Monday, April 18, 2005

A Voice From Heaven - Not really Nusrat's swan song

Urmi's already posted about this, and said essentially everything that I wanted to say about the sorry piece of work. But I reproduce the greater part of a post I wrote last night for Another Subcontinent, describing my impressions of the documentary. Here it is:

So last Saturday I finally got to see a documentary I had waited forever to see. To my knowledge there have been only two documentaries that deal with the life and work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One called "Nusrat Has Left the Building...But When? by the Pakistani documentary filmmaker Farjad Nabi takes a critical look at the Nusrat's nod to commercial considerations. It charts the critical downslide of the more overtly commercial of Nusrat's repertoire and sees him detached from the tradition of qawwali. I was lucky to see the film online, and thought that it was a competent short film, although I don't necessarily agree with Farjad's argument.

The other one, "A Voice from Heaven", by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Asaro, apparently had interview footage with Nusrat himself, was shot on location in Pakistan and was longer. So when the Skirball Center in LA had a free showing, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, it was a fantastic sunny afternoon and the Santa Monica mountains Urmi and I drove by looked great, but gawd, this is one of the worst documentaries I've ever seen. For the Indians old enough to remember, this makes many Films Division documentaries look like high art.

It seems Asaro is ignorant of filmmaking basics and driven to this project by the sheer force of his great admiration for Nusrat. So far so good. But then he proceeds to fill the movie with the most inexplicable shot selection known to the craft. The entire film is full of random shots of the most dilapidated sections of Lahore and Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur), interspersed with equally random shots of Haji Ali and BEST buses in Bombay. No place is ever identified by name, so it is just all a miscellaneous lump of oriental exotica, full of young Muslim men in trance, chandookhor (opium addict) types grinding bhang (cannabis), Muslim women, mostly with their faces completely obscured with a veil, etc., etc.

Even this I would have forgiven, if only they had spoken at length about Nusrat's early life and shown coverage of early shows (which apparently PTV has plenty). Apart from one measly shot there was no early coverage. There was a brief reference to his father, but no attempt to really situate him in the qawwali tradition and styles in the sub-continent. And a section attempting to explain the origins of qawwali made the most absurd generalizations about the musical form. The height of ignorance was the complete absence of the mention of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusro! Of course there was hardly any mention of how the form has evolved in India, which might lead a viewer to think that the art is exclusive to Pakistan.

And then finally, and most infuriatingly, there is a long closing section that goes on and on about how Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is the true bearer of Nusrat's legacy. It almost looked like a propoganda film where some despot's son is being introduced to the masses after his death! I have my own opinion about Rahat's singing abilities, but wouldn't go into it here.

Urmi and I concluded that the documentary does immense disservice to the great talent that Nusrat was. Before I saw it, I thought it was impossible to make a bad documentary about Nusrat. All they have to do is have lots of footage of his concerts and that's it. I was so so wrong.

10 Comments:

Blogger Urmea said...

I totally agree... But you already knew that :)

10:02 PM  
Blogger Vishnupriya said...

hey thalassa, youre really a mine of useful info and stuff. thanks for the double post. i didnt know about chowhound or egullet, and i must figure out if i can manage to join them sometime. (time, aaaah)

and i am ashamed to say that ive never tried assyrtika. next time i make maach bhaaja, which should be within a week, that will be tried.

12:24 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hi Vishnupriya, glad you found the recommendations useful. And I'm sure you wouldn't be disappointed in the Assyrtiko. Kalo orexi (Bon apetit in Greek).

2:55 PM  
Blogger wandering dervish said...

hey,
good to find another khansahab aficionado! the best docu-feature on khansahab is called le dernier prophet ( the last prophet) which was done by a french director as far as i remember- has loads of home footage of khansahab.also, just very recently, oriental star agencies uk has come out with as many as nine full concert dvds of the maestro ( i am yet to get my hands on them though!)

6:34 AM  
Blogger wandering dervish said...

hang on, i have a sneaky suspicion i know you! i am vishnu, just in case that rings a bell?:)

6:40 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Na na na na na na, it's a small world after all :) (you wouldn't find it funny in an annoying sort of way, unless you've been to Disneyland)

Yesh it is moi indeed Vishnu! Ki ashcharyo! How are you? Still in Cam as I see. How did you find my blog?

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah ha, i guessed right...wow, this is such a pleasant surprise!still doing a phd, less than two years to go.
you?

p.s. actually, we should perhaps email!:)

3:35 PM  
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