If, like me, you grew up in the 80s and early 90s of India (and I’m not going to deny that just thinking about it makes me feel a bit ancient), then you probably understand the value of “less is more” when it comes to quality television. There were only a handful of T.V serials playing on Doordarshan back then, but all of them had strong stories and were thoughtfully executed with actors who knew how to keep their acts sensitive and balanced. Many of us did not have a television set at home, so we used to flock the neighbors’ houses, which became mini cinema halls and a prime aspect of social gatherings in that era. I get especially nostalgic when I think of the Sunday evenings, when they showed popular Bengali movies. The list was not unlimited and some movies were always on demand, so they were repeated often. One such movie that planted the seed of the future movie buff in me was “Thana Theke Aschi”, a 1965 thriller with a stellar cast assembling many stalwarts of Bengali cinema: Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee, Kamal Mitra and Chaya Devi, to name a few.
The story of “Thana Theke Aschi” takes place on a singular night when a Sub-inspector named Tinkari Haldar visits an upper-middleclass home of an industrialist to investigate the suicide of a woman. As he interrogates each family member while reading from the diary of the deceased, and in the process unravels their connection with the suicide, the smug family drawing room becomes the center of simmering suspense. This is a brilliant example of a drawing room drama and it was only recently that I discovered that the movie was a Bengali adaptation of English dramatist J. B Priestly’s 1945 classic “An Inspector Calls”. So, that’s how started my life-long love for chamber drama (another term I learned recently), a movie or play with a small cast and minimalist setting, often a single set, that depicts the action taking place over a short period of time, often only a few hours or less. The story or concept used in these movies is often highly innovative and dialogue-based because these are the core elements on which rests their appeal. Here are a few recommendations based on the chamber pieces that are in my list of favorites, arranged in the sequence of the year of release. This is no way an inclusive list and the reason I have selected these movies is because they follow a similar pattern: guests/strangers find themselves in a room and deliberate on a serious situation that concerns them all.
Rope (1948); Director: Alfred Hitchcock
I grew up listening to adults gasping about “Psycho” and other Hitchcock classics, but I don’t remember any of them mentioning this movie. It was much later during my University years, when I started collaborating with my uncle on his DVD collection, that I was introduced to this movie. And needless to say that I found the story fascinating. Two young men murder a friend on an intellectual whim because they are inspired by a conversation they once had with their prep-school teacher on the “art of murder” as a way of showing one’s intellectual superiority over others. After the murder, they hide the body inside an old chest and decks this antique piece up to serve as a dinner table for the guests, among whom are present the dead guy’s fiancé, his father and their prep-school teacher, Rupert Cadell himself. Rupert grows increasing suspicious about the missing guest and the anxious behavior of his former students. Would he be able to outsmart the murderers and talk them into admitting their crime? Watch this gem to decide if it is not one of Hitchcock’s most underrated classics.
12 Angry Men (1957); Director: Sidney Lumet
This movie is bound to appear in every single list that shows up on Internet search results for chamber plays. It’s widely acknowledged as a timeless classic and has inspired movie makers and movie lovers alike since it’s first release. The plot revolves around the jury of 12 men who need to deliberate and come to an unanimous decision about the guilt or innocence of a 18 year old boy who allegedly stabbed his father to death. All except one jury member are convinced of the boy’s guilt beyond “reasonable doubt”. So, this one member, determined to prevent a miscarriage of justice with a hurried decision, must reason with the other members to prove his point. How does he succeed to convince the remaining jury members of “reasonable doubt” and do they finally reach an unanimous decision? Watch the movie to experience the intense drama that unfolds within a closed room with these 12 men and you will know why the movie buffs swear by it.
After two unforgettable classics, it’s time to look at a more contemporary landscape where more and more young directors seem to be taking the chamber play route to depict the existential crisis of a fast, competitive, and terrifyingly self-centric world.
Exam (2009); Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Minimalism at its best and brilliantly crafted, this movie is an absolute delight to watch. Eight candidates are shortlisted for the final test for a coveted position in a prestigious firm. Rules are laid out and they are left alone in a room with their question papers. To pass the test, they must answer one question in the allotted 80 minutes. But the most puzzling part of the test is that all candidates are given blank papers. So, they must use most of the 80 minutes to cooperate with each other and figure out what the question is before they can think of the answer. Who of the eight applicants will finally crack the exam? You will never know how your time will pass while you try to figure out the answer.
Circle (2015); Directors: Aaron Hana, Mario Miscione
Another remarkable piece of craft in minimalism, this movie is a new age apocalyptic take on the survival of the fittest. 50 strangers wake up to find themselves standing in circles inside a room that looks like a chamber in an alien ship. They realize that they are being randomly killed off, or may be it’s not so random. They soon figure out that they can vote using their mind to decide who should be eliminated. This frightening discovery drives the action for the rest of the movie as people team up, play politics, take sides and resort to nastiest maneuvers to stay in the game and emerge the last person standing. The twist at the end too is fittingly terrifying in its implication of earth’s future and leaves you floating in deep discomforting thoughts.
The Invitation (2015); Director: Karyn Kusama
It feels unnaturally sweet and even ominous to Will that his ex wife, who mysteriously disappeared two years ago, is suddenly back and wants him, his girlfriend and their group of mutual friends to join her and her partner for a get-together at their plush home. It may be an innocuous attempt to let bygones be bygones and make a fresh start, but something does not seem right about the place. There are a lot of sad memories too associated with the place. Do they make Will overthink and see a hidden agenda behind his ex’s genuine attempt at a fresh beginning? Or is the invitation a well-laid trap for something too horrifying for even Will to imagine? This is a slow burn movie that will keep you at the edge of your seat for the whole one hour and forty minutes and leave its lingering effect long after it’s over.
7 anos (2016); Director: Roger Gual
7 anos, literally translated as 7 years, is a Spanish movie about four friends who are partners in a successful company. The company is being investigated for a massive tax fraud and the four are facing a situation where they need to decide who among them would sacrifice his or her freedom, that is, take the blame to go to prison so that they can save the company they built together. Time is running out and if they can’t make a decision, all four will face prison. They hire a mediator to solve the situation for them and what ensues in the next few hours reveals how our true nature rears it’s ugly head under the pressure of a life-threatening situation. Does the mediator help them choose “the one” or do they sell each other out? The questions will intrigue you much more than the answer.
The Bar (2017); Director: Álex de la Iglesia
This is a Spanish movie that I watched very recently, and to be completely honest, I have been hesitant to add it to this list. And I probably wouldn’t have except I found the concept interesting even if the execution was less than satisfactory. This movie centers around a group of people who one fine day find themselves trapped inside a bar when two of the customers are killed after stepping outside. The streets are evacuated and there seems to be an emergency, but customers inside the bar find no ways to communicate with the outside world. Are they being targeted for some unknown reason and will they find a way out of the bar? This movie is intended as a horror comedy and while there are some light moments, it is at best a half-baked dish with many interesting elements, none of which blend well to give the intended effect. The characters are merely caricatures with little or no depth; the plot holds promise but fizzles out with the forced attempt at comedy; and the moment the most attractive customer of the bar strips to under garments to slid through a tunnel, it becomes a tiring wait for the ludicrous drama to get over. But I have to admit that I might not have been able to catch some of the nuances of a foreign language that got lost in translation. As I said, the concept is interesting. There’s no harm in giving it a try. You may end up actually enjoying it.
So, that was my list! Given my love for chamber pieces, I’m pretty sure to follow this up with other blog posts. In the meantime, please leave your comments and recommendations about your favorite chamber movies.