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Filmmaker Edward Owles hit the mother lode when he found Anwer and Arshad, the two Indian siblings at the heart of his debut feature documentary. Chronicling their efforts to restore the Russell Exchange, their antique dealing business in Calcutta, The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers is a hugely entertaining study of sibling rivalry and changing business practices that benefits mightily from its subjects’ endearingly prickly personalities. Recently screened at the Cairo International Film Festival, the film is a natural for art house exposure.
Purchased from the British by their grandfather in 1940, the family-run business has been run by younger brother Arshad for decades since Anwer decamped to London in 1969. But it’s since fallen on hard times, thanks to its outmoded business practices and the ascension of online shopping. As the film begins the supremely self-possessed Anwer returns to India to save the day and it soon becomes clear that he has his work cut out for him.
Despite his many years in the West, Anwer stays true to his Muslim beliefs, announcing that he closed his restaurants in Europe because of the need to serve alcohol. With the Russell Exchange located on prime real estate, he also turns down an offer to turn it into a “gentleman’s club.”
“Whatever I’ve done, I’ve managed to score,” he declares with a confidence that easily veers into arrogance. Although his relationship with his sibling is clearly a close one, he treats him with barely concealed condescension.
“He looks older, but he’s younger,” he says about his brother to a visitor.
He quickly takes charge modernizing the auction house’s operations — installing computers and, in one painfully poignant scene, “retiring” a longtime employee who has become an alcoholic, with the elderly man meekly acquiescing to his fate.
Although clearly and slyly playing up to the camera, the two men emerge as tremendously vivid characters, with the younger Arshad more than holding his own despite his brother’s bullying. Their often sharp-edged banter, tinged with familial affection, is consistently amusing, while the filmmaker presents an incisive portrait of a rapidly changing Calcutta.
Featuring enough funnily juicy material to fuel a long running sitcom, The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers blends its personal and ethnographic themes in expertly entertaining fashion.
Production: Native Voice Films
Director/screenwriter: Edward Owles
Producer: Giovanna Stopponi
Executive producer: Philip Cox
Editor: Emiliano Battista
Composer: Harry Lightfoot
No rating, 85 minutes
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