Sunday 31 March 2013

Percy (1989): a movie review

Percy (1989)
This is a sensitive, leisurely portrait of a misfit. Percy is a young man who has lived a sheltered life ever since his father's death. Blaming her husband's untimely (and undignified) demise on his dissolute ways, Percy's mother has raised her son to be an innocent, naive and shy young fellow. He takes the taunts of his neighbours and colleagues without a murmur, is unable to express his true feelings to a childhood friend who announces she is getting married and gradually lapses into an elaborate fantasy world of lush music and courtly ballroom dances.

He is less impractical when it comes to his job as the accountant in a Unani pharmacy, unearthing and exposing a colleague's pilfering. The colleague is fired and vows revenge.  Meanwhile, Percy joins a group of music lovers who gather in a hall to listen to records of classical music. It seems like a chance to finally reach out to other people, but mainly it provides an outlet for his otherwise stunted emotional life. Some of the most moving scenes in the movie simply consist of the gawky Percy in his father's oversized suits, head thrown back in ecstacy, wallowing in the luxuriant emotionalism of high romantic orchestral music.

What work less well are the flashbacks, where Percy sees his own younger self manifest in front of him, or the sequence where the ghost of a dead friend turns up in a public toilet to reproach Percy for becoming such a pushover. They do have emotional weight, but they feel a little ungainly when stacked against the unselfconscious naturalism of the rest of the movie.

Things eventually come to a head, with Percy out of work and roaming the streets of Bombay, trying half-heartedly to sell snacks prepared by his mother and usually just hanging around, feeding pigeons, staring listlessly around himself in a park or by the sea, unable to connect even with his two main sources of release - the music group and his own terpsichorean fantasies. He is a man adrift, and the movie doesn't pull its punches in showing us how little space the world has for an innocent abroad.

This was one of the most emotionally resonant and authentic movies I have seen in a long while. Not a box office-targetted potboiler, it isn't exactly what I'd call an art film either, although that is the usual classification in India. Instead, it's simply an honest, empathetic piece of storytelling, keen in its observations of human nature and the settings in which it takes place. It makes great use of the various interior and exterior settings, making the many faces of an Indian city (Bombay in this case) an additional, implied character in the film, from the confined yet nurturing home Percy and his mother live in, the old colonial buildings of the colony they live in and the sanctified halls of the Parsi temple to the crowded streets where Percy always seems like a man alone, the shabby little office which is his one arena of effective adulthood. It's also something of a nostalgic element to anyone who knows how much the face of urban India has changed since 1989, perhaps even more so for natives of Bombay, such as my friend Suresh, who recommended this to me.

This movie is part of a whole series of DVD releases of films in various Indian languages called 'Cinemas Of India'. The picture and sound quality were both excellent, especially considering Indian manufacturers' uneven track record, and the subtitles were also good, with one lapse where the dialogue 'Grieg's Piano Concerto' is rendered as 'week's piano concerto', a perhaps forgivable lapse (although I do wish a listing of all the music heard in the film could have been provided as a pointer for viewers less familiar with western classical music, for whom it might have served as an excellent starting point for exploration). I don't usually provide shopping links on my blog (except to books containing my own stories, before you rush to point out the obvious), but this film really deserves to be more widely seen and here's where you can order a copy.

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