Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Introducing Lola the therapy dog

Yes, this is certainly a film blog, but I simply could not resist introducing my dog here. The occasion calls for it. My dog is now a therapy dog! Lola, who is a mutt—we are guessing she is an Australian Cattle Dog mixed with Akita or Retriever—is five years old, and we have had her for a little more than two years now.

As far as this blog goes, Lola’s contributions are immense: she is my man Friday (or should that be dog Friday) who, day or night, keeps me steadfast company as I watch, research, reflect, and write about old films. Of course she is snoozing most of the time, but her presence—registered by a periodic tail thumping—somehow always brings that much-needed perspective when I am stuck on a sentence or an idea. And, as far as the daily business of living goes, Lola is a friend, philosopher, and guide; she unceasingly reminds me, in her alternating clownish and sedate manner, that nothing in life is worth getting ruffled about. We call her Saint Lola. Without her, I wouldn’t be the same, and this blog wouldn’t be this blog.

So Lola, in her newly acquired regalia, now does the rounds of hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for seniors where she brings much cheer and comfort. Her duties also include listening to children who read to her at the pet therapy program organized at the local library.

Dog and owner

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Satyajit Ray on Balasaraswati: Bala (1976)

This first appeared as "Satyajit Ray's 'Bala': Lesser work of a master filmmaker?" at dearcinema.com on 
October 31, 2012.

Satyajit Ray
T. Balasaraswati

When a colossus in the field of cinema crosses paths with a colossus in the field of dance, it makes for a historically significant moment. And so it was in 1976 that the worlds of Satyajit Ray and Tanjore Balasaraswati briefly came together, when the former was commissioned by the NCPA and the Government of Tamil Nadu to make a documentary film, Bala, on the latter.

The film, at little over half hour in length, offers a peek into the craft of one of the most acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponents ever. For the most part, Ray is a bystander who is interested in objectively recording the world of the dancer rather than defining it in subjective ways for the viewer. (The notable exception to this approach is discussed in this piece.) With his rich, baritone voice he is the physically absent narrator who looks out of the window at the world beyond to create snapshots of Bala for the sake of posterity. 
Speaking of documentary style, Ray’s work is closer to Direct Cinema than it is to the related, yet subtly different, Cinema Vérité (literally “Cinema truth”)—where both styles aim to capture and present reality as it is, though it can be pointed out that any such presentation is necessarily a representation because the filmmaker’s subjectivity is inescapable. So, then, there are no spontaneous, unfiltered truths that can be captured by the camera—everything in the film is staged, and what the audience sees is shaped by the sensibility of the filmmaker.

Apart from certain technical differences between the two styles, Direct Cinema and Cinema Vérité can be distinguished from each other by the level of the viewer’s consciousness of the filmmaker’s presence in the documentation of reality—in Direct Cinema, where interviews and narration are sparingly used, the filmmaker recedes more into the background and actively tries to minimize, as much as possible, his or her ideological considerations; on the other hand, in Cinema Vérité, the filmmaker steps more into the foreground, determined to cull out the truth or the essence by probing into the workings of the subject’s inner world—with this probing reflective of the filmmaker highlighting certain themes over others, thus shaping the trajectory of the narrative.

Bala opens with images of South Indian temple gopurams (or towers) and temple sculptures as Ray traces the historical roots of the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam to Bharatamuni’s Natyashastra, that seminal work from the 4th century B.C on theatre and related arts. Ray’s introduction is a useful starting point, almost a primer, for the uninitiated viewer on the basics of this dance form, before he or she can move on to appreciating its complexities and subtleties. The concept of mudra or hand gesture is explained, and we see how meaning is created out of Bala’s demonstration of the peacock mudra and its variations.

Ray then goes back in time to sketch, in sepia-tinted hues, Bala’s generations-old family ties with dance and music, and places Bharatanatyam in its original socio-cultural context of the temple where it flourished, when temple dancers or devadasis were patronized by Indian royalty. With the onset of colonial rule and the disappearance of royal patronage, the devadasis lost their means of livelihood and came to be seen as morally reprehensible beings who were a disgrace to so-called respectable society. Both devadasis and their art came to be sullied.

When, in 1920, two-year-old Bala decided that she wanted to be a dancer and not a singer, her encouraging mother boldly decided to disregard the mores of the time. At this point, we see Bala speak for the first time, in rather hesitant English, about her pupil days under her guru, Kandappa Pillai. Then, music and dance historian
Dr. V. Raghavan comments on Bala’s dance and draws special attention to her younger days. Later, dance maestro Uday Shankar who played a crucial role in Bala’s rise to national fame—conveyed by images of old newspaper clips—recalls how exceptional he found her dance to be.

Krishna nee begane baaro
Now comes the part where Ray does more than just document the world of the dancer: he presents it in a definitive, steadfast way for the viewer. After his use of the Direct Cinema technique in filming his subject so far, Ray suddenly takes a detour—in what can be called a poetic (or cinematic) license—when he decides to frame Bala’s dance to the “Krishna nee begane baaro” song in the background of the ocean, for which he has drawn flak from dancer and academic Avanthi Meduri who writes that the “ocean backdrop is so imposing in its magnificence that it manages to effectively subsume, efface, and abstract the quotidian details involved in the rendering of the padam,” which she defines as a “lyrical, poetic, melodic composition sung in a leisurely manner” (Albright and Gere, 2003, pp. 141-150). Indeed, the mighty ocean gobbles up all the nuances and intricacies of Bala’s rendering of the padam, something that is undoubtedly discomfiting to the discerning rasika (or aesthete). Ray’s “deep admiration of the subject” (in Andrew Robinson’s words, 1992, p. 274) is, perhaps, to be blamed for this.

The fact that Ray chooses the ocean—an embodiment of the imperishable that is sure to inspire awe even in the most prosaic of minds—as the context for Bala’s performance gives away Ray’s unconcealed awe for Bala’s artistry, an artistry which, for him, is just as boundless as the waves of the ocean, waves that—as the camera shows—dance in and out perennially. This is the one scene in the documentary where what the audience sees is explicitly shaped by Ray’s sensibility, with his littoral interpretation of the inner world of Bala’s art suddenly bursting forth onto the screen. Direct Cinema briefly gives way to a kind of Cinema Vérité here in that the audience is more conscious of Ray’s invisible presence, which instills one particular view of Bala and her art, both cast in the mould of eternity.

Towards the end of the padam, the sweep of the ocean gives way to the sweep of Bala’s worldwide recognition. Music and dance scholar Dr. V. K. Narayana Menon speaks of the “Indian year” that was 1963 at the Festival of Arts in Edinburgh with other greats such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and M. S. Subbulakshmi. Bala had “eight solo recitals,” with the reception “rapturous.” This leads to the bit about Bala’s appeal bringing her teaching assignments in American universities and more honors back home. Then the camera captures a few candid moments in the day-to-day life of Bala: at home in Madras, she sits on the floor weaving a flower garland, with a reclining cane chair visible in the background; she plays a game of dice seated on a mat (or paay as it is called in Tamil); she enjoys a quiet meal at the dining table with her family; later, she teaches her daughter Lakshmi.

The final segment—a major chunk lasting nearly 14 minutes, which is roughly one half of the film—begins with Bala getting ready for a stage performance of a pada varnam (the pièce de résistance of a Bharatanatyam recital), which is a raagamaalika (garland of raagaas) based mainly on the Carnatic Bhairavi. As she ties her anklets last, “the same pair, which Bala wore for her debut more than fifty years ago,” the context is the stage—modern Bharatanatyam’s terra firma—with the accompanying musicians to one side, and this is certainly a far cry from the earlier context of the ocean. The backdrop of the stage is undoubtedly more conducive to the viewer’s getting a grip on the dancer’s use of abhinaya or expression, and the essential unity of the three elements of Bharatanatyambhava (emotion), raaga (melody) and taala (rhythm). This time, it seems, the camera is content with capturing the performance without imposing any specific meanings on it. Bala’s conclusion of her recital is the conclusion of the film, and the viewer is left with the final image of Bala’s salutation to her audience.

My experience of Bala: The film distinctly leaves the viewer with wanting for more. Despite my dissatisfaction with the treatment of the subject, which, I felt, demanded a deeper engagement with the multiple elements that constitute Bharatanatyam, it was thoroughly gratifying to see the legend come alive onscreen. And this etching of Bala on celluloid is what posterity will thank Ray for. His evocation of Bala—ocean or no ocean—is a testament to her genius, and what the film offers is just a very small sample of that genius.

Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The inner eye, Calcutta: Rupa & Co., 1992.
Avanthi Meduri, “Multiple pleasures: Improvisation in Bharatanatyam,” in Taken by surprise: A dance improvisation reader, Eds. Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Image credit for Satyajit RayLos Angeles Times, September 8, 2012.
Disclaimer: My screencaps from the film are used for academic/discussion purposes only; they may be reproduced only if accompanied by a link to this blog.

Film availability: Bala is finally available on YouTube here (courtesy of blogger Minai who uploaded it in the first place and wrote about it as well) or here (a higher quality print, courtesy of Imagineindia Film Festival).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The importance of being funny: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Actor Joel McCrea as Sullivan
Raj Kapoor in Shree 420

In writer-director Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sullivan, a young, successful Hollywood film director (played by Joel McCrea) takes to the road by foot, in rags that he borrows from the studio’s costume department, to discover for himself what poverty is so that he can return with aplomb to make his dream project, a cinematic treatise on poverty.

In his tramp-like outfit, complete with a poignant-looking bundle hanging from a stick over his shoulder—very Chaplinesque—Sullivan verily resembles, in the Indian context, Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 (1955), who, in the beginning of the film, in ill-fitting attire, is pitted against the open landscape as he sets out on foot to Bombay. However, while Raj is really an impoverished tramp who plans to make it big in Bombay, and is all alone in the world, Sullivan, who is anything but impoverished and alone, plans to make a big social statement, and has an entourage following in a truck—this at the insistence of his producers who want him to stay safe. Sullivan is hell-bent on making a grand film on indigence, much to the chagrin of his shrewd producers who wish that Sullivan would stick to his trademark comedies, which make people laugh and rake in the profits.

In the character of Sullivan, an eager beaver for social realism in cinema, Sturges was caricaturing the contemporary trend of filmmakers trying, perhaps, a bit too hard to portray the grim realities of post-Depression America—this at the expense of the comic aspect inherent in human experience, regardless of what the tragedy might be. Sturges frowned upon the tendency to deliberately banish or expunge laughter in the name of social realism. Indeed, even in life’s starkest moment, there is something of the humorous, just as there is something stark in the most comically absurd situation. Sullivan—who wants, first-hand, to savor poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, indignity, and despair, among other misfortunes—has the zeal of the immature on a mission at hand. Although Sullivan is earnest and sincere in acquainting himself with the hardships of the unfortunate, he is misguidedly, naively, and patronizingly so, as Sturges shows.

Actress Veronica Lake as "The Girl" is kind to Sullivan
Himself a master of the comedy genre, Sturges makes the viewer laugh at the irony of Sullivan imposing himself upon poverty, with not much success initially, and with a comic timing in the form of slapstick as the protagonist bumbles his way along in the first half of the film. Although Sullivan makes a deal with the entourage to just leave him alone for a while so that he can authentically lose himself in the world out there, he is strikingly inept at itinerancy, as he unfailingly ends up right back in Hollywood, in the midst of the familiar. Disheveled, disgusted with his inability to experience hardship, and with ten cents in his pocket, he meets a girl (Veronica Lake, referred to in the film as “The Girl”) at a lunch wagon, a frustrated extra in Hollywood, on the verge of quitting her dreams of making it big in the movies. She is kind to him—she buys him ham and eggs—and he commiserates with her on her rotten luck. Later, he tells her who he really is and she is adamant about joining him as a fellow hobo.

A clumsy pair of tramps
Together, Sullivan and The Girl make a clumsy, inexperienced pair of tramps as they struggle to court hardship the hard way. Sullivan’s enterprising butler even calls the train station to find out if freight trains carry tramps, and, if so, where the tramps could get on. This information procured, the tramps are dropped off near the tracks, where a freight train is shortly to pass by. They maladroitly climb into the moving freight train, into a compartment filled with hay, nearly breathless by the exertion, in sharp contrast to the deft climb of the professional hobos around them. The latter look on wryly, and as one burly hobo sums it up: “Amateurs.” Sullivan’s attempt at a friendly conversation starting with “So what do you think of the labor situation?” is met with disdain by the hobos who simply walk out. As Sullivan settles in, he tells his companion “Let’s just sit here and try to feel like a couple of tramps.” This is followed by a sneezing session as the novice hobos battle with the hay.

The impoverished crowd at the freight yard
Ready to clamber into the moving freight train
Sturges presents the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in his characteristically comic vein, which does not detract from the starkness of social realism. In fact, the comic element of the advantaged Sullivan sticking out like a sore thumb in the impoverished crowd underscores the social reality that it is only the poor who know what it is to be poor. It is they who climb into moving freight trains with practiced ease; it is they who sleep peacefully anywhere; it is they who, inured to hardship, grow a callus, in a boorish sort of way.

At one point, finally, Sullivan’s “noble experiment” takes off, with Sturges filming this sequence in the form of a silent musical interlude, almost an ode to Chaplin. We see the face of poverty: huts and slums; wrinkled faces and unkempt beards; overcrowded shelters and public showers; communal eating and sleeping; garbage dumps and empty expressions. The experiment is at last over and Sullivan returns to Hollywood with his companion, ready to make his picture.

Sullivan sees the headline of his own death
When, in gratitude to the poor folks he has spent time with, Sullivan returns to the scene of poverty one last time to distribute dollar bills, he is hit unconscious and pushed into a moving freight train by a beggar who steals the money. This is the same beggar who had earlier stolen Sullivan’s boots (that have his studio identity card sewed inside). An oncoming train kills the beggar and, going by the identity in the boots, the next day the newspapers report Sullivan’s mysterious death at the train tracks. In a twist to the narrative, Sturges has Sullivan taste what the latter had all along been looking for: hardship, the real way. Sullivan wakes up in the moving freight train with a severe headache, battered and confused. When the train pulls into the freight yard, he gets off and is accosted by a railroad officer for trespassing. Sullivan, who temporarily cannot remember who he is, pelts the officer with a stone, for which he is arrested and sentenced to six years of hard labor. It is only after he is inside the prison that his memory of who he is comes back to him. But it is too late and no one believes that he is a famous Hollywood director. By chance, when he sees a newspaper with the headline of his own death, he realizes what exactly has happened, but to no avail.

In fetters, and forming a sad sort of line
Laughter in the dark

A Sunday brings some respite in the lives of the prisoners, who are treated to a picture show at a nearby church. Faces downcast, the prisoners come in their fetters, in twos, forming a sad sort of line as they walk up the aisle to their seats in the front three rows, reserved for them. The lights dim, the projector rattles, and the screen comes alive with a Disney cartoon, filling the church with laughter. As Mickey Mouse and Pluto goof around, the prisoners laugh away in the dark, unbound, temporarily free from the sordidness of life. To his surprise, Sullivan catches himself laughing as well. This laughter is a revelation to the film director who has so far believed in the moral superiority of social realism to comedy.

Sullivan, determined to set himself free, declares himself to be the murderer of Sullivan, the Hollywood director. The plan works, and photos of the confessor are splashed in all the newspapers. The Girl and the producers rejoice that Sullivan is alive, and he is freed. Excited about Sullivan’s pet project on poverty, his producers give him the green signal. 

Laughter in the dark in Shree 420
Sullivan, though, has had a change of mind. Watching hardened men roll hysterically at antics onscreen has somewhere touched a nerve in Sullivan who realizes that laughter in the dark is all that some people have in their caged lives. On a comparable note, there is a scene in Shree 420, where the poor folks in the bustee, or the slum, yet another day of their difficult lives over, tell Raj the newcomer that their own lives are very sad, and so they want to hear him narrate something entertaining. Raj lightens the darkness of the night (and of their lives) with the lively “Dil ka haal suney dilwaala” number with his dafli, or tambourine. As he regales the audience with his comic mannerisms, the bustee people shut themselves off for a while by escaping into Raj’s story—which despite its sad undertones, engrosses them and makes them laugh. 

In what can unequivocally be ranked as one of the best last lines ever in cinema, Sturges has Sullivan say, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” As Sullivan decides to make another comedy, it seems that the genre cannot, after all, be discounted.

Disclaimer: My screencaps from the films are used for academic/discussion purposes only.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A page from Maratha cultural history: Ramshastri (1944)

A truncated version of this post first appeared as "Of truth and politics" in The Hindu on September 21, 2012.

Actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar as Ramshastri

Ramshastri (1944) is considered to be one of the most significant Indian films of all time—in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is thought to be one of the greatest American classics ever made. The two have more in common: both feature exemplars of the legal profession. In their respective contexts and very different time periods in which they are set—the political intrigue-ridden world of eighteenth-century Maratha India and the racism-ridden world of early twentieth-century Southern America—Ramshastri and Atticus Finch boldly epitomize the ideal of judicial integrity. Finch, played by actor Gregory Peck, unshakably adheres to the truth at all times and helps shape public sentiment the way Ramshastri, played by actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar, does in the eponymous film from Prabhat Film Company in 1944.

The very successful Ramshastri, made in Marathi and Hindi, was Prabhat’s swansong of sorts—despite later films such as Dev Anand’s first starrer Hum ek hain (1946) and the Khurshid-Dev Anand starrer Aage badho (1946)—with co-founder V. Damle’s death in 1945 leaving a void that resulted in the company’s decline and eventual bankruptcy in 1953. V. Shantaram, one of Prabhat’s co-founders, had clearly laid down the company’s motto at the start in 1929: "art for life’s sake," as opposed to art for art’s sake. Prabhat’s films tackled social problems head-on, thus hoping to improve the day-to-day quality of life for its viewers. With Ramshastri, Prabhat traveled back in time to the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire, although highlighting issues of contemporary relevance, such as the importance of fairness of judgment and the indispensability of ethics in administration.

Keshavrao Bhole composed the music for the Marathi version, with lyrics by S. A. Shukla and Shantaram Athavale, while the Hindi version (which, woefully, seems to have vanished) had music by G. Damle (relation of V. Damle?) and lyrics by Qamar Jalalabadi.

Anant Marathe as the young Ramshastri
Baby Shakuntala? as Ramshastri's child-wife
Based on the life of Ramshastri Prabhune (1720-1789), the legendary chief justice at the court of Peshwa Madhavrao, the film starts with the young Ram (Anant Marathe), eager for knowledge, battling odds to educate himself in the face of adversity. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to the boy who will not lie, no matter what, much to the annoyance of his greedy uncle, who hopes to make money off the lie that his nephew is attending scripture school for Brahmin children. Ram’s widowed mother and his child-wife, Janaki (Baby Shakuntala?), are pleased by his integrity, but times are tough. Ram leaves home for Benares in search of a teacher but is turned down for not knowing enough to start with. This only fuels his desire to learn, and in Ekalavya style, he educates himself by overhearing the teacher’s lessons—the big difference here being that the guru is nowhere as unkind as Drona. Impressed, the teacher accepts Ram as his student. Twelve years roll by, and Ram is now Ramshastri. Ram’s mother is dying, and she is happy to see her scholar son before her death.

The scene then shifts to Pune, where Ramshastri settles down as a religious scholar. This part of the film appears rather disjointed, and that is probably because the film had three different directors (Raja Nene and Vishram Bedekar other than Jagirdar) at different times, with the result that there is a jerky feel to the narrative.

Hansa Wadkar? as Shyama
The film suddenly cuts to a slave market, where Shyama the slave girl (possibly Hansa Wadkar) is being auctioned off. Ranoji, a poet-singer, and an employee of the ruling Peshwa Madhavrao, falls for Shyama—together they sing the lovely "Hasoon Bolna," my most favorite song in the Marathi version—and runs away with her to get married. There is opposition from Ranoji’s rival at the auction, Tulaji (an employee of the peshwa’s wily uncle Raghunathrao), who argues that since slaves don’t have the right to marry, the marriage is invalid, and that Ranoji’s hands must be cut off. The peshwa, not very imaginative in such matters, agrees.

Meenakshi as Ramshastri's wife
Ramshastri intervenes on behalf of the newly-weds, and argues that the slave market is in itself an illegal institution, and can neither be authorized by religion nor by the state, and that marriage under Hindu law cannot be invalidated because the girl is a slave. Ramshastri’s earth-shattering conviction wins over the peshwa, who then appoints this fearless advocate of human rights as the chief justice of his court. It is jubilation back home, where Ramshastri’s wife (actress Meenakshi I would guess from the resemblance to her granddaughter Namrata Shirodkar) looks on fondly as her son sings "Me Kaashila janaar"—he, too, will go to Benares like his illustrious father—with Shyama and Ranoji joining in, as the royal guards bring in the newly appointed chief justice’s regalia. A note about the music: Keshavrao Bhole's compositions are irresistibly beautiful and have a simplicity that cannot be ignored.

Soon, Ramshastri becomes famous for his impartial judgments that are based on the case’s merits, as opposed to his favoring the mighty and the influential. In one instance, he condemns the peshwa’s governor who has swindled the plaintiff, a foreign contingent, much to the dismay of the peshwa’s chief secretary who had slyly granted the governor a reprieve.
Lalita Pawar as Anandi, oozing villainy

At this point, the film abruptly and somewhat jumpily cuts to Anandi (Lalita Pawar oozing villainy), the wife of Raghunathrao, colluding with General Sumersingh Gardi—buying his loyalty rather—against Peshwa Madhavrao. The sickly peshwa is dying, and Anandi is busy hatching a plot to ensure that her husband will be the next peshwa. Just before he dies, the peshwa gets Ragunathrao to promise that he will protect the former’s younger brother, the heir, Narayanrao, which Ragunathrao does, carried away by the emotions of the moment.

Pomp and splendor of the peshwa's durbar
On coronation day, the pomp and splendor of the peshwa’s durbar come alive as the film recreates the pageantry of bygone days: there is the swish of swords and spears, as the cavalry rides by and the royal flag flutters, while flower petals are strewn at the feet of the monarch-to-be. Prabhat’s co-founder S. Fattelal, the film’s art director, was known for his keen artistic eye that he had honed under his mentors—the famous artist brothers, Anandrao and Baburao Painter.

In keeping with protocol, Ragunathrao, as guardian to the new ruler, is supposed to offer the first salute to his nephew Narayanrao—a fact that has the uncle wincing. Ramshastri insists that Ragunathrao, regardless of his guardian status, offer the first salute since there is only one occupant to the peshwa throne. Ragunathrao complies but an irate Anandi stomps out of the court. She mocks her husband for not staking claim to the throne; the meek Ragunathrao then promises that he will listen to her.

During the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, Anandi gets a chance to put her evil ideas into action. Without her husband’s knowledge, she rewords a royal order, thereby instructing the generals to kill Narayanrao, who is mercilessly slaughtered in front of a stunned Ragunathrao who then becomes the peshwa. Orders are issued that the public celebrate Raghunathrao’s ascendancy and the people are forced into merrymaking, which Ramshastri denounces.

Meanwhile, the faithful Ranoji manages to bring to Ramshastri the royal order that had Narayanrao executed. Ranoji’s wife, Shyama, also tells Ramshastri that she had heard Anandi commanding Sumersingh to finish off the young peshwa. Outraged, Ramshastri confronts Ragunathrao on his coronation day, and calls him a coward and a sinner for abusing the custodianship of Narayanrao. When Ramshastri produces evidence in the form of the royal order, Ragunathrao’s bad conscience pricks him and he is willing to atone.

Away from  power mongers
An uncompromising Ramshastri pronounces that death is the only atonement for such a sin. Ramshastri is hailed for protecting the honor of the peshwa throne, but, having exposed the truth, he decides to leave the power-mongering world of the court once and for all. He walks away with his family as people sing, “Till sun and moon shine in the sky, your praise will be sung everywhere.”

A concluding thought: The choppiness in the film does not, however, detract from the powerful characterization of Ramshastri, who comes across as an emblem of rectitude, indeed as the very personification of truth. Given the context of India’s independence movement, and Gandhi’s overriding belief in the ultimate triumph of truth, the iconic figure of Ramshastri must have been, undoubtedly, reassuring to viewers. During a period when the national imagination was in search of glorious, idealized visions from the past, the heroic figure of Ramshastri could very well have been that.

P.S. Please help fill in the blanks/confirm the names of the cast members whom I have not identified/am not sure of.

Disclaimer: My screencaps from the film are used for academic/discussion purposes only; they may be reproduced only if accompanied by a link to this blog.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reflections on K. A. Abbas’s Rice and other stories, 1947

I recently chanced upon an old, yellowed copy of writer-journalist-film director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Rice and other stories, published in 1947 by Kutub, Bombay, with a preface by writer Mulk Raj Anand. Having seen most of the films that Abbas (1914-1987) wrote—all classics in their own right—such as Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), his own Dharti ke Lal (1946), V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), and Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), and Jagte Raho (1956), I was curious about Abbas the short-story writer.

The book is a thin volume of ten short stories that can be read in one go. The stories are about ordinary people in ordinary situations— with candid glimpses into life’s extraordinary moments. Every now and then the veil lifts to reveal life’s surprises, its splendors, its ironies. Reality is what we see on the outside, but it is also what we fleetingly see on the inside, made visible through cracks and gaps. And it is those cracks and gaps that Abbas draws our attention to—although I distinctly felt a certain predictability about Abbas’s style, which kind of dampens the reader’s attention. The same does not hold true of his films, which are vastly more imaginative. Halfway through many of the stories, I correctly guessed what the ending would be! For me, maudlin is the word that describes the treatment of many of the stories.

The title story, “Rice,” is about Durga, a poor mill worker’s wife who delivers her baby when she is out standing in the long queue to buy rations. It is stark and grim, and yet represents the joys of new beginnings. The queue is relentless, but hungry mouths have to be fed, and hundreds of women patiently wait their turn outside the government grain store, miraculously open after many days, during a period of grain shortage (which is reminiscent of the darkness of the Bengal famine of 1943 captured on celluloid in Dharti ke lal, 1946). As the crowds teem around and bags are filled with rice, birth—at once mundane and magical—unfolds.

In “Sylvia,” a nurse is elated at the thought that it is her last night of work at the hospital, but then as dawn approaches, she confronts a mind that goes in loops. The more she looks forward to her new life, the greater her wavering. Expectedly, the stories have a certain cinematic feel about them, and it is not difficult to imagine the characters playing themselves out before the camera. In “Sparrows,” Rahim Khan, who is callously indifferent to his family and fellow beings—he is constitutionally incapable of amicability towards his kind—is like moldable clay in the company of the chirpy sparrows that make his hut their home. There is a certain self-destructiveness about Rahim that he is unable to help, which makes the reader at once loathe and pity him. He has a touch of Thomas Hardy’s Henchard about him.

In “Twelve hours,” Vijay, a revolutionary leader released after sixteen years in prison is briefly freed for a few hours—and in that time, he goes to see a film, a talkie, in the company of Bina, a female comrade. It is 1943 and, as Abbas says, Vijay, having missed out on the arrival of the talkie in 1931, has neither heard Saigal’s songs, nor seen stars such as Joan Fontaine, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Ashok Kumar or Kanan Bala. Vijay and Bina go to the screening of a rather outdated action movie called Toofan Mail (1934), famous in its days, produced by Ranjit Studios, starring Billimoria and Madhuri. (For the vintage-film buff in me, these references to big names from the past were most entertaining.) Vijay is absorbed in the picture for a while, but then it triggers certain emotions that he has not known in a long while. Restless, he leaves midway. Having been a prisoner for so long, Vijay has forgotten the pleasures of life, and the reawakening is painful.

The most filmi (if I may use that word) of the stories is “Flowers for her feet,” where a prostitute called Chandra purposely spurns, in the end, the kind young man who loves her because she has lost her legs, a fact that she hides from him because she does not want to ruin his life (somewhat like Deborah Kerr trying to throw off Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, 1957); and while he still brings flowers for her feet as always, Chandra pretends that she favors somebody else.  “Saffron Blossoms” is a figurative tale, though no less melodramatic, of the blood from a dying Kashmiri bride, shot by soldiers putting down anti-establishment protests, giving the saffron flower its red color. “Three Women” takes a look at three women, all disillusioned for various reasons, dying on the train tracks, and the reactions that the deaths evoke. It is the least sentimental of the lot.

In “The Umbrella,” a man, on his payday, gets ripped off a by a woman, a petty thief, during a bus ride on a rainy day: this was a giveaway from the start. “Reflection in a mirror” is about Radha, a beautiful nautch girl who briefly becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, only to realize that a mistress can never take the place of a wife, and decides to return to her courtesan life. That familiar, age-old wife-mistress divide of Hindi films, beaten to death. Finally, “The mark of an Indian” is about an Indian bravely taking on a drunken British cop, and earning the latter’s respect in the process.

In his preface, Mulk Raj Anand praises Abbas’s lyricism, but I would qualify that. There is a certain lyricism but, unfortunately, the soppy treatment of many of the stories detracts from that lyricism. Anand also mentions that Abbas has captured both the strengths and weaknesses of his characters: while this may be true to some extent, one puts down the book with a feeling that the characters are not as well rounded and fleshed out as they ought to have been. And, finally, as I said before, the predictability of the stories kills it for the reader. One had rather read Abbas’s script of Shree 420 (1955) or his other films—that is inspired writing—than wade through this insipid stuff.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The poetry and egalitarianism of Chandidas (1934)

A truncated version of this post with a missing punch line first appeared as "Messages in black and white" in 
The Hindu on July 18, 2012.

Calcutta's New Theatres’ 1934 Hindi version of its 1932 Bengali film Chandidas has a strong ballad-like feel to it as it musically lays before the audience the story of the legendary poet-saint from fifteenth-century Bengal. Reminiscent of the Romantic poets for his staunch belief in humanity, Chandidas was quite the recalcitrant figure of his times who opposed orthodoxy, rituals, and social stratification; favoring humanity as the only true religion, he saw the caste system as man-made, not God-made, and consequently invalid.

The Bengali Chandidas, directed by Debaki Bose (himself a Vaishnava follower), with Durgadas Banerjee in the lead role, was a runaway hit—indeed, it was New Theatres' first hit, which played for 64 weeks at the Chitra theatre in Calcutta. Two years later, the Hindi version directed by Nitin Bose (the cinematographer of the Bengali Chandidas) and starring K. L. Saigal—his first major success—was released. With his dreamy eyes, Saigal is a convincing Chandidas, a Brahmin fearlessly in love with the lower-caste washerwoman Rami (played by Umashashi, who made her Hindi film debut in 1933 with New Theatres’ Puran Bhagat after the Bengali Chandidas, before which she acted in silent films). Early in the film, Rami, while at her washing chores, sings “Premnagar men banaoongi ghar main,” when Chandidas comes by to the ghats and joins in, in a very memorable duet by the two actors. Song 1:

Music composer R. C. Boral, who is credited with introducing the playback system of recording in Indian cinema in Bhagyachakra / Dhoop chhaon (Bengali and Hindi, 1935), pioneered the use of background music in Chandidas to heighten the film’s lyrical movement. There is a sense in which the music is a character all by itself as it helps drive the narrative forward in this film filled with poetry from medieval Bengal. Indeed, Boral’s music and Chandidas’s poetry together create an aesthetically significant film that has, at its heart, the theme of liberation from the clutches of organized religion. Agha Hashr Kashmiri wrote the lyrics for the Hindi Chandidas. Listen here to the heart-tugging strains of “Tarpat beete din rain” in this very characteristically Saigal song. (Boral, who composed music for over 150 films, was, of course, one of Saigal's early mentors.) Song 2:

The film depicts a time when temples were closed to the lower castes. Chandidas, an apprentice to a temple priest, flouts the rules by insisting that the lord’s bounties are for everyone. His egalitarianism irks Gopinath (actor Nawab?), the local Brahmin merchant, who, in true filmi fashion, lusts after Rami. For all his condemnation of the lower castes, Gopinath has no scruples about hounding Rami, who is at a disadvantage because of her gender, caste, and economic status.

When Gopinath traps Rami in his house, the latter mockingly wonders about the irony of such an action by a supposedly incorruptible being such as a Brahmin. Rami’s outspokenness angers Gopinath, who sets fire to the house she shares with her brother Baiju—actor Pahari Sanyal, who sings quite a bit in the film. Listen to him here in "Chhayee basant aayee basant karke solah shringaar," my most favorite song in the film. (There is no audio from 0:20 to 0:26 with the print freezing; I apologize for that and for the poor print of all these clips.) Song 3:

Chandidas rescues Rami, and the priest rules that Chandidas will have to atone to be accepted back into the Brahmin fold. An aghast Rami goes to meet Chandidas, when Gopinath’s goons assault her. When Chandidas sees the battered Rami, he is disgusted enough with the rigidities of his brahminical roots to decide not to perform repentance, and, convinced that the human cry for justice is the greatest cry, he abjures forever his ties to the orthodox religious order. No longer bound by any societal shackles, at last he is free. Chandidas, Rami, Baiju and Baiju’s wife make a foursome as they walk away, singing “Prem ki ho jai jai,” vindicating the religion of love. Song 4:

A concluding thought: It would be a more somber ending for the lovers—the low-caste girl and the Brahmin boy—two years hence in Bombay Talkies’ hit film on the evils of caste in contemporary India—Achhut Kanya (1936). The lesson was the same, however: the caste system and untouchability were vices that ate into the Indian psyche, and could not be afforded when the nation needed to unite against the conqueror. According to Chandidas’s credits that commented on the lingering national problem of caste, the film is “based on the life problem of the poet Chandidas—a problem India has not been able to solve.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The surrealism of a non sequitur world: Un Chien Andalou (1929)

This post first appeared as "The real and the surreal" in The Hindu on February 15, 2012.

A sharp blade slices through an eyeball just as a cloud slices through a full moon. This perhaps is the singularly most unforgettable scene from one of the most intriguing films ever made—Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929), which, at just 17 minutes duration, packs in bizarreness on such a mammoth scale that it leaves the viewer desperate for any sort of meaning. Bunuel made this silent film, his first, in collaboration with fellow Spaniard, the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali, after the two exchanged notes on their dreams—the dream world being central to their surrealist imagination, according to which the unseen powerful reality of life lies in the darkness of sleep, or in the subconscious, and not in the rationality of daylight.

As surrealist French director-writer Jacques Brunius has observed, sleep is akin to film viewing in that both involve a descent into darkness and a shutting off of the immediate physical world: In sleep, the mind commences its journey into dreams, just as, in film viewing, the mind embarks on a journey into a world of fast-changing images. Both are subterranean travels that subvert the notions of time and space, which are rendered meaningless by the merging of past, present, and future, and the merging of geographically distinct spaces. As Bunuel and Dali record the disjointedness on celluloid, the resultant onslaught of unanchored images and events is disconcerting to even the least rationally inclined of viewers. The human mind naturally tends to discern meaning or pattern in any information that it is presented with—and the film precisely staves off that tendency to find comfort in the act of comprehension.

In the dream state, we are faced with random situations, and while all that disjointedness may make sense in sleep, governed as sleep is by its own dream logic—where conventional logic is temporarily suspended, and just about anything is possible—the waking state shows the same disjointedness to be impossible and unrealistic. The film’s realism is then a surrealistic realism, and the film could be described as an ode to the realism of the irrational—something that it portrays in the form of a stark bunch of incidents which, in the waking world, may just as well signify or not signify anything. If entropy is the natural state of the universe, then Un Chien Andalou, with its clash of random images, stands for entropy—and here I am succumbing to my human tendency to rationalize as I sift through chaos in search of beauty.

Dali himself appeared fleetingly in this film whose visuals defy the orderly world of a meaningful narrative. A range of fantastic and absurd images float around in no particular order, untethered, rooted in nothingness: ants crawl out from the palm of a human hand; books turn into pistols; a dismembered hand is poked at with a stick; the hand is then placed into a square box, which, earlier, a man in nun’s attire, wears around his neck when he cycles down the street; a figure on the road is mowed down by a passing vehicle; and two pianos with donkey carcasses on top, tied to two priests, are dragged across a room, with ropes. These visuals frustrate the viewer in their non-amenability to any sort of pattern. Yet, the non sequitur-ness that is irritating is, paradoxically, liberating since everything is both relevant and irrelevant, real and unreal. A surrealist work such as Un Chien Andalou is everything that the viewer wants it to be, and everything that the viewer does not want it to be.

Image credit: http://eclecticipher.blogspot.com