Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Majumdar Brothers' DETERMINISM: DIY identical-twin filmmakers in Jackson Heights; brief chat with half of the team

Can one be greatly impressed with the film-making skills on display while finding the movie that surrounds them more than a little foolish? On the basis of DETERMINISM -- the new straight-to-video film from a pair of identical-twin filmma-kers of East-Indian/
Bangladeshi/American heritage and who live just two blocks from yours truly here in Jackson Heights, Queens -- the answer is a resounding yes. Written, produced and directed by Ranju & Sanjit Majumdar (shown below: That's Ranju on the right), with Sanjit editing and taking the starring role and Ranju doing the cinematog-raphy and music, the film is resolutely Do-It-Yourself film-making.

It's also good film-making in many ways. From the pacing (both within individual scenes and the way in which these scenes tumble over each other) to music, cinematography and editing, Determinism looks surprisingly right for a first attempt. Particularly from fellows who've had no prior experience. Earlier this week I interviewed another first-time filmmaker--Christopher Thompson-- and there is almost no comparison between the Majumdars' DIY and Thompson's glossy, (relatively) high-budget movie. The latter, after all, comes from a family of moviemakers and has worked in professional film as actor and writer for much of his life. Our twin newcomers are DIY on the most non-professional level -- which makes their accomplishment all the more surprising.

That said, I must admit the the acting on display, as well as the dialog, is.sometimes touch-and-go. The movie's single worst problem, however is a story/plot so unbelievable, ridiculous and predictable that viewers of any slight maturity level will probably be rolling their eyes within the first few scenes and resolutely shaking their heads by the finale. The film begins well -- with the face of the "other" (Sanjit's character Alec) captured by a video camera as he talks about "small-town Pennsylvania, binge-drinking college kids: the overly-forgiven, self-entitled future of America."  At this point, folk who appreciate smart writing will sit up and take notice, but unfortunately there's little at that level left to come.

Instead Alec (above) turns out to be a whiny little wimp who manages to involve literally every person he appears to know at his school in a cockamamie get-rich-quick-via-a-burglary scheme that -- we're shocked, shocked! -- backfires badly. Instead of preying on some of those aforementioned binge-drinking, self-entitled college kids, Alec unwisely chooses a street-smart drug dealer -- and uses his own drug-and-alcohol fueled best friend (played by Ryan Lewis, below) as his backup. From that point onwards, the nonsense keeps building.

Why we would want to spend time with a loser like this is a question that hangs over Determinism like a shroud. The movie seems to be saying that for a self-pitying (and brainless) East Asian to get somewhere in America, he'd better turn to crime, because the other choices on his horizon are somehow too paltry. Sure, racism exists, kid, but I doubt that robbery, murder and very poor planning will help overcome it.

Still, as I say, there is a lot of good film skill on display here, and the Majumdars are young. Once they hook onto a story worth telling (that hasn't been told countless times before in so many other genre films-- of which Determinism is just one more), they may have a movie to remember. Meanwhile, their first one will be available on DVD and VOD on February 8.

Meeting with one-half of this filmmaking team -- Sanjit Majumdar -- proved a very interesting encounter.  It was the day after that big blizzard that rocked NYC at the end of 2010, and, as we discovered we were so close, location-wise, we met at the local Starbucks, where Sanjit handed me the DVD of Determinism, and we sat down to chat awhile.

I learn that, although there is an enormous Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani community here in Jackson Heights, Sanjit has only recently moved here. (He has relatives in the neighbohood.)  He and his brother originally grew up in New Jersey suburbs, where, he tells me, racism was prevalent and almost second-nature, a fact that impacts to a large degree the leading character of his movie.

We chat about films we like and those we don't -- and why -- and how important pacing is to most movies.  The filmmaker feels that he understands pacing and has done a pretty good job with it in his own film (I would agree). Because of the storm, Starbucks closes early that day, and they kick us out at 3pm.

Later in an email, after viewing the film, I ask Sanjit specific questions about how he and his brother divided their film-making duties. "Ranju and I," he tells me, "collaborate on the look of the film but my brother has final say on the cinematography and usually works more closely with the camera. I work with Ranju on how these camera shots and movements will cut together. We collaborate on the editing but I usually have final say on the cuts.

"Ranju goes off and designs the music while I color-correct the film. We usually agree on everything because we share the same cinema culture and usually love and hate the same movies. It is difficult to explain, but I know I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything without my twin and he wouldn't be able to accomplish anything without me. We both worked out the script together. But brother works with the plot points and beats and I try to expand on characters and dialog. But even those duties switch many times a day."

TrustMovies usually waits until after he has viewed someone's film before he agrees to meet, and now he better understands why. When you meet and like someone initially, as I did this young filmmaker, it becomes harder to be honest with your opinion about his film. You like him, and so you want to like his movie. And though he tells you to be brutally honest, which Sanjit indeed did, you know he is still hoping for the best. And so I now feel like someone who has stuck a shiv into a friend's back.

Still, I do believe this filmmaking team has good prospects. I'm glad I saw their first film, despite some glaring flaws, and I'll look forward to their next.

All photos are from the film itself, with the exception 
of the shot of the Majumdars, courtesy of Sanjit.

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