Vague Visages’ Yellow Bus review contains minor spoilers. Wendy Bednarz’s 2023 movie features Tannishtha Chatterjee, Kinda Alloush and Amit Sial. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Wendy Bednarz, the director of the TIFF Gala film Yellow Bus, began her career in the fashion industry in New York City. She shifted to filmmaking and photography later on and also taught at New York University as well as in the United Arab Emirates, where her latest film takes place. Bednarz’s website says that she focuses on multi-cultural stories, and Yellow Bus reflects this, as the film features a social tragedy that intertwines UAE’s Muslim, Indian Hindu and Filipino Christian communities in a web of lies, deceit and redemption. Bednarz’s filmmaking approach — influenced by real news stories — has all the classic signs of a well-intentioned, college-educated artist who feels the need to use her resources to make unheard voices heard. There are, of course, many limitations to this approach.
Claire Denis’White Material (2009)and Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly (2011) are probably the two most paramount cases of a Western woman filmmaker going to a developing country with an intention of giving its difficult political realities an exposé. Yellow Bus is decidedly less ambitious than either of those two movies and appropriately so, as the film marks Bednarz’s first feature. The drama centers on an Indian Hindu family living meagerly in the UAE on visas. The husband, Gagan (Amit Sial), is a construction worker, and his wife, Ananda (Tannishtha Chatterjee), is a homemaker who takes care of their two daughters, Ravina (Aarushi Laud) and Anju (Kshethra Mithun). One day, Anju — the younger child — falls asleep on a bus, unbeknownst to the driver or the bus aide, and gets locked inside in the sweltering UAE heat and passes away.
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In Yellow Bus, Bednarz’s camera jumps between languid bird’s-eye drone shots to extreme hand-held closeups. The dichotomy of these two methods are supposed to give a feeling of claustrophobia and heat as well as a distance and listlessness. Yellow Bus depicts the death of Anju as not a direct incident caused by a person, but as the result of a series of failures, systemically, down the line. The bus driver and the aide are easy scapegoats, but there is also the head teacher Mira (Kinda Alloush), along with the principal and board of education, who try to cover up or mitigate any wrong-doings on their part. There is also the faulty door of the bus that should have never passed inspection.
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Yellow Bus’ premise is easy to get on board with, but the film bites off more than it can chew. A classic issue for first-time filmmakers is that they want to say everything that’s on their mind all at once. There are a litany of racial and religious prejudices and disparities in the UAE community that come to the forefront, particularly between a Hindu Ananda (who wishes to take her daughters’ ashes to the Ganges), the holy river in India and a Muslim Mira (who offers a survivorship payment to the parents). Ananda wages a personal war against Mira, who she sees as part of a corrupt system discriminating against her for being both an Indian immigrant and a member of the working class.
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Chatterjee is asked to carry nearly all of Yellow Bus’ potent emotions on her back (and in her facial expressions). The camera zeroes in on her face, displaying a blank and listless stare that moves beyond passion and anger into a desperate helplessness. Chatterjee is not unfamiliar with this kind of role, as her greatest performances in Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013) and Leena Yadav’s Parched (2015) show her characters in similar downtrodden circumstances with nowhere to turn. When the actress switches from stoicism to anger, it occurs naturally and never feels forced. It’s unfortunate that Chatterjee, in Yellow Bus, gets stuck in a story that feels contrived at every step.
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Yellow Bus tries to manufacture misunderstandings that may naturally exist in a country that has a diverse immigrant population, but Bednarz’s heavy-handed sociology lesson ultimately aligns with the pseudo-intellectual drivel of Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). What’s worse for Yellow Bus is that it’s not quite as technically accomplished as the aforementioned films, but rather a well-intentioned student thesis drama that somehow made it into a world film festival.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.
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