In 2020, you’d be easily forgiven for confusing an article on The Onion for actual news. Or vice-versa. That does not take anything away from the increasing relevance of a publication like The Onion, which has never shied away from using acutely acerbic satire to comment on the political miscreants of the times. This argument about The Onion’s relevance and importance can surely be extrapolated to the general relevance of art forms involving satire, and the larger entity of comedy. Comedians, by way of different media, have always been at the forefront of political activism.
This premise accentuates the timeliness and importance of a film like “Jojo Rabbit”, which is the most inventive form of satirical cinema I have seen that is not a Coen Brothers’ film. I say inventive, because this movie is a careful conception, a work of designed brilliance, a deliberate formulation that ends up being completely uncanny, surreal, and on point. I guess you can say that about all great movies, can’t you?
This inventiveness spotlights how accomplished a creator Taika Waititi (Writer-Director) is. Walking away from the film, it is initially hard to fathom that this very director also made the wacky “Thor: Ragnarok”. On second thoughts though, If you put both of them under a surgical scalpel, you can see the similarities in style - both are films bathing in goofy humor, yet so full of both art and heart. This style becomes especially resonant when applied to the subject of “Jojo Rabbit”.
There’s an inconsequential yet heartbreaking scene about halfway into “The Florida Project”. In an Orlando motel that is full of struggling families living paycheck to paycheck, it is time for one of the families, a Dad and his young son, to leave. All of their belongings just about fit into their car, a beaten Honda Civic. The son brings along one of their last pieces of luggage, a box of toys. When the box does not fit in the car, his dad, proceeds to give the toys away to the kids in the neighborhood. He apologizes to his son, promising to buy new toys once they reach their destination.
I remember being a kid and being heartbroken every time I lost a toy or had one broken, let alone having to give one up for trivial reasons. As a kid, your toys become your gateways to an imagined universe. And it is not just toys that define one’s childhood. Your friends become your companions on journeys into this imagined universe. Your family becomes your universe, the essence and ethos of it.
The logical mind might think that childhood is all fun and frolic, with only a little trouble thrown in. Yet, childhood has a lot more to it - there are the real and imagined universes, populated by toys, friends, and family. Within these, there is innocence and its constant struggle to ward off prejudice. There is purity in emotion. There is mischief masquerading as your ultimate friend, and sweetness seeking to be your purpose. There is also the subtle embodiment of nascent fibers that may then get thrown out or nurtured later on in life. In many ways, childhood is a strange, marvelous, and crucial time.
The first glimpses I caught of Irrfan were from "New York, I Love You", in a segment directed by the brilliant Mira Nair. I guess that is poetic, because she is often credited with discovering Irrfan. In the segment, Irrfan is cast as an Indian diamond merchant (Mansukhbhai) who shares a mystical affection with his client, a Hasidic woman (Rifka) played by Natalie Portman. It's a beautiful segment that makes the viewer wish it was much longer. The gist of the segment is that Mansukhbhai and Rifka are embedded in two distinctly different communities, at clashing junctures of life. Rifka is about to get married to her fiance while Mansukhbhai has a wife, who has left him and their kids to become a Jain nun. They recognize their predicament, made strange and special by the affection and love they have for each other - the kind that happens when you've known a person over a long time on fond, yet non-intimate terms. In this conundrum, they acknowledge their bittersweet reality. They sigh, they smile, and indulge in vivid imaginations of being wed to each other. They deliver a moment of clarity.
For me, this is what Irrfan's cinema has always been about - moments of clarity and truth. First, a confession, I've not yet covered some of his earlier cinematography, the more gutsy, relatively less popular, independent work - the likes of Maqbool or Qissa. Heck, I have not yet seen The Namesake or Salaam Bombay, despite my love for Mira Nair's work. It is a quaint thing I do - save good cinema for later - sort of like saving the last piece of a delicious cake, for fear of running out of novel experiences, once I've indulged in them. I digress.
Even if one were to consider Irrfan's most recent set of films, the ones that brought him mainstream attention and multiplex popularity, they're peppered with moments of realization, honesty, and beauty - of truth and clarity. I'm talking about Piku, Qarib Qarib Single, Karwaan, Haider, The Lunchbox, the works. In all these films, whether they center on Irrfan's characters or use him as a support, he seemed to become a window - into life, its questions and answers. In Piku, he was a curious man, inquisitive, pushing Piku to question her moralities. In Karwaan and Qarib Qarib Single, he was wise and redemptive, he knew life, catalyzing the narrative. In The Lunchbox, Irrfan became the one that is pushed, catalyzed, and ultimately, redeemed.
Atlantic City says so much about two people in a relationship, without saying too much.
A comedy that is fun, while being just good cinema in the first place.