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SIFF ADVANCE: Chronicles of Hari - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: Chronicles of Hari
Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: C

As a gay man who has met many Indian-born queer people by virtue of being married to a gay man from India, naturally I would have particular interest in a film about the challenges faced by a Yakshagana theatre actor who plays mostly female parts. It's the sort of story that could be deeply illuminating, for someone like myself as well as for many other Americans.

It should also be kept in mind, however, that in spite of how easy it is for Americans to generalize Indian culture, theirs is a widely diverse country, with many official languages. Chronicles of Hari comes out of Bangalore, and thus its language is Kannada. That is what all the characters in the film speak, with English subtitles. Except here is the film's greatest, nearly fatal flaw -- in its truly terrible sound editing. The subtitles are written in sometimes imperfect English, translating what is exclusively overdubbed dialogue. The overdubbing is overtly inept, with dialogue consistently mismatching the movement of the actors' lips. In many cases, the actors on set clearly are not saying anything at all, and still we get overdubbed mumbling or humming, or in some cases actual lines.

To say this is distracting is an understatement, when the overdubbing is so bad it's obvious even though we can't even understand the language. Furthermore, it's not just the dialogue that is overdubbed in post production, but all sounds in the movie. This includes the very same "sound effects" of bird calls usually associated with being in a jungle, or maybe in a zoo, recycled every single time characters happen to be outside -- regardless of the type of environment they are in.

Under normal circumstances this alone would be enough to dismiss a movie outright. I was nearly ready to do so in this case, except for the arguably extraordinary story content, for a film coming out of India. The one perfectly cast part is that of Shrunga Vasudevan in the title role, as Hari, the Yakshagana theatre actor revered for his convincing performances in female parts. This alone does not set the story apart; in this kind of performance theatre, as in traditional Shakespeare, women do not traditionally take part (although it is apparently happening more often in recent years). What happens to Hari is specific: he discovers he is more comfortable wearing women's clothes offstage as well as on, and when this is discovered in the villages where he performs, the locals consistently feel threatened and alienated by it. The theatre leaders tolerate it because Hari is so valuable to them as a performer.

Director and co-writer Ananya Kasarvalli tells us Hari's story in a very sympathetic way, which even today is not to be expected in broader South Asian culture. My Indian husband has long been fond of saying India is about thirty years behind the United States when it comes to cultural attitudes toward LGBT rights, and this film's very existence lends support to that idea. Hari's story is being told within a very Citzen Kane-esque frame, with a couple of documentary filmmakers interviewing people around the region in an effort to find out why Hari committed suicide.

So, it's no spoiler to say Hari is dead: we learn this near the beginning of the film. The unfortunate thing about it is that although audiences are clearly meant to feel for Hari, Hari is shown to have no real hope for happiness in this world. It's unclear even whether Kasarvalli knows whether Hari is to be understood as a trans person; not one character ever refers to Hari with female pronouns -- he is always presented as a young man who happens to be more comfortable wearing sarees (a typical female outfit on the Indian subcontinent). We're talking about a culture here that has barely begun to have the vocabulary for gay people, let alone anyone with a minority gender identity.

So, Chronicles of Hari is compelling in its way, once you get past the horrible editing -- but then only until it's clear that Hari's only option is to face despair. In America, this is a deeply stereotypical presentation of queer life, long since grown tired. Context is relevant, of course; Kasarvalli should be commended at the very least for her capacity for empathy in such matters. Still, this is not a story that plays particularly well for modern American audiences. It's either annoying or depressing, for different reasons. Shrunga Vasudevan has a lovely screen presence, however, and many of the location shoots make for some memorable cinematography, so at least it's pretty to look at.

Shrunga Vasudevan is ready for his closeup in CHRONICLES OF HARI.

Overall: C+
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