Thursday, January 31, 2013

One day I discovered Suraiya

When Suraiya passed away, I wrote this piece for India Abroad, March 12, 2004. On the occasion of her ninth death anniversary today, I post it here.

Suraiya in Dastan (1950)
When I heard that Suraiya, the singing star of yesteryear, is no more, I felt a twinge of sadness for the lost world of old Hindi cinema. Suraiya's songs are so inextricably intertwined with memories of my growing up years in India. As a schoolkid in Bombay in the late eighties, I had just stumbled upon the magical world of old Hindi films, old being pre-1960 for me. The first movie I watched was Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955). Immediately, I knew I had found my own little dreamy retreat. Black and white had permanently cast its spell on me. With their crackling prints, exquisite songs, and breathtaking orchestra (why do they not use such orchestration anymore?), these films captured my imagination in a way nothing else did. One film led to another, one song led to another, and soon I was cruising along the road of Hindi film music's golden years. Each day would bring the thrill of a new find—a rare Anil Biswas composition, a soulful Naushad number, or a Kishore Kumar song as early as 1948. And then one day I discovered Suraiya.

Always on the lookout for vintage songs, I was addicted to a radio program called Raymond Sargam Smriti (it later became Centura Sargam Smriti) that played rare pieces from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I heard Suraiya for the first time on this program: the song was "Tu mera chand main teri chandni," a duet with Shyam, composed by Naushad in the film Dillagi (1949). I was struck by the beauty of the song and the simplicity of its rendering. Suraiya, I later found out, was a natural singer; she had not learnt classical music. Yet, her singing was effortless and had a certain genuineness about it. Her voice was not cloyingly sweet. It rang vibrant, full of spontaneity and life. Her immortal "Ta rari ta rari" duet with Mohammed Rafi in Dastan (1950), where she acted opposite Raj Kapoor, bespeaks that inherent sense of frolic. This Naushad song with the Western classical touch brings to mind a faraway world, a kind of wonderland almost. It is a world I still periodically escape to.

Suraiya was that rare thing: an accomplished singer as well as a graceful actress. I remember seeing some of her films like Dard (1947) and the aforementioned Dillagi and Dastan at the Kardar film festival in Bombay. (A. R. Kardar was a famous producer-director from the 1930s to the 50s.) While Suraiya started as a child star with a small role in Mohan Pictures’ Taj Mahal (1941), she recorded one of her early songs as a playback singer for a Kardar movie called Sharda (1942). The song was "Panchhi ja," and the composer was Naushad. The Kardar-Naushad-Suraiya collaboration resulted in some very memorable movies and songs. After lending her voice to other heroines in the initial years, Suraiya went on to become the biggest heroine of her times.

She also had the rare privilege of acting opposite the legendary K. L. Saigal in Tadbir (1945), Omar Khayyam (1946), and Parwana (1947). With the Partition in 1947, Noorjehan, the other great singing star of Hindi cinema, left for Pakistan. Suraiya chose to stay on and soon became the acting-singing sensation of independent India. 1948-49 was the turning point of her career. Famous Pictures' Pyar Ki Jeet and Badi Bahen, together with Kardar’s Dillagi, all released during this time, made Suraiya a household name. In Badi Bahen, she sang the haunting "Woh paas rahe ya door rahe" for Husnlal-Bhagatram, possibly the first music-director duo of Hindi cinema. Suraiya had reached the dizzying heights of stardom.

After 1952, however, the scene changed. Lata Mangeshkar's arrival a few years earlier had heralded a new era in playback singing. Suraiya’s fortune was on the wane. Her films could not repeat the earlier magic at the box office, and she was also doing fewer films. The songs were still exquisite though, many of them hits. Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954), opposite Bharat Bhushan, was one of Suraiya's best performances as an actress. She sang the soothing "Dil-e-nadan tujhey" duet with the velvet-voiced Talat Mehmood. Suraiya and Talat faced the camera together in the 1954 film Waris (one of Talat’s rare screen appearances). Two of Hindi cinema’s finest voices sang the lilting "Rahi Matwale," composed by Anil Biswas.

After Rustom Sohrab (1963), Suraiya quit the silver screen permanently. She left movies but did not leave the hearts of her countless fans. For me, Suraiya's songs and movies will always be a reminder of the carefree days of my childhood—of that happy, spellbinding world of old Hindi films. In some fundamental ways, life has not changed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kundan Lal Saigal and Kailas Puri

Today being Saigal's 66th death anniversary, I post here a Saigal anecdote by my late father, S.V.Ramakrishnan, which he wrote for The New Indian Express, July 2, 2009. 

Saigal in his last film, Shahjehan (1946)
S.V.Ramakrishnan, circa 1962

My friend Kailas Puri and I, both in our twenties, were furiously preparing for IAS etc (now called Civil Services) exam. Our 'combined study' extended far beyond our academic options of History and Law. Kailas hailed from Sialkot in West Punjab—he would proudly refer it by its ancient name, Sakala, famous in Indian history. He also informed me that his surname 'Puri' is nothing but the corrupt form of Pururavas or Porus who fought Alexander the great. His claim of such illustrious descent could neither be proved nor disproved and I had to give him 'the benefit of doubt'. With his vivid memory and imaginative expression, Kailas was full of interesting tales, of which the anecdote about K.L.Saigal, whose 'hamesha jawan' (literally 'ever young') songs that both of us admired no end, stands forth in my memory.

One day we were discussing the date of the death of the great singer. I distinctly remembered the day and month; it was the 18th of January. But I had a doubt whether it was 1947 or 1948, while being sure that it was only either of them. Hearing this, Kailas instantly filled up the gap, affirming that it could be only 1947. How was he so sure, I asked. His explanation makes this story.

Until the Partition divided the land of five rivers and the accompanying holocaust displaced millions from where they belonged for generations, Kailas' family lived in comfort in their spacious ancestral house in Sialkot. His father was a music lover and a fan of K.L.Saigal too. He had a good collection of Saigal songs in gramophone records, the only form of sound recording available in those days. One day there was some commotion among the elders and Kailas' father in particular looked very sad. Learning on enquiry that, alas, Saigal was no more, Kailas, then eight or nine year old, had a prompt doubt in his mind. The immortal singer was no more, but what about his immortal songs? Kailas rushed to his father and asked him "Will his records sing now, that Saigal is dead?" This innocent question moved everyone to laughter and lightened even his father’s somber mood. It became a joke in the family and neighbourhood and everyone would pull the boy's legs for months afterward.

All this, Kailas concluded, could be only before August 1947 when the family had to flee for their lives as refugees to Delhi, leaving all their belongings including his father's treasured gramophone records. He recollected putting his famous question to his father in a hall where the latter was reclining on a large wooden swing (a popular piece of furniture in those days). It certainly did not take place at Delhi where they lived a severe life, crowded in a single room, for months before resettlement. With little space even for the family, there was no question of accommodating a gramophone or a swing. So, if the answer lies only between January 1947 and the next January, he was certain that it was the former.

With this rather uncommon sort of evidence, comic and tragic at the same time, we clinched the date in question.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bimal Roy’s first film: New Theatres’ Udayer Pathey (1944) and the socialist dream

This first appeared as "Udayer Pathey: Bimal Roy's realistic inference of socialism" at on 
January 5, 2013.

Radhamohan Bhattacharya and Binota Bose in the film

Before soaring to pan-India—and, indeed, international—fame with Do Bigha Zameen (1953) that spoke of the travails of Shambhu the peasant, Bimal Roy had, almost a decade earlier, in 1944, become a household name in Bengal with Udayer Pathey (Towards the dawn), his directorial debut in Bengali for Calcutta’s New Theatres, remade in Hindi as Humrahi in 1945. The hugely successful Udayer Pathey, made by New Theatres on the smallest budget, actually became the studio’s biggest earner. The music was by Raichand Boral and the lyrics by Shailen Roy—in addition, the film featured three very memorable Tagore songs.

Bimal Roy’s works all have a distinct flavor of social realism about them, and Udayer Pathey is steeped in that flavor. It is the story of Anup Chaudhuri, an intrepid writer-intellectual who upholds the cause of the proletariat in a system where the balance of power is skewed towards the moneyed class. Just the previous year, in 1943, Bimal Roy had made a documentary for New Theatres on the subject of the moment, the Bengal famine. Thus, Udayer Pathey came about when the rich-poor divide was in plain view, and inescapably so. The famine, the inflation of the war years, and the economic hardships that were the exclusive lot of the poor had irredeemably polarized the haves and the have-nots into two incompatible camps.

This social divide rings loud and clear in the opening scenes of Udayer Pathey. A luxurious chauffeur-driven car makes its way to a poorer part of Calcutta as the wealthy Gopa Banerjee (actress Binota Bose before she married the film’s story writer Jyotirmoy Roy to become Binota Roy) drops off her poor classmate Sumita (Rekha Mitra, later Mullick) at the latter’s home. Inside Sumita’s frugal home, her mother is at a loss about where to seat the rich visitor who has come to invite her daughter to a niece’s birthday party. 

But for all the lack of material wealth in the house, there seems to be an abundance of moral and intellectual wealth. Sumita’s brother, Anup (Anup Lekhak as he is known), quite literally, lives and breathes celebrated minds—the walls of his room are covered in his drawings of Tagore, Bernard Shaw, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Bankim Chandra, Gandhi and Karl Marx. An amazed Gopa reads out from a Tagore poem that Anup has inscribed on the wall, which has the words “udayer pathey” in it—the inspiration for the film’s title. So, before we see Anup, we see the august company he keeps. 

Tagore's poem on the wall of Anup's room with the words "udayer pathey" 

We then see Anup (actor Radhamohan Bhattacharya, until then cast only in villain roles) return home to find Sumita stitching a frock as a birthday gift, and he cautions her against getting too close to her rich friend as he is convinced that her gift will not be appreciated in a society where price is all that matters. Sumita protests that not all rich people can be categorized so, but Anup is dead sure that all rich folks look down upon the poor. Sumita insists, though, that Gopa is different. And the unassuming and immensely likeable Gopa does seem to be very different from her snooty brethren.

The class divide is laid out in black-and-white at Gopa’s lavish house. The birthday party is on with music and dance, and Sumita sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the rich guests in their finery, and the liveried servers. (Actress Smriti Biwas—whose chubby face I clearly remember in Baap Re Baap, 1955 and Jagte Raho, 1956—dances to the remarkably beautiful Tagore song “Basante phool ganthlo,” very aesthetically picturized with a Nataraja statue, lit with lamps, in the background. I must say that “Basante phool ganthlo,” in this case visuals included, makes it to my category of deeply elevating songs.) The table overflows with expensive gifts, with people busy discussing who gifted what and how much it cost.

Smriti Biswas dances to "Basante phool ganthlo"

Rekha Mitra as Sumita

Sumita’s discomfort mounts by the minute and is not allayed when Gopa compels her to sing. Sumita’s soulful singing only receives a cold response from the gathering. Then, much to her (and Gopa’s horror), Sumita is accused of stealing from the gift table. A mortified Sumita faints, and Gopa discovers—in the folds of Sumita’s sari—the frock that her poor friend had brought along and was ashamed, perhaps, to leave on the table. The accuser, Gopa’s sister-in-law, is silenced, and Gopa accompanies her distraught friend home. There she meets Anup, who is angry to see his sister return crying and refuses to accept Gopa’s apology on behalf of her family. Anup rubs Gopa the wrong way and, after she leaves, Anup tells Sumita that her insult at Gopa’s house is an insult of all the poor by the rich.

Anup ekes out a livelihood through his writing and leads a hands-to-mouth existence—a fact that, however, does not ruffle him much. When his newspaper editor gives him the lead for a position as publicity officer at Modern Industries Ltd., Anup gives it a shot and meets the boss’s son there who is in charge, Shouren Banerjee (actor Devi Mukherjee), who is impressed by the candidate’s writing talents and extends a job offer. Anup accepts it for the sake of his family though he isn’t exactly thrilled that he has traded in the unfettered world of literary writing for the fettered world of publicity writing. 

Devi Mukherjee as Shouren

At this point, there is a scene, funny in an understated way, where Anup, his pockets newly full, wakes up his landlord (Tulsi Chakraborty, whose bulging eyes are etched deeply in the public imagination by the movie poster for Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar, 1958) in the middle of the night with the rent money. This is in return for the landlord’s demand, earlier on, of the overdue rent from Anup at an odd hour.

Shouren greedily eyes Anup’s writerly imagination and, when Shouren is asked to deliver a speech at the local university’s student union, he orders Anup to write the speech for him, which, he specifies, be peppered with grand words like bourgeois and democracy while also condemning the rich. The dialogue between Shouren and Anup brings out the contrast between the former’s smug, cocky thinking and the latter’s socialist thinking. The cigar-toting Shouren tells Anup that the rich are unshakably at the top of the social order and condemning them is just for the sake of winning popularity from the students. Anup retorts that the rich are at the top only because they possess the means to do so: they buy their way through. When Shouren condescendingly points out that it is the rich who create job opportunities for people like Anup, the latter notes that these jobs barely provide subsistence.

Indeed, as the socialist argument goes, in the capitalist system profits are flagrantly tilted in favor of those who own the means of production. The rich have the means, which the poor don’t, and that is what makes all the difference. The socialist framework of Udayer Pathey plays out in the context of the nationalist struggle against British rule. With economic and political subjugation thus inextricably intertwined, the film’s capitalist-worker divide is concurrent with the ruler-ruled—and West-East—divide of the times. So, in this scene it is not at all surprising that Shouren and Anup, in addition to mouthing ideologically opposing lines, are presented in Western, and Indian, clothes, respectively—and thus visibly positioned as opposites.

Shouren delivers the ghostwritten speech to much acclaim, and soon Anup arrives at his boss’s house to ghostwrite, in the comforts of a fabulous home library, another speech. Shouren shows off his original Jamini Roy painting—and this reminds the viewer of the earlier scene where Gopa sees Anup’s room covered in wall drawings and Sumita explains that her family cannot afford to buy paintings. Shouren says rather proudly that while he has a book collection spanning all subjects, he is too busy to read. Clearly, Shouren owns these status symbols not out of any genuine appreciation but because he has the brute means to buy it all, like a wholesaler does.

Anup sees Gopa at Shouren’s house (in keeping with the small world of filmi melodrama, she predictably turns out to be Shouren’s sister) and realizes that this is the house where Sumita was once humiliated. He resigns his job right away, actually glad to have the justification to quit working for a rich man. A persistent Shouren, who tries to write the speech himself and gives up, reaches Anup’s house to ask for forgiveness from Sumita and even promises that he will publish Anup’s novel. Anup returns, not so much to see the novel published, but because of his earlier promise of writing Shouren’s speech.

Gopa comes across Anup’s manuscript called “Purbachal” and is totally absorbed by its stark depiction of the lives of the working class. She has questions for Anup who is glad that the book has made her think outside of her class. When Gopa wonders if the homelessness and the poverty are really all that dire, Anup remarks that the very fact that she has to be told about such an obviously grim reality (and does not know it for herself) is disturbing, and indicative of the insensitivity of the rich. From here on, Gopa and Anup warm up to each other. Sure enough, the next time she goes to meet Anup, she wears a simple sari and happily drinks tea from a handleless cup; she also accompanies him to the huts of factory workers.

Meanwhile, Shouren acts foul: he publishes “Purbachal” under his own name. Anup is not shocked, but Gopa is, and she tells Anup that he must confront Shouren. Anup is surprised to see Gopa upset and in tears but he is too disgusted to pursue the matter. He happily realizes that Gopa is very different from her ilk and his regard for her goes up. Shouren’s friends all fawn over him and compliment him on his first-hand knowledge of the hardships of workers. Gopa boycotts the celebration at an expensive restaurant and instead she and Anup attend the workers’ union meet at a hut. Roy juxtaposes the party where food is overflowing and laughter is hollow, with the tension-filled hut where Gopa sees a poor child who has not eaten in two days.

The growing bond between Gopa and Anup is further cemented as they take a stroll together and, appropriate to the context of the moonlight, Gopa sings the soothing “Chander hashi badh bhengeche” by Tagore, with the fog rolling in ethereally. The magic of the scene is unmissable.

"Chander hashi badh bhengeche" and the fog

When Shouren hears of a workers’ protest in the offing and is told that Anup is behind it, he promptly bribes a worker to disrupt the event. When Gopa overhears her brother, she rushes to the meeting just in time to see a riot break out and Anup hit with a stone. An annoyed Shouren pulls his sister away from Anup, but the damage is done: the newspaper headlines scream of the love between factory owner’s daughter and labor leader. As matters get out of control at the workplace and at home, Shouren’s father, Rajendranath Banerjee (actor Bishwanath Bhaduri), enters the picture and tries to make peace with Anup—buy his loyalties, rather. Anup feels contempt for his boss’s manipulative tactics and refuses to oblige. Shouren then lies to Anup that Gopa is sorry about her friendship with a person beneath her class. Anup’s face falls as he hears this.

A disillusioned Anup sends his mother and sister away to the village, and is planning to leave Calcutta soon. As he tears asunder the newspaper with his and Gopa’s pictures, Gopa shows up and is surprised to see Anup suddenly cold and distant. She clears up his misunderstanding and tells Anup to take her along, wherever he goes. Gopa’s father, meanwhile, desperate not to lose his daughter, tries to fix her alliance with a wealthy friend’s son. He visits Anup and requests him to give up Gopa. Anup promises, but apparently Gopa’s mind is made and she puts on a dour expression when her brother arranges her meeting with the suitor.

Meanwhile, thinking that it is Gopa who has had their demands met, the workers go to her house to thank her and invite her to a felicitation function. Gopa replies that the credit should go to Anup, and the workers reply that he is going away and give her his letter addressed to her father. Gopa reads it and realizes that Anup is going away at her father’s request. She tells her father that she has to meet Anup and when Shouren tries to stop her from going, Rajendranath stops Shouren. The path clear, Gopa rushes to Anup’s house, where the landlord tells her that Anup has gone walking all the way to Asansol (to deal with yet another labor issue). Gopa gets into her car one last time and catches up with the wayfarer on the Grand Trunk Road, quite the solitary figure against an open landscape. Gopa tells Anup that she has left behind all riches to join him in the path of his choice, now hers as well. To which Anup replies that she has not left behind riches—rather, they lie ahead in this new path that she has chosen. As the two joyously walk away hand-in-hand towards the horizon, it is the dawn of a new beginning.

Walking together on the new path

Concluding reflections and a postcolonial reading: Udayer Pathey was, at various levels, an innovative film and one that set the standards for realism in Indian cinema. It was the first New Theatres film to touch upon the theme of socialism and, although the film’s decidedly black-and-white treatment of the rich-poor divide does seem rather simplistic (and predictable in a filmi way), the exposition of class differences was relevant at a time of rising national consciousness, when the country was busy setting aside differences of class, caste, gender, and religion to coalesce against foreign rule.

The battle that Anup wages against the class divide, and in which Gopa joins him, is a stepping-stone to the larger battle against colonialism. The new path that Anup and Gopa together take, in the end of the film, is a path that will create not just the wealth of classlessness but also the wealth of freedom and self-governance.

There is a sense in which the larger nationalist aspirations of the day merge into the film’s socialist aspirations: that Udayer Pathey opens to Jana Gana Mana (a historic first in an Indian film, although the scene is missing in the DVD from Angel—was it originally censored by the British perhaps?), not yet the national anthem in 1944, suggests that the film’s socialist dream is at once a dream of free India—free from the skewed power structures of capitalism and colonialism, both of which alienate and dispossess the worker/colonized. Shouren not just strips the workers of their rights to a dignified life but goes one step further to villainously rob Anup’s intellect and his creativity. This sort of an elemental plundering—or ravaging of the life force—is fundamental to colonialism, which dispossesses not only at the material level, but also, very significantly, at the inner level. Thus the image of Shouren in his western suit, throwing his weight around, unscrupulously appropriating what is not rightfully his, is indisputably in the colonialist mould. Gopa’s rising rebellion and her final desertion of Shouren, one of her own, to join hands with Anup—and the people— disturbs the status quo of the capitalism-colonialism combine and is symbolic of the weakening colonial grip over India. The path towards dawn at the end of the film presages the path towards a new, independent India.

On a minor, lighter, and perhaps irrelevant note: I couldn’t help but notice that people are constantly drinking tea in the film.

And, finally, a question: I have been very baffled about the missing Jana Gana Mana in the DVD from Angel. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla has clearly stated in a few places that Jana Gana Mana featured in the film as the opening song—and Radhamohan Bhattacharya, the film's lead actor, has recounted the same. So, then, did the British cut it in 1944, or did Angel cut it out unimaginatively in recent times? I emailed Angel and here is the response: “... please note that the original Video of Bengali Film 'Udayer Pathey' (B/W) was supplied to us by New Theatres itself. Therefore you are requested to kindly contact representative of New Theatres directly to clarify the matter.” So far, I have not been able to locate the contact information for New Theatres. Anyway, I find a very short excerpt of Jana Gana Mana in the film in this video here (starting at 1:21 and ending at 1:35)--which leaves me even more baffled. It does appear to be in the film, after all. Can anyone please throw some light on this mystery?
An update: I asked Mr. P.K.Nair, and he says that the National Film Archive of India's print of Udayer Pathey, which is copied from the original negative, doesn't have Jana Gana Mana either. The mystery continues ... 

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to: Forhad Hossain of Fremont, California, for patiently translating the film credits into English for me; and my cousin Vasanti Muthukumar of Bangalore, for reading out the names written in Bengali on the walls of Anup’s room from the screenshots that I sent her.

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

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 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.