By Ali Moosavi.
Death has been a popular theme for filmmakers to explore almost ever since cinema was invented. Some of the films dealing with mortality have contained some autobiographical elements. In Blue (1993) director Derek Jarman, as he was close to death from AIDS complications, made a cinematic diary which consisted of a blue screen for the entire movie with him narrating his daily activities. AIDS had rendered Jarman partially blind and he could only see things in shades of blue and this approach to making the film was surprisingly effective. Argentine-born Brazilian film director Hector Babenco (Pixote, 1980; Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985; Ironweed, 1987), had a brush with death while undergoing cancer treatment and a bone marrow transplant in 1994. However, it was not till 2015, a year before his death, that he used this episode in his life to deal with the subject of mortality in My Hindu Friend (2015), which rather fittingly turned out to be his final film.
Willem Dafoe plays Babenco’s alter ego Diego; a film director suffering from cancer who needs a bone marrow transplant. Dafoe, who has never had much weight to spare, looks pretty skeletal here. Babenco has not been kind or complimentary to himself/Diego, painting him as egocentric, self-centered, unforgiving and sex-obsessed. These traits are used by Babenco to create tension in the film. One example is Diego’s relationship with one of his brothers whom he blames for squandering the family wealth on gambling and thus causing their father’s untimely death. He has not spoken to him for years and even the brother’s offers to be the donor for the bone marrow does not break the ice with Diego. This causes the brother to think twice about undergoing the transplant.
The blue print for Babenco’s film appears to be Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). The main character here is also an artist and a womanizer. Moreover, like Fosse’s film, and indeed Babenco’s own Kiss of the Spider Woman, My Hindu Friend contains both real characters and those who are the product of the protagonist’s hallucinations. The part of the film which most resembles All That Jazz is the middle section, which takes place in the hospital where the operation takes place. An Angel of Death visits Diego in the hospital and tells him that his time may be up. Bebenco presents this angel as a common, everyday guy, dressed normally and speaking casually. When Diego asks: what if I don’t want to go? the angel replies: that’s what they all say! This angel even admits to Diego of having seen one of his films! When Diego pleads with him for more time to make one last film, the angel provides him with a hopeful sign: those who still have dreams to fulfil have a better chance of survival. Diego’s obsession with sex is presented by another hallucination; a woman only in her undies making sexually provocative gestures. In a twist, the woman is quite mature in years indicating the ridiculousness of Diego’s desires in his condition. In a nod to perhaps the most famous film dealing with death, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Diego and the Angel play a game of chess. The banter between these two provides some welcome humour to balance Diego’s bitterness, as does a segment where Diego recovers after the operation at the house of a producer friend in Los Angeles, whose wife has arranged a charity dinner where guests pay $10,000 a head to not eat dinner in empathy with the starving in Africa!
The Hindu friend of the title is a little Indian boy whom Diego meets at the hospital and makes friends with. Babenco uses the boy as a cinematic device to whom Diego recounts some childhood memories and tells stories that he wants to film. Diego gives the boy courage to go through with his operation while the boy provides him the motivation to stay alive and make the films that he wants to.
All That Jazz was a kind of musical and Babenco’s film has its own share of musical moments. While in his hospital bed, Diego uses one of the tubes going into his mouth as an imaginary microphone to deliver a rendition of Cheek to Cheek. There is also an erotic version of Singin’ in the Rain, performed by Diego’s latest girlfriend, under the rain and in the nude! One wonders if Babenco had made a musical during his career, how it would have turned out.
In one of the end credits, Babenco thanks a few doctors “for their determination to keep me alive. Without them this film could never have been made”. He died when he was 70 and apparently had made a full recovery from the cancer. If he somehow knew that this would be his final film, then there is no better way for a filmmaker to bid farewell.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).