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October 13, 1999


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Holy Smoke: Deadly Battle of Sexes

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Holy Smoke As Neil Diamond's voice blares out the 1969 single Holly Holy, the camera plays in the dark with huddled faces. One face that catches our eye is that of the English actress, Kate Winslet (Titanic and Sense and Sensibility), staring directly at the camera, with tired eyes, sweat on her face, and yet a level of confidence and a strong presence. The camera moves slightly to the side and we see Indian faces. Winslet is in a white cotton sari, on a bus, in India.

The titles start to appear. These are English language words with lines on top as if written in Devnagari script. In the midst of crowded street scenes from India, children and hippies are dancing on rooftops of Old Delhi, and blow-away smoke letters on the screen write the film's title -- Holy Smoke.

India, in bright, vibrant, hallucinogenic colors, with its heady spiritual allure has never looked so attractive. No wonder this world has overtaken the mind and spirit of the young Australian traveler -- Ruth Barron (Winslet) in this new film, directed by the New Zealand-born film-maker, Jane Campion (The Piano and Portrait of a Lady). Campion co-scripted Holy Smoke with her older sister Anna.

Holy Smoke had its US premiere this last weekend at the 37th New York Film Festival, a prestigious event organized by The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Miramax, the Disney-owned, film distribution and production company, will release Holy Smoke in the United States.

Ruth is in India to search for enlightenment. She adapts an Indian name and joins a Hindu sect run by a Chidaatma Baba (a small non-speaking part played by Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee). She tears up her return ticket and announces to her Australian female companion that she plans to "marry" Baba.

The overcrowded streets of Chandini Chowk in Old Delhi are a long way from the straight laced, suburban houses with neatly manicured lawns in Sans Souici, a suburb of Sydney, where Ruth's eccentric family resides. When the Barron family learns about Ruth's decision to stay back in India, they hire a deprogrammer from America, P J Waters (played by a slick Harvey Keitel) to return her to the "normality" of the Australian suburban life. PJ's introduction in the film at Sydney airport gives Campion another chance to use a song by Neil Diamond in the background, this time the 1971 hit I Am... I Said.

Meanwhile Ruth's mother Miriam (played with a sad, tragic tone by Australian actress Julie Hamilton) takes a trip to India to convince her daughter to leave, what she believes is a cult, and return to Australia. They meet in a dhaba in Old Delhi, which is bathed with blue neon light, with the radio playing a song from the popular Bollywood film Raja Hindustani -- Puchho Jara Puchho (the song, composed by Nadeem Sharavan, is listed in the credits at the end of the film).

The same India that seemed so enticing to Ruth turns out to be a nightmarish experience for Miriam -- the overcrowded streets, beggars following her cab, and Indian style toilets. Miriam has a serious asthma attack, which forces Ruth to accompany her back to Australia. While her stretcher is being hoisted onto the plane that will take them back home, Miriam delivers one of the funniest lines in the film: "Thank God it's Qantas," she says.

Back in Australia, while Ruth still insists on wearing her white saris, she makes a pact with the suave PJ that she will spend three days alone with him in the Australian outback in a halfway hut. PJ is confident that in three days he will change Ruth. This despite the fact that she appears at first to be intolerant of PJ's approach to life. How can she trust a man who dyes his hair, she asks?

At this juncture Campion's film slowly changes in its mood and texture -- from comic to dark and more somber. In actuality Holy Smoke has two stories in one. The search for spiritual enlightenment and Ruth's confidence in her beliefs is a prologue to a long drawn out battle of the sexes that the film-maker has planned for her audiences.

The older man (60-year-old Keitel) and the younger woman (24-year-old Winslet) go mano-a-mano in a battle that will eventually break them both apart. As Ruth attempts to expose PJ's overtly chauvinistic and vain behavior, PJ gets more and more drawn to her beauty, youth and her authentic spiritual experience.

Keitel is perhaps one of the few American male actors (Campion said in a press conference that Keitel would not like being called a "Hollywood actor") who has appeared completely naked in front of the camera (Bad Lieutenant, Ulysses' Gaze and in Campion's own award winning The Piano). This time Campion presents the macho actor in a light that few in the audience will find it easy to take.

Holy Smoke In order to show PJ that he is a much older man, Ruth first suggests that he should try going out with older women. Then she puts red lipstick on his lips and makes him slip into a red dress. In the red dress PJ makes love to Ruth. When Ruth threatens to leave him, PJ, still in his red dress, becomes tragically pathetic. He weeps and begs Ruth to marry him.

Speaking at the press conference at the NYFF, Campion said Keitel really enjoyed the red dress sequence in the film. "Harvey loved the red dress," she said. "You know, deep down any actor likes to put on a frock."

She added that during the several days that the red dress scenes were being shot, all the male crew members, in solidarity with Keitel, turned up for work in women's dresses.

Winslet, who is being lauded in the press for taking up a "small" film as a follow-up to the monstrous success of Titanic, gives a strong vibrant performance in the film and is an equal match to the seasoned Keitel.

In addition to the script written by the Campion sisters, two other elements make Holy Smoke a must see movie. Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe has beautifully shot the film. The vibrant colors of the sky in the Australian outback are a sharp contrast to the Indian flashbacks and the heavily stylized religious fantasy sequences with reference to the Bollywood films and the kitsch Hindu calendar art.

To compose the original soundtrack of the film, Campion selected Angelo Badalamenti, best known for his professional association with director David Lynch (Blue Velvet and the television series, Twin Peaks). Badalamenti's haunting music does full justice to the tale of Ruth and PJ -- a tragic ode dedicated to people who meet for a brief time and end up deeply impacting each other's lives.


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