Coco & Chavela: Two films that make you fall in love with Mexico

Art evokes empathy, it makes you more open and mindful of others. Cinema has done just that to me and a bit more. Cinema is my guide to the world. It is the lens through which I have come to know people from lands as varied as Japan, Chile and Iran.  Often, I have not just felt empathetic but also deeply fascinated by these people in movies who speak in a language foreign to me. The most recent film to give me the pleasure of this experience was the marvelous animated Pixar feature, Coco.

At the heart of Coco is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos or The Day of the Dead. It is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico in remembrance of those who have passed away. No, it’s not a mourning, but rather a vibrant and fun event. It is more about celebrating life and keeping the memories of the departed, fresh and alive.

A typical altar seen on the Dia de Muertos in Mexico

The magic of cinema gave me the privilege to take such a close and personal look at the customs and traditions of a society separated by many oceans and continents from us. The people of Mexico believe that the spirits of the loved ones who are gone, visit them on Dia de Muertos and hence they build altars in their memory, which often include the favourite foods and beverages, as well as photos and other memorabilia, of the departed. These altars are also decorated with marigold flowers and sugar skulls. Coco expertly weaves these cultural peculiarities into the story to create a highly engaging and heartwarming cinematic experience that also left me enriched as an individual.

I was thrilled to observe that despite the distance we also shared certain similarities with Mexican culture. Exposure to world cinema had made me realise that human beings all over are the same. Coco just confirmed it.

Music is the soul of Coco and the soundtrack has a wide variety of lovely songs with a distinct Mexican flavor. I had already acquired a taste for this form of music having caught the captivating documentary feature Chavela at the Mumbai Film Festival, last year.

Celebrated Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, who lived a rather tumultuous life, is given a moving tribute in this film. She was essentially a rebel who ran away from Costa Rico at the age of 14 years to Mexico due to lack of opportunities for a musical career. The documentary tells us how the defiant Chavela didn’t care for conventions and sang in her own fiercely individualistic style.

The film is as much about Chavela, the singer, as it is about the Mexican society and its music. It tells us how Chavela subverted traditions of Mexican music by singing a Ranchera solo with the accompaniment of just a guitar. A Ranchera is usually a song sung by a man lamenting lost love accompanied by a elaborate orchestra. Chavela’s haunting and deeply moving voice made the Ranchera her own, making her a sensation among the masses, especially for her unforgettable live performances. She puts in so much heart in her songs that her live performances in the film reduced me tears more than a couple of times.

Chavela Vargas acknowledging applause at a live performance

The documentary is structured like a feature film with the first act tracking her rise to stardom in Mexico of the 1950s and 60s. Chavela’s personal life was as intense as her music. She was among the first female stage performers keen on wearing pants in Mexico and shunned gender conventions. As she started gaining fame for her majestic voice, she became a serial seducer of women. She had a relationship with the renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (who has a blink and miss presence in Coco as well) and even had a one-night stand with Hollywood star Ava Gardner. Meanwhile, the Mexican society was in a state of denial about Chavela’s homosexuality despite it being very apparent. It was something commonly known but never spoken in public in the deeply religious catholic society wherein gays and lesbians feared persecution.

Chavela’s had a rather sharp fall in the middle of her career. She took to the bottle due to a heartbreak and lost a good 15 years to it. But then she again rose like a phoenix in the later part of her life, leaving another generation of Mexican men and women in a trance with the aching melancholy in her voice. Chavela finally came out as a Lesbian in the last years of her life and became a gay icon.

If Coco gave you a heartwarming glimpse into the customs and folklore of the Latin American country, Chavela lets you take a closer look at the Mexican society with its warts and all. Making skillful use of the cinematic medium, both the films are a beautiful ode to Mexico. It will make you fall in love with people of the land and its music, customs and traditions!

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