Tag Archives: Film Review

Review – Kekee Manzil: House of Art

Kekee Manzil House of Art film poster show Kekoo Gandhy seated on a chair on Kekee Manzil, the family home

First Impression – Kekee Manzil

So, I watched an interesting film last night: Kekee Manzil, House of Art. It tells the true story of an Indian tobacco business owner’s son from an upper class family with a privileged background, loaded with money, being instrumental in creating the Indian Modern Art movement in Mumbai in order to help him sell picture frames.

This, I think, was not the narrative intended by its narrator, his daughter Behroze Gandhy, but it was the first impression the movie gave that I had to get beyond to really understand it.

The film is half a documentary about Kekoo Gandhy, a genuinely important figure in Indian art history, and half an homage to the man as the narrator-and-producer’s father, who lived in a rather plush house in Mumbai – the Kekee Manzil of the title.

Its problem is that it doesn’t work out which of these two things it is. At times, too, Behroze’s narration can feel like it is not quite conveying the message she is trying to make, partially, I think, because of her sense of propriety and modesty.

At other times she repeats herself. For example, I counted being told that the Artist’s Centre where much of the Progressive Arts community met was at Rampart Row, Bombay – 4 times. Weirdly, the last time she announced its location, her tone was one of surprise, as if she’d only just found out it was there.

But these are first impressions. And up to now, this review feels overly negative. Which doesn’t convey what I really want to say, either. So, mea culpa for also not getting my point across.

Kekee Manzil On Second Reflection

Screen capture from Kekee Manzil showing painting detail: Bapu at Rene block Gallery, New York-1974, by Atul Dodiya

Let’s be clear, throughout this movie a fascinating art movement in Bombay reveals itself to the viewer: extraordinary powerful images from a newly unleashed 1950s artists’ group producing brilliant works of art – and all underpinned and supported by Kekoo Gandhy’s entrepreneurialism and big-heartedness.

Kekoo himself was partly Oxford-educated, and fully Westernised, wearing a suit when he arrived home to Bombay in the summer of 1939, much to the amusement of his family. Trapped in Bombay by the outbreak of war and thus unable to return to his studies, he helps a Belgian businessman move his car that is stuck in the sand at Juhu Beach. A friendship and business relationship forms that leads Kekoo to the ownership of Chemould, and the founding of Asia’s only moulded picture-frame maker. Through other friendships he learns about art and meets a burgeoning community of artists, whom he promotes by selling their work through his picture framing business. His influence is very real as he and his wife, Khorshed support these artists. This is a genuinely interesting story.

That the world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor speaks so warmly of Kekoo certainly adds to the case for his importance, as does Salman Rushdie’s explanation that two characters in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh are inspired by this fascinating figure.

So, what to make of his influence and legacy? I would have loved to see more of the extraordinary art Kekoo supported in the ’50s. In fact, though plenty is shown, the context and stories around them are not filled out; nor are the stories of the artists themselves. In almost every case, the focus turns from the art to Kekoo. Observations of his eccentric behaviour, like picking flowers from neighbours’ gardens as an old man, or film of him smoking a whole cigarette in one breath, while amusing, aren’t enough in themselves to carry the film.

That said, it really does make a point about the direction of travel of India’s increased authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism, and the usual bigotry and violence you see from nationalist, racist movements. It is sobering to think that the country with the world’s largest population is heading towards nationalistic fascism, and that message definitely came across.

My Own Confusion And Ignorance

Kekee Manzil screen capture: Detail from painted by TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009) - "Mahishasura"

As a Westerner who likes to think of myself as liberal and who has thus noted with detached approval the name changes going on in India as it sloughs off its imperial past, it is sobering to be confronted with the notion that the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai is actually the product of an increasingly nationalistic consciousness under the BJP, India’s leading Hindu-nationalist party. How I square that with my own sense of what is right is something I haven’t yet decided. Thus the ambiguities of the modern world, which I think Bezohre herself navigates more deftly than I do.

As a British viewer with a fair amount of education, various assumptions about knowledge of Indian history did jar with me. I certainly do think anyone with a knowledge of colonial history should be aware of the horrors of Partition and the bloodletting that came with Britain’s botched withdrawal from the country. But there were times when the cultural distance between narrator and me as audience member felt very wide. For example, being told that an artist was “none other than Tayib Mehta” as if I should know him as a household name was confusing, as was being told of the effects of the 1975 Emergency in India, with absolutely no context as to what caused it.

This made me wonder who the intended audience was? It was filmed in English. Behroze now lives in England. She has worked in film production since 1982 and teamed up with long-standing professionals in the industry to produce this project. I wondered then, how much Kekee Manzil was designed to be a small, internal conversation among select Indian expats and how much a film telling the rest of the world about the importance of the Progressive Art Movement in Bombay and Kekoo’s role in it?

Painting feature in Kekee Manzil, Untitled (Woman at Work), 1958 by M.F. Husain.

During her in-person introduction before Kekee Manzil began, Bezohre said she does not intend to show the film at film festivals in India because it might inflame political sensibilities ready to ignite at any moment. So, what is the film’s purpose? To tell her personal story of her father to a tiny group? And at the same time to make passing mention of political problems in India to a converted audience that already agrees with her? Is this what it is, then? A kind of comfort blanket for a dwindling minority?

I feel the same ambivalence about the nostalgia Bezohre obviously feels for the vanished world of “old Bombay”. Bezohre is from a Parsi family, a group extremely useful to the administration of India under the British Empire which in return gained considerable mercantile, administrative and financial influence thanks to colonialism. One thus cannot help wondering if the embrace of Western values by the privileged family group the film features also colours Bezohre’s view of India today? To be frank, I don’t know enough about India to even come close to forming an opinion on that one, but the question seems a fair one to ask.

I did have the opportunity to meet Bezohre after the film, but my questions and thoughts hadn’t fully formed by then, and in my confusion I was concerned I would appear overly negative when actually I was trying to grapple with my ambivalence to a film that shines a light on a side of India many in the West will know nothing about. I respectfully bowed out – and I regret that, now.

To Finish

In all, Kekee Manzil – House of Art is worth watching. Yes, I found it occasionally frustrating and at times diffuse, but there is still much to learn. Its budget was an estimated £40,000, and if this extraordinarily low sum is correct, then it does give plenty of bang for its buck. If you see it showing near you, it’s worth a watch.

Does Disney’s new Jungle Book do Pompey’s Rudyard Kipling justice?

Disney’s 1960s adaptation of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book is a classic of silliness with great tunes. It also has, apart from the title and the names of the characters, nothing to do with the pair of children’s books written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. The books are far darker, deeper, truer and better in every way. So, what of the new 2016 version?

I admit I was late to Kipling. I only read The Jungle Books as an adult, having been steered away from them by the light and frothy cartoon. But, one day, having read that they were true classics, and considering Kipling’s Portsmouth pedigree, I thought I would check out the work of this locally grown boy.

Kipling’s life in Portsmouth was tough. Left in the town by his parents, who returned to India where they worked as civil servants, he found himself in the clutches of a psychotic nanny, Mrs Holloway, to whom he later referred in his autobiography Something of Myself as “The Woman”. Six years of hell ensued, as she terrorised him, punishing him for the tiniest, ordinary things kids do – even punishing him for “showing off” when it was discovered he needed to wear glasses. Justice for such transgressions took the form of beatings, and of being locked in the house alone while the household went on holidays, or prevented from reading, which he averred, made him seek to read all the more earnestly. It was bad. In fact, his life in Southsea led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 11.

Little wonder that many of the short stories in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book tell the tale of a child, Mowgli, abandoned in a hostile jungle where he must learn The Law to survive. This is a direct reflection of his own experiences. No surprise, either, that Mowgli grows up determined to kill his tormentor, in this case, the lame tiger Shere Khan. In another story written after The Jungle Books, Kipling produced a fictionalised account of life in Southsea, Baa Baa Black Sheep. In this, the boy threatens to burn down the house of Aunt Rosa (this story’s verson of The Woman), to kill her and her son and wreak awful revenge on the boys who bully him at school at Rosa’s instigation.

Despite all this darkness in Kipling’s childhood and in the childhood of Mowgli, The Jungle Books are filled with wonders. The behaviour of the animals to each other and to Mowgli, of the man-cub’s learning to become socialised into the group and the adventures he has along the way are rich in poetic truths. From the specifics of an imagined boy’s life, one learns the way real human society works and how a child must learn to fit into his environment and still be himself. Thus, the learning of secret words which will make the animals help him (interestingly, Kipling also wrote about Freemasonry – another society using secret codes, in The Man Who Would Be King; the motif of secret communication returned again in Kim); or his kidnap by the Bandar Log monkey tribe, during which he discovers their utter fecklessness; or the wise guiding paw of the old bear, Baloo.

Striking is the choice of antiquated modes of speaking, which emphasise the formal and informal. Throughout the book, the animals refer to each other as “thou”. This convention, and the semi-mythical register they speak in makes the stories read almost like religious texts at times. They feel powerful in a way that most children’s books don’t – and truer because of it.

Of the final vengeance Mowgli wreaks on Shere Khan, the tiger’s brutal death and how Mowgli skins the body and brings the hide to The Council Rock where the wolves meet to discuss The Law of the Jungle, that section is truly horrific.

So, how does the new Disney live action / CGI movie fare?

Neel Sethi in Disney's The Jungle Book

The movie is, actually, pretty good. It is in many ways truer to the spirit of the books than the 1960s aberration that does so little to recognise Kipling’s genius. Bagheera, the black panther, is sleek, noble and powerful. Baloo, annoyingly, is a charming buffoon – a hangover, I suspect, from the cartoon. Kaa, the giant snake is, inaccurately, interested only in eating Mowgli, whereas in the original stories their relationship is far more subtle – and indeed in the books it is Kaa who saves Mowgli from the Bandar Log when he arrives at the last minute after Baloo and Bagheera are overrun. Kaa’s hypnotic fascination of the monkeys is spine-chilling in the book.

In the movie, the collection of stories is streamlined. So, it is now Bagheera who finds Mowgli, whereas it is the boy himself who walks to Raksha, the she-wolf, in her cave, and is adopted by her. It is she who faces down Shere Khan who tracks him there. All this is removed from the story, understandably so, because the relationships would become too tangled.

What suffers because of this is the subtlety and nuance of the many-faceted stories and their meanings as they are pulled together into a single narrative, and, unfortunately the film takes on a far too familiar shape. Mowgli has an arch enemy, Shere Khan, and must acquire the skills to overcome him by finding his true self. It is the old story of the Hero’s Journey – pretty much the secret origin story of every single superhero movie that has been made in the last 20 years. It feels as if Hollywood has forgotten that there are other stories than those told by the DC and Marvel franchises.

There is one outstanding positive about this movie, however. Neel Sethi is the only real person we see in it, and he is utterly convincing. How he acted against green screens opposite non-existent co-actors is difficult to imagine. Sure, there would have been stand-ins for him to play against in the scenes, but the act of sustained imagination required of acting in such an environment is impressive. One moment sums it up for me. Mowgli is sitting on Baloo’s stomach floating down the river, when the bear unexpectedly splashes him. The look on Sethi’s face is one of genuine surprise. It feels utterly real – and this with a character made of digitalised pixels.

In other ways, the choice of Sethi as Mowgli is perplexing. He has long gangling legs in the film, and seems often to shuffle around, as if he is picking his way along a stony beach, barefoot – surely not the way a child born to jungle life would move. This, again, is perhaps a call back to the perennially annoying Disney cartoon in which Mowgli is comically gawky.

Towards its end, the movie descends into the Bond-villain-meets-his-doom denouement that this type of production can’t avoid.

So, what happens to Shere Khan being trampled to death and skinned in an act of concerted pack revenge?

All this is gone. Instead, Mowgli faces the tiger alone, and consigns him to the flames in a grandiose fall into a jungle fire. It is a very different feeling from the books, which emphasise co-operation. This is the story of a hero acting alone.

Nevertheless, this is a good effort. Unlike the 1960s cartoon, it does have something to do with the books it is named after. Not as much as I would like, but at least a little bit.

Perhaps it is a good thing that these films are so different from the books. After all, the books continue to stand in their own right as a separate – and far superior – entity to the Disney versions.