Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spout #9: A Peck on the Cheek

Prior to A Peck On The Cheek I had no real experience with Indian movies, outside of some of the more notorious Bollywood knock-offs of American films. Obviously those films do not constitute the entirety of Indian arts and culture, just as craptacular diversions such as Epic Movie or the Larry the Cable Guy oeuvre do not constitute a balanced view of American culture. So I set out with the direct purpose of dispelling the stereotypes I had built up in my head, and hopefully I would be rewarded with an eye-opening, mind expanding look at a completely foreign culture. On that front it both succeeded admirably, and failed miserably.

A Peck on the Cheek is the story of Amudha, a girl orphaned by the violent uprisings in Sri Lanka, who is adopted by a well-to-do(I'd imagine upper middle class, like the Cosby's, would be most accurate in describing their station in life) family as a baby. On her 9th birthday she is told of her real mother, and eventually talks her parents into traveling to find her. That's the condensed version, but the film itself is much, much more than that.

A pre-credits sequence shows an arranged marriage between Shyama and Dhileepan. These scenes are short, but we see through their shyness and awkwardness at their first meeting during the marriage tells us these are good people, and the humor of that wedding night, and the few domestic images we get, only reinforce that idea. Unfortunately this happiness is not going to last. An idyllic day out, swimming and walking through the woods, is interrupted by a troop of soldiers marching through the woods. Dhileepan orders to Shyama to run to her father's, while he remains behind to attack the soldiers in some unseen fashion. We find out that Shyama is pregnant, and is sent out of Sri Lanka with a boatful of refugees by her father, and she gives birth in a Red Cross center. This is the last we see of Shyama for most of the film as we jump, post-credits, to the 9th birthday of Shyama's daughter Amudha.

Amudha's parents seem loving and wholesome, but they show some pretty inept parenting skills. Choosing to tell the girl of her adopted status isn't in itself a bad thing, but choosing her birthday, of all times, seems needlessly cruel. The parents take turns reacting in sullen disappointment when Amudha is less than thrilled by this news, and her younger brothers use this information to tease her mercilessly. It's understandable that Amudha attempts running away to her birth mother several times before Indira & Thiru(her adopted parents) agree to help her locate Shyama. It's a noble enough endeavor, and certainly made with only the best of intentions, but it shows a slightly malnourished world view.

Sri Lanka is still in the midst of a violent uprising, and bringing a young child into the middle of a guerrilla war may not the wisest of moves. But it is in these scenes that the film kept surprising me. Every time I settled in for some rote melodrama, the film took a turn into some fairly gripping scenes of urban warfare. Almost immediately upon their arrival, Amudha is slightly injured in a suicide bombing, and guerrillas are constantly lurking in the background as tanks and soldiers march down public streets. Still, the family perseveres, with the help of a local doctor who acts as their guide, and eventually they find Shyama, who is now in charge of teaching the children of the revolutionaries who themselves march through the jungles with automatic half their size in their arms. The few scenes in the beginning with Shyama didn't do much to establish the character in our minds, but despite being absent for 90 minutes of screen time, those scenes speak volumes for the type of person she has become, and the life she is currently living. This is a person who gave up her happiness, her child for the chance to rid her homeland of war and oppression, and in the end she doesn't even have the hope that her dream will ever be realized.

A Peck on the Cheek was miles away from what I was used to in regards to Indian cinema, and yet it still kept up some of the traditions. Several musical numbers serve to lighten the mood and keep the pace up, but they feel out of place and amateurishly directed, with the visual aesthetic of a skin cream commercial at times. The story was undoubtedly going to be a highly emotional one, no matter how you cut it, but a penchant for rampant melodrama actually made some of the scenes slightly laughable, to my Western sensibilities. Also, and this may be due more to my ignorance of the local politics, but I found the Sri-Lankan elements to be slightly lacking. Perhaps if I actually lived there it would be more obvious to me, but I felt like the violence was merely backdrop, and not something that was actually explored, and could have used some expanding upon.

All in all an enjoyable, enlightening experience. I hear good things about the director, Mani Ratnam, who seems to be a fairly popular filmmaker both in and out of his country. This film, at the very least, has inspired me to check out more of his work.

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