have increased expectations a little too far for this film, but it doesn’t change the fact that the above mentioned drawbacks disappointed me. When the film ended, I just felt so underwhelmed.

How Films Influence Our Notions of Death and the After-world

I think it was in 1993 or 1994 that I had a birthday party screening the one and only 1988 cult classic “Beetlejuice.” (A 7 year old’s birthday party with Beetlejuice, and that too in Turkey, weird family I know…). As an adult, I still love this film, and not only because of its unique premise, but also how the usually ghastly topic of death is portrayed in such a humorous way. Until then in cinema, we had not considered that the dead could be a sweet couple from the suburbs, or that the after-world could be a waiting room not too different than a dentist’s. There are very few films that have actually tackled death in this satirical way, and maybe this is also why the film obtained such cult status over the years.

Bhoot World Mein Teen Cheezo ki Kami HaiThe 2008 Hindi film Boothnath starring Amitabh Bachchan followed a similar path, albeit with less humor. It was successful in normalizing death and the dead however, just as Beetlejuice had done. In Boothnaath, the dead was a grouchy but good-hearted old man (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost in fact), and the after-world was basically an Indian government office.

There have been a few other Indian films that have helped disseminate some of the stigma attached to death, for example the 2013 Telugu horror comedy Prema Katha Chitram and the 2012 Bengali film Hemlock Society. Rather than using satire to display a fantasized and ironically ‘normal’ death, these films mocked suicide by suggesting suicide, thereby bringing attention to high suicide rates among youth in India.

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It’s rather sad that this humorous and satirical take on death and what await us afterward, cannot become more mainstream in cinema. There is a plethora of films and TV shows releasing daily that remind us of the horror that we normally associate with death– serial killers, revengeful murders, painful accidents, and after it’s over, zombies, vampires, ghosts and demons to haunt us and give us sleepless nights. If you notice, death is the main thread in all horror products. I don’t think we even realize the extent to which the big screen influences how we think of death. If only more cinema could take death as lightly as it often does life, and remove some of the stigmas and subconscious fears usually associated with it.