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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (2/12/2022)

(Reviews of Three Minutes: A Lengthening; Hidden Letters; Lynch/Oz; and India Sweets and Spices)


THREE MINUTES: A LENGTHENING.


David Kurtz was born in the small Polish town of Nasielsk in the 1888. His family emigrated to the United States when he was four and he became the proprietor of the American Blouse Company in 1920s Brooklyn. Married and with three children, David took a trip to Europe in 1938, with his wife Lena (aka Liza) and best friend Louis Malina and his wife and sister, Lillian and Essie.


In addition to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Switzerland, and the South of France, the party also visited Warsaw before taking a sentimental journey some 30 miles north. By August 1938, Nasielsk was home to some 7000 people, 3000 of whom were Jewish. Many worked for the local button factory and David used his new 16mm camera to capture a Kodachrome souvenir of home.


In 2009, his grandson, Glenn Kurtz, found a can containing this footage in his parents' home in Palm Beach, Florida. Recognising its potential value, Glenn donated the decaying celluloid to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where it was restored and digitised. A month later and the ravages caused by vinegar syndrome, cupping, edge weave, and shrinking would have led to these snippets being lost to history. But the labs worked wonders and Glenn became so fascinated by the faces and places in the fragile frames that he wrote a book. Now, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, has become the basis for Bianca Stigter's documentary essay, Three Minutes: A Lengthening.


Running for three minutes and 33 seconds, the footage is shown uninterrupted with the accompaniment of a projector's whirr. They are very much the work of an amateur, who seems to be more interested in the buildings than the people who gather in front of his lens with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. Adults and children alike pose for the camera, with the result looking like something Louis and Auguste Lumière would have captured in 1895. But these fleeting images offer a precious insight into a world that was about to disappear.


As the footage slowly rewinds, narrator Helena Bonham Carter notes that an image can only paint a thousand words if its context is known. Initially, Glenn had thought that the grainy, colour-faded reel showed Liza's hometown of Berezne on the Ukrainian border. But further research confirmed that it depicted Nasielsk, with closer study determining the time of day and the weather conditions on Thursday 4 August 1938, when it was recorded. Moreover, as red fades more slowly than other hues, it was also possible to detect the odd patch of colour.


Knowing nothing about the town or its inhabitants, Glenn turned detective to spot clues that could be followed up. But it was easier to recognise linden trees than the name on a grocery sign and there was an irony in the fact that David would send a postcard from Berlin's Unter den Linden just two days later. We learn about the mezuzah parchments containing Hebrew prayers that were affixed to doorposts and how one of the Lions of Judah on the synagogue door had been lost in an anti-Semitic riot earlier in the year.


After the USHMM posted the Kurtz clips online, Glenn received an email from Marcy Rosen, a woman in Detroit whose grandfather, Maurice Chandler, had recognised his 13 year-old self among the boys bobbing up and down to get themselves into shot. He points out that the camera `scrambled the social hierarchy', as the boy standing next to him was wearing a newsboy cap that denoted that he was on a lower level than himself, as he sported a black yeshiva cap from the local religious school.


Glenn interviewed Morry (who had been born Moszek Tuchendler) and he's heard on the soundtrack, as he recognises a classmate and admits that his strict father would never have allowed him to consort with the girls who shared the thrill of being filmed by a movie camera. He remembers a comfortable lifestyle in a close community and the trouble he got into when his pals cut the buttons off the overcoats hanging in the synagogue.


Bonham Carter reveals that the fabric patterns the women and girls are wearing would have been common at the time. We also learn more about the Filar button factory, which was confiscated in September 1939. A German press article from October 1941 proclaims that the Nasielsk works had gone from being a Polish pigsty to a model East Prussian operation that produces products of the highest quality. It was closed down after the war and never reopened.


An account follows from the Emanuel Ringelblum Archive about the events that took place in the square in Nasielsk on 3 December 1939, when the ringing of a bell preceded the brutal rounding up of the town's Jewish population. The text is chillingly matter of fact, as it describes the beatings and whippings meted out to those being marched to the station, while the majority of the local Poles either laughed or looked on with indifference. Others were locked in the synagogue overnight before being transported to waiting camps. Interestingly, General Johnnes Blaskowitz, the German commander in chief of occupied Poland, complained about the violence used by the SS and their Polish accomplices.


Bonham Carter informs us that the square still exists, although there is now a park at its centre, which contains a statue of Pope John Paul II. There is no memorial to the Jews who perished at Treblinka, three years after they had been billeted in ghettos across Poland. Or to survivors like Maurice, who had obtained false papers and found himself in Siberia after reaching the Soviet part of Poland.


Around 100 escaped death, with Glenn Kurtz finding seven still alive when he started his research in 2012. With their help, he was able to identify 11 of the people in the clips, including Fajga and Szmuel Tyk, Simcha Rotsztejn, Chaim Talmud, Chaim Nusen Cwajghaft, Czarna and Miriam Myrla. Polish researcher Katarzyna Kacprzakshe also discerned that the name on the grocery store was Ratuwska. According to Bonham Carter, 150 faces could be seen in the footage and these images are isolated and added to a full-screen collage of the mostly nameless people filmed by David Kurtz that stands as a memorial to the Jewish population as a whole.


Morry's friend, Leslie Glodek, recalls listening to English dance bands on the radio, as we hear the Bert Ambrose Orchestra performing `Chasing Shadows'. As the footage rewinds and pauses, Avrum Kubel appears in the synagogue doorway and Bonham Carter reveals that his older sister, Sura, was hired by Louis Malina to work in his textile factory and left Nasielsk a couple of months after the visit. Among her possessions were letters from her siblings using the name `Ezra' as a plea for help.


During his research, Glenn met actor Andrzej Lubieniecki, who relates how he posed as a German officer in order to free girlfriend Maria Wlosko from the Nasielsk synagogue. They escaped into Soviet territory, only to return and find their families had been annihilated. Morry tries to remember why so many people would have been at the synagogue and he wonders whether Cantor Moshe Koussevitsky had been singing there. He recalls how devout everyone was, with their lives revolving around their faith. But his was destroyed by the war.


Bonham Carter explains that a special effects company cleaned up the footage and she wonders whether it makes the people feel more modern. She also reveals that Stigter commissioned a 3-D model of the square, but wonders whether it would be best to stick with the figures on the film. Glenn says they have a presence, but survivors would feel their absence and regard them as tokens of a lost world. They knew the context in which they were taken and would be aware that everything would be swept away by violence. There is a difference, therefore, between images of the Kurtz family in Brooklyn in 1938 and those of Nasielsk, as the imminence of what is to come makes them additionally poignant.


Stigter uses photos of the principal crew members in the closing crawl to emphasise the significance of names and faces. She also notes that the windows from the synagogue were incorporated into the memorial to Nasielsk's Jewish population in the cemetery that had been cleared of tombstones during the occupation. Along with the Ringelblum testimony, this is the only overt mention of the viciousness of the Holocaust, as this is a remembrance of what had been before. Nevertheless, the shadow of the genocide to come seems to be creeping ominously closer, as we watch the footage one last time.


As a journalist and historian who published an account of Amsterdam under the Nazis, Atlas of an Occupied City (2019), Bianca Stigter is ably placed to bring Glenn Kurtz's forensic analysis to the screen. She also has film experience, as an associate producer of husband Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Widows (2018). Abetted by editor Katharina Wartena, she picks out key moments in the 84 year-old footage and renders them immediate, intimate, and informative. Moreover, she prompts the viewer to consider the unique importance of the moving image and how (like the Zapruder footage) a home movie could become a vital historical resource.


Captions for the names of those identified might not have gone amiss, as they are so significant amidst such mass anonymity. The ordering of the segments also feels a little haphazard at times, as they don't always follow on from each other. But this is a compelling piece of cine-archaeology, with Mark Glynne's sound design and Wilko Sterke's restrained score ensuring the tone remains rigorous.


HIDDEN LETTERS.


It's not possible to date precisely when Nüshu came into being. But this coded form of calligraphic communication may well have been used by the women of Jiangyong county in Hunan province as early as the 13th century. Yet it only became known to the wider world in the 1980s. In Hidden Letters, Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing trace the history of this secret writing system, assess its importance in changing the status of women, and show how it is currently under threat by those seeking to capitalise on its commercial potential.


Based at the Nüshu museum in Jiangyong, Hu Xin has won prizes for her writing and was even recognised by UNESCO. She is one of four girls raised by a single mother and Hu is awed by her resourcefulness and resilience. She left her violent husband and Xin has to put up with the chauvinist remarks of the male tourists commenting on her looks rather than her talent. Xin also laments that the museum sponsors Nüshu shows for honoured guests that reduce the artform to a novelty and ignore its roots in the misery of women whose subjugation included the barbaric practice of foot-binding.


In Shanghai, Wu Simu divides her time between singing, music lessons, and Nüshu. She ran away from home at 15 in order to study music and she likes the fact she can be herself in the city. Simu is engaged and her fiancé explains how she gave him a deadline to translate a Nüshu poem before she would consider his proposal. As they have dinner in their apartment, however, a tension is evident between them, as he clearly expects her to put his needs first. On a visit to his recently widowed mother, Simu also looks uneasy as her beau bosses her around and makes her pay her respects to his late father.


At a Princess Camp in Wuxi, the girls take classes in Nüshu and deportment and listen to cautionary tales about disappointing one's husband. They seem more animated, however, posing on a runaway in their best frocks and tiaras.


Back in Jiangyong, Xin spends time with revered Nüshu scribe, He Yanxin. Born in 1939, she was taught by her grandmother so that she could share in the secret sisterhood at a time of male domination. They discuss the fact that few writings were about spouses and Yanxin feels it's a pity that the intimacy has gone out of Nüshu, as it has become public property. Xin reveals that she was beaten by her ex-husband and had an abortion when she discovered she was having a daughter. But she feels no animosity towards him, although feels she has failed as a woman, in spite of her calligraphic achievements.


Simu meets some more of her fiancé's relatives. But she feels uncomfortable at being lectured about becoming a housewife and resents him feeding her Chinese medicines to help her get pregnant. She asks about how her job fits into the plan, but he dismisses her singing and Nüshu as hobbies and an awkward silence descends, as Simu can barely bring herself to look at her beau or the camera.


In Macao, a salesman shows off men's clothing adorned with Nüshu symbols and he tries to convince a female customer that women like seeing the character on such items, as it suggests the menfolk are being well cared for. Another huckster is selling chopsticks and Xin finds the whole thing distasteful, as she sits at a stand and creates. The former museum manager declares that Nüshu will disappear unless it exploits its commercial appeal. He also avers that the form is about obedience, acceptance, and resilience and believes that these are good qualities for Chinese women to learn.


Xin doesn't want to teach these values to young girls and worries about the future of Nüshu if it's being stolen for its own ends by the patriarchy. Simu is also at a crossroads, as she has split with her fiancé because she is unwilling to follow the fate of friends who sacrificed their careers to become wives and mothers.


As Xin paints pottery and Simu makes decorated wind chimes, we hear from the latter's mother about how women started on the long march to equality during the Great Leap Forward. We see footage of women driving steam trains and tractors, working in factories. and learning in classrooms. She believes the next generation will be under huge pressure to find a niche and further improve the lot of women within a rapidly changing nation. Yet, she is also keen to Simu to start dating again, so she can start a family and she can stop worrying about her.


Yanxin and Xin are guests of honour at a reception to launch a phone that can translate Mandarin into Nüshu. It has teething problems and a woman on the front row says it's useless for her because she doesn't understand Nüshu. They visit the empty house where Yanxin had once lived and she is sad to see it has fallen into disrepair. But she can still feel the presence of her sisters and recites a beautiful poem about flowers growing in a single garden and birds flying from far away to sing together on the same branch.


Simu meets with art curator Tang Tian to discuss a contribution to a forthcoming exhibition. They agree that Nüshu's history is important, but recognise that it also has to have a future. This reality brings Xin to the capital for the opening of the Nüshu Beijing International Exchange Centre. She is upset at having to leave Yanxin behind, as she has told her she doesn't have many sunsets left to enjoy. We don't see her reaction to the fact that the centre is opened by a group of men, who pose for the cameras without a woman in sight.


One of the new body's briefs is to maximise Nüshu's appeal and we sit in on a branding meeting, in which it's suggested that a high-end make of potatoes could take the Nüshu name. The women present protest and suggest introducing the art and language into schools, only for the director to urge them to open their minds and stop being so elitist.


Fleeing from KFC logos, Xin returns to the village of Puwei to present Yanxin with a letter. She is embarrassed when the older woman points out the mistakes in her lettering and complains that the poetry doesn't rhyme. Yanxin offers some suggestions and teases Xin that she will send a reply wishing her luck in finding a boyfriend.


Shortly after a successful exhibition, Simu decides to leave Shanghai. As she starts her new life, with an old love letter tucked into a book sleeve for safe keeping, Xin hopes that Nüshu can continue retain its place in Chinese culture. The camera picks out women and girls in a busy city centre, while Xin stands alone gazing across an expanse of water, as we hear a song version of Yanxin's enchanting masterpiece.


Opening up what will be to many an unknown world, this is a delightful and deeply poignant study of what the Chinese State Council calls `A National Intangible Cultural Heritage'. Switching between Puwei Island and Shanghai, Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing explore the fight for the soul of Nüshu in the decades after the passing of the last fluent speaker. The delicacy of the characters produced with sharpened bamboo sticks contrasts with the bluntness of the marketeers seeking to make a quick yuan and the cultural guardians striving to lay claim to a syllabic text whose origins lie in defiance of the established traditions.


Anyone hooked on this fascinating phonetic script should seek out Liu Fei-wen's book, He Yanxin: Calling and Recalling the Sentiments of Nüshu. But this makes for a splendid introduction, with editor John Farbrother deftly conveying the pace of rural and urban life and Chad Cannon and Leona Lewis providing a haunting score that complements the simply beauty of Yanxin's chanting.


LYNCH/OZ.


Such are the vagaries of the UK distribution system that while audiences were able to see two of Swiss documentarist Alexandre O. Philippe's forensic film studies, the other pair slipped through the net. Both 78/52 (2017) and Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019) - his respective deconstructions of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) - made it to cinemas. But fans of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) had to scour to see Doc of the Dead (2014) and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2020). And we've not even mentioned The People vs George Lucas (2010), let alone Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (2004), which is about Klingon speakers, or The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012).


Philippe fans will be delighted to know that his latest deep dive, Lynch/Oz, goes on general release this week. Whereas previous outings had essentially been glorified DVD extras, this feels like an academic spin on a convention panel, as seven film-makers and critics seek to establish a connection between the work of David Lynch and Victor Fleming's 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. The result is both mesmerising and maddening, as Philippe uses a blizzard of movie clips to illustrate theories that are consistently engaging, but only occasionally revealing.


Critic Amy Nicholson kicks things off in `Chapter 1: Wind', in which she notes that The Wizard of Oz disappointed on its initial release and found its audience on television. She also claims that TWOO is the story of David Lynch becoming a film-maker and wonders if the choral wind sound heard over the title credit of TWOO is related to the winds that blow through Lynch's films.


Loving the Lynchian notion that wind brings mystery, she muses on his connection to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and the fact that his films share TWOO's insistence on confounding surface impressions. She feels that Lynch uses motifs from the film to make his own more accessible, while remaining determined to maintain their secrets, as he doesn't want his own curtain to be pulled away like The Wizard's is by Toto.


Rodney Ascher takes over for `Chapter 2: Membranes'. As the director of Room 237 (2012), which analysed Stanley Kubrick's take on Stephen King's The Shining, he is an old hand when it comes to seeing substance in symbols and what one might call insignifica. He finds connections between TWOO and Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962) and Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future (1985), as well as Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986). Moreover, he suggests that we all spend our days getting through chaos before we're allowed to go home.


Given that three-quarters of American films have `fish out of water' themes, it's not surprising that so many feel Ozian. It's a paean to a past that probably never was and he jokingly wonders how different Lynch's canon might have been had he been so influenced by Nathan H. Juran's The Brain From Planet Arous (1957).


Following a digression on Kubrick and his depictions of abused power, Ascher considers how worlds interlink and explores personal reactions to the Winkie's Diner sequence in Mulholland Drive (2001) and Episode Eight of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Yet, while the ruminations on states of consciousness and the perception of reality are interesting, they don't really relate to the Lynch/Oz nexus.


John Waters takes centre stage in `Chapter Three: Kindred' in order to concede a passion for TWOO that underpins his own oeuvre. He wonders whether Lynch was into puppets as a kid, as directors pull strings whether actors like it or not. Waters enjoys villains more than heroes and mocks the outfit worn by Glinda (`who dressed like she had gone insane getting ready for the prom'). At another point, he concedes that there were evident parodies in the unfinished Dorothy: The Kansas City Pot Head (1968) and Mondo Trasho (1969).


As children of the 1950s, Waters believes that he and Lynch had many similar influences in rebelling against the same things. Although their films are very different, there are overlapping images and themes and Waters believes them to be kindred spirits and is both proud of their friendship and grateful for the weirdness.


Fellow director Karyn Kusama uses `Chapter Four: Multitudes' to recall how she had once waited on Lynch in a New York diner and been touched by the fact he ordered pancakes and lots of maple syrup. She also remembers him responding to an audience question after a festival screening of Mulholland Drive by declaring, `There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about The Wizard of Oz.'


Kusama compares Dorothy Gale to Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn and how Mulholland Drive utilises an extended dream sequence to mirror TWOW's excursion. She is fascinated by the fact that the character reveals more about herself through her dream than through her daily life. The film's depiction of Hollywood also intrigues her, as it's so close to her own experience of battling to retain control of one's own creation.


Reflections follow on Garland lip-synching to `Over the Rainbow' and the make-up choices in certain Lynch features that have echoes in TWOW before Kusama compares Dorothy to the detectives who crop up in Lynch pictures. She also draws parallels with Fleming's other 1939 landmark, Gone With the Wind, which is another film that concludes, `there's no place like home'. To her mind, it's also a curiously optimistic feature and Kusama sees a similar striving in Scarlett O'Hara, Dorothy, and Diane/Betty to be the best versions of themselves. Lynch's work likewise contains `a multiplicity of possibilites' and so many of them are rooted in the images and ideas that burned into his brain when he first watched TWOW.


In `Chapter Five: Judy', film-makers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead recognise the generic diversity of TWOO and compare it to such rites of passage as Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and After Hours (1985), Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski (1998), and Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Even Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) is a variation on the theme, as are several films noirs, including H. Bruce Humberstone's I Wake Up Screaming (1941), which weaves `Over the Rainbow' into its soundtrack.


They note the TWOO references in Wild At Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: The Return and how Lynch fills his films with cues relating to the 1950s. The importance of dopplegängers is also explored in his depiction of good and evil, while they also consider how a line of logic runs through his work, even when it's at its most surreal. Finally, they locate Lynch's films within the Hollywood of his youth and try to ascertain his relationship to the system that made and destroyed Judy Garland (whose names crop up regularly in the Lynchiverse).


Wrapping things up is director David Lowery, who explores in `Chapter Six: Dig' how children learn about life through transportive films like TWOO, Disney's take on Peter Pan (1953), Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and his own Pete's Dragon (2019). He first saw the film on a monochrome television set and knew nothing about Oz being in Technicolor until he was a teenager. Lowery compares this to discovering the darker aspects of the film (which seek to show that growing up isn't as daunting as it looks) and how Lynch unpacks those grimmer realities into his own pictures.


An aside covers the supposed dead munchkin or stagehand that can be seen among the trees lining the Yellow Brick Road and the ghost reportedly visible in Leonard Nimoy's Three Men and a Baby (1987). But Lowery suggests that the film is shaded by its backstory and the tragic progress of Garland's life. He concludes by averring that Lynch's films may contain quotations from TWOO, but they also cite each other, as they form part of his creative progression. Philippe illustrates the points with repetitive shots from the works of Terrence Malick, Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, Abbas Kiarostami, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, and Wong Kar-wai. Lowery finds this inter-connectivity beautiful and Lynch would very much concur.


Ending with a TV ad for Twin Peaks that has Kyle MacLachlan's Special Agent Dale Cooper proclaiming, `There's no place like home,' this pulling back of the curtain contains its share of revelations. But, while there's a degree of overlap between the chapters, Philippe's academicised approach makes this feel more like a festscrift of individual encomia than a concerted, cohesive assessment.


Opinion is divided as to whether Lynch sees himself as The Wizard, while no one seems to know which other films impacted upon his impressionable imagination. All seven contributors make insouciant allusion to related titles (some of which are dubiously tangential), but Lynch's favourites remain off limits. The numerous clips selected by Philippe testify to his considerable knowledge, but they also make his watchable, but frustratingly unfocussed film feel like the cine-equivalent of an I-Spy book.


INDIA SWEETS AND SPICES.


A decade after making her feature bow with Troublemaker (2011), Geeta Malik returns with her sophomore outing, India Sweets and Spices. Proving that Desi dramedies are pretty much the same on either side of the Atlantic, this reassuringly familiar masala might have little new to say. But it makes its points about generational expectation, class prejudice, and the status of women with gentle wit and warmth.


Having cut her hair during a last party at UCLA, Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) flies home for the summer to Ruby Hill, New Jersey. Doctor father Ranjit (Adil Hussain) accepts that Alia wants to settle back into home life, but mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala) has the neighbours to impress and can't afford to let standards slide. Consequently, Alia is whisked off to a house party thrown by the mother of her best friend, Neha Bhatia (Anita Kalathara). She bumps into Rahul Singh (Ved Sapru) and sneaks away for a crafty beer, only to start tongues wagging about imminent nuptials.


As Sheila is next on the hosting roster, she sends Alia to India Sweets and Spices to buy some biscuits. She is taken aback by Varun Dutta (Rish Shah), the son of new owners, Gurvinder (Raj Kala) and Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta), and is so excited to discover that he is about to transfer to UCLA that she invites the entire family to the Saturday gathering.


Sheila is appalled that Alia has invited trades people and they wonder what they have let themselves in for when they arrive in smart casual dress with a Tupperware full of homemade sweets. However, the mood changes when Bhairavi recognises Sheila from New Delhi University and she becomes the target of gossips seeking juicy titbits about Sheila's past. In sloping off with Varun to find a quiet corner, Alia sees her father kissing Rahul's mother, Uma (Priya Deva), and confides her fears to Neha that the family will fall apart if the truth comes out.


When she confronts Ranjit, Alia is appalled to know that Sheila already knows about his womanising and tolerates it to keep up appearances because she will be ostracised from the social circle if she gets divorced. Alia tries to raise the subject with Rahul, but he's unconcerned and more interested to learn that Alia and Varun are now an item. They still cosy up to each other at a party and pictures find their way on to social media.


Alia and Varun see Bina (Rupal Pujara) being bitchy to Bhairavi at the store before Alia witnesses a row between her parents. She has found a photograph of Sheila and Bhairavi as students and realises that they were part of a protest group called the Society For Women's Equality. Ironically, Sheila had hidden the snapshot in the frame of her wedding photo and Alia is sad to think that the arranged marriage she had always thought was so perfect in producing three children has never been as happy as that of the Duttas, who met and fell in love in college.


Overhearing chatter about Sheila having to put on a brave face at the Varma party, Alia does a flit and asks Bhairavi to tell her about her student days. She learns that Sheila had been the ringleader of the group and had shaved her head to show she put principles above appearances. But she had been arrested for trying to break a raped woman out of jail and her family had clearly married her off to keep her out of trouble.


Sheila claims to be ashamed of her old self and is glad she grew up. She urges Alia to do the same and she finds herself suddenly alone after she insults the inseparable Reema (Ashritha Kancharia) and Roma (Kayan Tara) and they wreak their revenge by showing Varun the pictures of Alia with her head on Rahul's shoulder. Nettled by the row, in which Varun accuses her of using him for fun before settling down with someone of her own kind, Alia doesn't attempt to explain and entices Rahul away from his family party (which she has ducked) to discuss why people settle for sham lives like the fake books on their shelves. Rahul makes a clumsy lunge for her and they wind up at opposite ends of the sofa, having agreed to disagree about growing up and conformity.


She cheers up, however, when Sheila takes her to the store and she tells Bhairavi that she had been forced to marry Ranjit because her mother had suffered a heart attack and the family needed the problem child off their hands. At first, she had wanted to contact her friends, but quickly became a mother in America and realised she had to play the game. Now, she wants Bhairavi to come to her anniversary party and she readily agrees.


Disappointed by Ranjit's refusal to reform, Sheila puts on a brave face at the party. But Alia can't beat to see her mother suffering and nips upstairs to shave her head and bring proceedings to a standstill. When Ranjit tries to spirit her away, Sheila orders him to stop and proudly proclaims her friendship with Bhairavi. She also remembers what they had been fighting for and tells her husband that the charade is over. Suddenly, every couple in the room starts exposing their secrets and Alia feels justified in her actions. However, she is dismayed to see Ranjit slink away with his shoulders stooped.


As her hair starts to grow back, Alia reassures her siblings that things will work out. She also patches up with Varun ahead of the new term and hugs her father when he informs her that he thinks his family is worth fighting for. Sheila overhears him, but says nothing as she drives Alia to the airport. On arriving in her room, she finds the photo of the women's group in her luggage and smiles.


Although it supposedly contains elements of semi-autobiography, this amiable, but convolutedly schematic saga consistently echoes superior pictures, such as Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (1998), Mira Nair's Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Minhal Baig's Hala (2019), and Emma Seligman's Shiva Baby (2020). Moreover, it's hardly likely to be championed by Bechdel watchdogs, as Alia's route to self-realisation comes through a romance with a forbidden man.


Indeed, despite the film ending on a note of optimism, Alia's privileged life hasn't fundamentally changed. She might have shaved her head, exposed her chauvinist father's hypocrisy, and upset the community party routine, but she remains the same person. Her beliefs stay the same and the main things she learns are about the people around her rather than herself. Yet, having witnessed this modest rite of passage, the audience is asked to presume that Alia will cease to party her way round campus, knuckle down to her studies, and consolidate her relationship with Varun.


Attired in Whitney Anne Adams's splendid costumes, Sophia Ali and Manisha Koirala make the most of their roles, but they are alone in playing fully rounded characters. The support playing is decent, but patchy, as is the writing and direction, with the tone sometimes lurching between sitcom and soap. But Malik's conviction just about carries her through.


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