Sunday, 28 June 2009

Rear Window

Arani da wrote this wonderful review of The Trouble With Harry. I thank him a lot for opening up my eyes to Hitchcock's genius. I had watched his North By Northwest about four or five months back and mumbled to myself "Now, what's really the big deal with Hitchcock, eh?". Must get back to that film one of these days; but since then I have poured over a lot of Hitch... and noticed what I would have missed had it not been for that splendid write-up.

Rear Window is remarkable, first of all, for one simple fact: it is shot exclusively from two camera perspectives; both of a backyard in just about any small-town American neighbourhood. One is the POV of our protagonist, LB Jefferies (James Stewart), the other belongs to the audience. (There is a third, but it is given a screentime of barely ten seconds at the most) Given such a small setting and narrow range of views available, it is a challenging task for the director to construct the story so as to keep the viewer enthralled. So what do we have at hand? A kaleidoscope of contrasting characters. Facing Jeff's rear window, ground-floor left is an old spinster who likes sculpting and giving free advice to others; on the apartment over hers stays "Miss Torso", the ballerina. This pretty young thing is always twiddling around doing her chores, or entertaining affluent gentlemen. As a direct contrast to this, there's "Miss Lonelyhearts" on the righthand ground-floor apartment. She has, from the look of it, just stepped into middle age and every other night after meticulously dressing herself she lays out the best China and pours out the best wine. Then opening the door, she welcomes an unseen lover, invites him into the dining area, coyly accepts a warm kiss before breaking down into sobs. Her unhappy solitude is in direct contrast to Miss Torso's bustling room. Over Miss Lonelyhearts stays the quarrelsome couple - the husband a salesman, the wife a bickering invalid. Just the apartment overhead stays the peaceful man and wife. They possibly have no children and always sleep out in the balcony except when it's raining. In a studio apartment to Jeff's right, the musician practises all day long, his landlady the only encouragement. To Jeff's left, a newlywed couple have moved in. This canvas of different and complementing colours establish the perfect long shot. The need of the close-up is also established when the camera zooms in to any one of these several windows: a minute detail crucial to understanding the concerned person(s) replaces the bewildering melange in the long shot.

Jeff is a cameraman who has a broken leg cocooned in a cast due to a nasty accident on a motor-race track. Since he has little to do other than be cooped up in a wheelchair, he stares out of his window. His casual and nonchalant interest in the proceedings of these various characters parallels the narrow concern of the artist for his model. A painter sketching the imposing facade of some monument may not be quite interested in its history. Yet as he scans the salesman's or Miss Lonelyheart's apartment through his long-focus camera, his interest deepens. Quite imperceptibly, he starts getting involved. He is no more noticing just how they act, also why. The camera is Jeff's conduit to the privacy of his subjects much as it is to Jeff and his rear-window world for the audience. The audience's growing involvement is also mirrored in him. The broken leg does not allow him to get directly entangled even when he wants to, so he has to take the aid of his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), pal Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). This is when he has to overcome the artistic limitations of being neutral witness to events. Ironically, the broken leg is why he gets interested in his neighbours in the first place! Had he been fit to move around freely, he'd already be on assignment in Kashmir!

Hitchcock of course asks the mandatory questions he is wont to. The ethics of voyeurism are challenged: after all, had Jeff not snooped in, would not the salesman walk away with a clean sheet? Something traditionally regarded as unethical - voyeurism - ironically delivers justice to a murder victim! Doyle initially dismisses Jeff's inference about the murder as backward (at the moment, we all agree that his verdict is in the right place given the lack of legal evidence) and lightly ridicules Lisa's feminine intuition, though both the points are ultimately proved correct. His argument is the banality of Jeff's observations and the slim probability of his conclusion being true. The director, through his film, reminds us that slim probabilities can click even in our lives; that things we imagine as commonplace can conceal what exceeds our perception of the normal. Hasn't everyone reassured himself at some point that death and disaster can strike all but him? Something so apparently commonplace as marital friction leads to murder in a neighbourhood that could easily be ours - so really how normal is normal? Intuition, a much misjudged instinct, is also dealt with - Stella's knack of predicting with astonishing precision is verified even in the murder case. Her predictions are derived from what one calls common-sense, which in turn is intuitive in nature. And yet, how many times have we rejected an intuitive thought in favour of "better judgement"?

The reclusive couple who sleep in their balcony own a pup. When it dies mysteriously, the enraged woman laments the lack of any warmth and compassion in her neighbourhood. It's a small town where one would expect old-world wisdom like "love thy neighbour" to be the byword. Ironically the place reeks of the very lack of it. Piqued by the woman's furore, the neighbours peek out of their windows, yet very few are really troubled by the dog's death. It's a dog who's died after all, not a man! Jeff and Lisa are among the very few who are really bothered, and they are voyeurs! Rear window ethics are questioned again.

When Doyle's investigation reveals facts that apparently indicate Mr. Thorwald's (the salesman) innocence, Jeff and Lisa are visibly disappointed. Lisa suddenly notes the irony in their behaviour - after all, that Mrs. Thorwald, the supposed murder victim, is alive should make one happy (again, what really is being normal?). Hitchcock hints how man is instinctively interested in mystery and morbidity (as if the lack of it somehow takes away some colour from life) even though he may seem and proclaim otherwise. Isn't that why thrillers - including the ones Hitchcock made - sell so well? Isn't that why people pay to visit horror-houses? Isn't that also why Jeff gets interested in the oddities at Thorwald's place?

The only other person who appears as a notable counterpoint (working as something more than an element of contrast) to the three main characters - Jeff, Lisa, Stella - is the pianist. The three see and act, he weaves their experience in music. He practises diligently from the start, working his notes well till his magnificent compostion has been polished to perfection. When he is still having trouble with the keys, Jeff and Lisa's relationship is seemingly in rough waters: they are on good talking terms but a little cold. Jeff is apprehensive if she can fit in with his adventurous lifestyle. His worries are taken care of when she daringly sneaks into the Thorwald house without prior warning. The tension regarding her safety does wonders for their bond: gone is the barrier that separated the two. The pianist meanwhile learns to master his songs, and works it out with a full ensemble. The musician represents the film-maker. The director has to create his own vision of a masterpiece all by himself, work little details slowly, smoothe out hurdles and then execute it with his crew. It is with his film's flow that the complications in the protagonist's lives are sorted out. At the end of the movie, the pianist reveals to his landlady - a constant source of enthusiasm - that his album is out after all the effort. As his completed record plays out in the background, we see that Jeff and Lisa are reconciled and living together. The album parallels the completion of the director's movie. Both the artists await the response to their art. (A little snippet that supports this inference: Hitchcock's cameo has him standing by the fireplace in the musician's studio apartment.)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Modern Times

In 1931, Charlie Chaplin had just completed City Lights. With the release of The Jazz Singer four years ago, sound had been introduced in films. Silent films had been around for at least three decades and with the contributions of masters like Griffith, Lang, Eisenstein and Chaplin during the last half achieved heights almost unimaginable considering its infancy (compared to other visual mediums of artistic expression like theatre). These early masters learnt their craft exclusively by experience: trial-and-error. The challenges were many and solutions painstakingly developed. The advent of sound however changed the picture overnight: people started clamouring for talkies, even if the products were marked by a distinct mark of mediocrity. This did not certainly sit well with Chaplin. Defiant as ever, he wrote and made a silent film. City Lights was a surprising hit: its maker was somewhat assured that the audience had not been completely desensitized to true art. The atmosphere in Hollywood was however claustrophobic and he wished to revisit his homeland across the Atlantic.

At the same time, M.K. Gandhi was in London to attend the Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Congress. The official job was an utter failure, but he gained many friends and had even a greater number of interviewers. Chaplin was one. During their meeting, he confessed being confused about the Mahatma's opposition to machinery. A patient interviewee explained with a benign smile on his face, for some hundredth time maybe, that he did not oppose to machines so long as they did not encroach on the individual and hinder his growth - economic, philosophical and spiritual. The answer may have been the seed from which Modern Times emerged.

The indifference to talkies was not merely a result of defiance to conform to a changing market scenario or artistic arrogance. The other big factor was that people identified Chaplin with the Tramp and the Tramp with Chaplin. Popularity aside, the figure had grown so close to him that he was not yet ready to make a film without Charlot. One can of course naively wonder why he couldn't just let the Tramp talk. That was unthinkable, and with good reason. What had started out as a comical character gradually became more and more nuanced until it could elicit laughter and tears with equal dexterity. Charlot could say sorry, express sorrow, cheer up a gloomy soul and even fall in love with a lady of his choice with minimal verbal exchange (the little he said was through title-cards). All through a wide array of silent gestures. That was part of his charm. Chaplin was aware that the moment the Tramp spoke, this delicate charm would be abruptly disturbed.

Silent films were all but dead by then. The art inspired few filmmakers; Chaplin was perhaps the last (barring later regressive enthusiasts). Yet, he was bent on making Modern Times. He contemplated giving up filmmaking altogether, then dismissed the idea. The film was to be as much about man and machines as it would be about his own art. With the possibility of rejection hanging about, he wanted to have a last laugh. He had a flash of genius: why not make a mock-talkie? Where machines would talk while humans still mimed! The idea was an answer to both the inspirations: it was a clear show of rebellion against the day's cinematic fashion while also encompassing the central theme of machine dictating to man. And while Charlie cannot be credited as the first man to take up the theme - Fritz Lang's Metropolis was released in 1927 - he can now, in retrospect, be credited as one of the earliest foreseers of cyberpunk!

The 1936 movie introduces the Tramp in a depression-era scenario. A factory-worker by profession, he struggles to keep up with the pace of an assembly line. In contrast, his co-workers are adept at their jobs. This marks out the individualist streak in him, a distinction harped out throughout the film's length. In a world where conditions have reduced man to a state of undistinguished uniformity - established in the opening montage of a flock of sheep and a crowd - the Tramp is forever attempting to carve out a separate place for himself. He has no name, shelter or property. Nothing is known about his origin or forebears; therefore he is free from any materialistic links. The working conditions in the factory are humiliating; moreover everyone is monitored and regulated by the boss with the aid of telescreens. (As if one has any doubt about Chaplin's foresight, he had dealt with surveillance - a defining feature of everyday urban life now - long before Hitchcock explored it in Rear Window and Vertigo! And this was before George Orwell wrote 1984.) In a move to further increase productivity, boss tries the feeding machine: a device that helps workers eat as they work! The guinea-pig selected for the experiment is, as anyone can guess, our protagonist. The trial is a dismal showing; hilarious for us, not so much for the victim. The overbearing workload translates into a nervous breakdown for the Tramp and he is ushered into an institute, but not before he has had sweet revenge on the perpetrators.

During WWII, Charlie received a lot of negative publicity and reaction as a communist sympathiser. He was undoubtedly a socialist by political belief (having had a taste of grinding poverty in his childhood, he realised the need for basic living conditions for all), but without party affiliations or narrow-minded dogma. Neither did he share a phobia of Russians like most of his countrymen; that would be anathema to his independent nature. After being restored to good health at the hospital, as the Tramp goes about without care, he unfortunately lands up in prison on mistaken charges of being a communist. Without being quite aware of it, Chaplin somehow wrote down his own future!

The Gamin (played by Paulette Goddard), a child of the waterfront whose father has lost his job during the depression, is perhaps the only person in a position to understand the Tramp's predicament. She is rebellious, optimistic and charming. After her father dies in labour union clashes, fate's invisible hand works in bringing two unique people together. The resonance that moves and connects both is a shared destiny and outlook. Even in the midst of changing times, they are both trying to assert their right to live as individuals. The irony is, of course, that they are at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Which does nothing to deter them from dreaming. The Tramp tries to do odd jobs, unsuccessfully every time. He is perhaps too idealistic to fit into the rutted ways of society. Their dream of a house for themselves is realised once: a ramshackle affair threatening to come to pieces at the slightest provocation. Yet, like the couple in Maupassant's short story Happiness, they are happy and contented. The Gamin finally procures a job as a dancer in a restaurant and convinces the manager to give her lover a trial as a waiter and singer. The Tramp is unconvincing in the former role but fares well in singing. But just as a hint of prosperity is about to touch the couple's lives, law stands in between. Luckily, they both manage to evade the authorities. In a touching final scene, The Tramp tries to cheer his girl up as they walk down a long road that leads to the horizon. Unaware of what awaits them in the distant journey to eternity, they are still optimistic and prepared. Their hands are empty yet hearts full of warm love and hope for the future. That is perhaps the secret behind the immortality of their story.

When the last title-card of the film flashed "Buck up, never say die! We'll get along!", it was also Chaplin telling us that he was ready embrace his changing environment. His next, The Great Dictator, was a talkie and almost as good as his silent greats. But, of course, Modern Times was the swansong of the Tramp. He had walked a long way since Kid Auto Races at Venice: a sojourn encompassing time, a great many number of films and extraordinary character development. Eternity, the cherished goal, has since embraced the iconic character. Every man and child, even to this very day, readily recognises "Charlie Chaplin" (as his synonymous alter-ego) - in fact, many do not know that the real Charlie never had a toothbrush moustache and did not go around in baggy pants, oversized shoes, tight overcoat, derby hat and twisted cane!

No Chaplin movie is complete without its comic moments. Even when he is constantly parodying contemporary society, he cannot be dark and humourless (perhaps Monsieur Verdoux is the only exception of sorts). That is perhaps the best thing about his films, he elicits laughter spontaneously. His humour is generous, kind and simple - for even if he is pointing fingers at you, he'd probably have you laugh a good deal before you realise the need for introspection and reform. That is his way of winning hearts; and it is also why millions flocked to watch his comedies. He made people happy when things were dark and gloomy around. Among my favourite moments in this movie are the Tramp's tryst with the feeding machine, his dream of a perfect happy home with the Gamin, a sweet day at home the lovers share, the desperate attempt to bring roast duck to an angry customer at the restaurant, and of course that unforgettable comic song that he sings! The ditty is in pseudo-Italian gibberish (possibly predicting Adenoid Hynkel's garbled "German" speech in The Great Dictator), and is the only occasion in the Tramp's reel-life when he spoke. It is also the director's way of telling talkie-producers that dialogue is not essential to great cinema. The other snippets of sound heard in the film are uttered by the telescreen, mechanical salesman and prison radio.

In many ways, Charlie embodied the complete filmmaker: he wrote his own movies, composed music himself, acted and directed. He tackled issues of deep importance yet constructed his films so as to be accessible to all and sundry. Modern Times is perhaps the piece that goes closest to portraying the man as he was - individualistic, good-humoured, optimistic, loving; also the closest study of his socio-economic and political ground. Its universal appeal lies in that it can be enjoyed and understood at various levels and ages. That is an attribute that few great works of art can lay claim to: enthralling scholar and child alike!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Green of the Twilight


27 Vidyasagar Street, Konnagar. Year 2000. An old man of about 80 walks down the congested station road, supporting himself on a long, old-fashioned umbrella, which instead of guarding him from the sun, acts as his walking stick. His other hand clutches a packet of sweets. Clad in a crumpled white dhoti and a cotton kurta, he walks in a slow wobbling pace, eyes continuously held down on the road in fear of missing a step. He occasionally looks up – a bespectacled, cataract-eyed, twinkling look – a smiling look. Yes, even though age has made his sight weaker and his walking difficult, and the afternoon blazing sun has embittered the general populace, making them ill-tempered and prone to bickering, our old man finds enough good reason to smile. A toothless, optimistic, warm smile. It reminds one of love and beauty.

Mani Gopal Bhattacharya enters his family home, his smile getting wider, as the pet cats run to welcome him home. He enters the living room, and as he meets us waiting for him, he opens his arms wide in a worldly embrace, the umbrella and the sweets still in his hands, and starts reciting one of his own couplets in a thin voice trembling from excitement and exertion... That’s the picture of Mani dadu fixed in my mind like an old snapshot from the memory album.

Our association with Mani dadu was through his younger daughter who was a close friend of my mother. But, I’d better like to remember him as a pen-friend of my father. They shared a rare kind of bond and used to write letters to each other in the form of verses, many of them often reaching a higher philosophical plane. I remember reading those verses as a child sometimes, attracted by the neat calligraphy, but hardly understanding a word of it then. A few days back, I was reading a few of Mani dadu’s letters from one of those suitcases that my parents have used to store the countless letters from our near and dear ones. Many of the verses, I found, were inspired by a gush of optimism, love and a sublime feeling of eternity... And, thus, I’ve always attached the image of Mani dadu with poetry. A poem-like poet. I remember, the walls of the living room and the bedrooms of his house used to be lined by old bookcases of volumes of texts and manuscripts. Reading and writing were his primary passions, though by profession, he did none of those. He had been an employee in the Reserve Bank of India, Kolkata.

Mani dadu had long lost his wife. But, such was the deep attachment with his other half that there were little things that he did every day, which if one closely observed, would reveal the eternal flame of love. Having fathered two daughters, both of whom are established in their own fields, it seemed he took a retirement from the worldly world for the rest of his life. A sage whose religion was love. Naturally, as a kid, it was easy for me to picturise Gandhiji – “someone like Mani dadu”, I’d think. Same way, when it came to his famous saying, “Simple living, high thinking”, it was never difficult for me to understand how simple ‘simple’ could be or how high ‘high’ could be.

It was in May, 2006, that we met him last. He was ill and bedridden. He recognised my father and said in his frail voice, “I’m really contented, dear son. I’m fulfilled as much as any man can ever be. Perhaps, there’s only a small wish now: my children and all those who are looking after me during my last days, bedridden as I am, may do it with love. I don’t want them to do it out of a mere sense of social inhibition...” There was a trickle of tear in the corner of his eyes, as he said those words. I never knew if his last wish was fulfilled. But, even so, there still was the old warm smile, on his wrinkled face, that reminded one of love and beauty...


Sreerampur. The street just beside the ghat of Ganges. A block of apartments stands at the end of the lane: Hinterland Complex. Flat no. D/4. August 2008. The grandfather clock - that's what atleast the household refers it as - hanging on the light cream-coloured wall strikes 8 o’clock in the morning. The tap in the kitchen is opened slowly by an aged, wrinkled, trembling hand. A couple of cups, a tea-net, a tea-kettle and a spoon are washed in the running stream of water. The kettle is then filled with drinking water from the water-filter. The gas stove is expertly lit with the help of a lighter. On top of this, the kettle of water is put to stand.

The glass case of the grandfather clock, in the living room, is opened with a smooth noiseless activity, showing the good work of grease. Two keys lie on the wooden base. Each key is inserted into the respective keyhole and is rotated about seven times, one in clockwise direction and the other in anticlockwise. The keys are once again placed at the base of the clock and the glass door is closed carefully by the same pair of wrinkled, trembling hands. Next, the front door is opened. The newspaper and the packets of Dairy Milk are retrieved from the bars of the collapsible gate: the milk packets go to the refrigerator and the newspaper is placed over the tea-poi.

The water in the kettle has boiled by now. Tea leaves are added to the water, and the gas-stove is put off.

The radio, standing on the tea-poi, is switched on and the frequency is carefully set in by the trembling fingers. A couple of minutes later, an Indian classical vocal comes floating in.

The tea is ready. It is now poured in the two cups, washed earlier, with the help of the tea-net. A teaspoon full of sugar is added in each cup and the contents are stirred slowly, carefully, deftly.

A beautiful, old woman looks up and smiles as he brings in the tea. “Yes, madam. Here’s your tea!”, he, the owner of the wrinkled trembling hands, says.

Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay. 83. A Retired cashier of the Municipal Corporation, Konnagar. My mother’s father. My dadu.

Well, Dadu and Discipline. Ever since my childhood, these two words are almost synonymous. Dadu’s every move was scheduled by the clock. In fact, he loved clocks and watches of all kinds and assortments. He had this queer hobby of bringing down his collection of watches from the almirah once every day; and having a session with his old wrist-watches, pocket-watches and the old-day table clock with the glass-casing and the Gold-over-silver polish. Since, dadu was an arthritis patient for as long as I knew, his movements were characterised by a slow, unhurried, determined pace. Temperamentally also, dadu was an exceptionally calm person.

Dadu was the sort of person who loved home and who was in love with each of the big-to-small articles in his home. Some would term him as a ‘materialist’ and perhaps, he was one. Yes, he was never much of a thinker. Yet, he was a strikingly contented man, happy with whatever little he possessed. He seldom talked or thought about new purchases, unless that was necessary in the modern day living, like the refrigerator or the television.

Dadu used basically two sets of garments, both consisting of a lungi and an old-fashioned sleeved vest. When it came to venturing out of his house, which was really rare, he put on a kurta and a pyjama. Even though, it was to the utter dislike of dida, and even though dadu loved dida with the passion of a young lover, he never changed his attire when he was home. Self-sufficient as he was, he washed them himself and hung them outside to dry.

Dadu was kiddishly excited when it came to three things: politics, football and sweets. When dadu would be watching a football match, we all knew that he was doing so, because the flat would echo intermittently with a resounding ‘GOAL!!!’. He didn’t particularly support any team ever, his only interest was perhaps watching a goal being scored, whichever team that might be. And, there was only one thing that Dadu spent money lavishly over: sweets. He loved the juicy ones especially: rasgullas, gulaab jaamuns, rasmalai, raabri... And, there he would go, as the sweet melted in his mouth, relishing the sweetness and the juice, closing his eyes, meditating on the happy coincidence of the existence of sweets. In fact, his last wish was to taste a goja, which oddly is not a juicy one, from the famous small-town sweet shop ‘Felu Modak’.

It has been a little over two months that dadu’s death certificate was handed over to us by the nursing home. Accordingly, dadu shouldn’t be alive anymore. But, it still seems as if dadu is moving about, dusting the furniture, setting the clocks, doing the ting-tong of utensils in the kitchen... So alive! Has it got to do anything with material or its ‘ism’? Dunno, it just seems so much un-material to me...


Ramkrishna road, New Barrackpore. December 2008. Baba and I open the small grilled iron gate, with a slight screech, that’s the entrance to the two-storied simple abode. We enter the supposedly living space, which is not so much a living space because it is the dining hall. This dining hall begins almost immediately after the gate to the road and is kept almost always open, clearly barring no one and no thing. Taking a right turn, we enter the kitchen. The strong smell of the famous Bangla paanch forun being fried in the oil wafts towards us as we enter the breezy kitchen. A cool breezy kitchen. Something that I haven’t found anywhere else. We meet with a pile of freshly bought green vegetables kept at the doorway of the kitchen. A few steel and aluminium utensils lie cluttered around on the floor. A gas-stove sits in the centre. Facing it, sits a most un-matching figure. A tall, slim man, with pleasant features, on the brinks of old age, garbed in a pearl-white dhoti and a brown shawl flung over a full-sleeved khadi panjabi and a khunti in his right hand. He looks up, raises his eyebrows and his handsome face breaks into a smile, as he says, “Is my vision faltering these days?”

Purnendu Basu. A retired teacher of the Boy’s High School, New Barrackpore; and the torch-bearer of my father’s life. Punu jethu has been closer to me since my childhood days than have been my blood-relatives. Anyone who has read Sherlock Holmes, has listened to Pankaj Kumar Mullick and has seen Punu Jethu is bound to find a common chord between the three, I believe.

Punu jethu takes us to the first floor through a narrow ladder-case. The first floor has always been an attraction to me in the entire house. It includes the terrace and a room. This room is a large, spacious one, with four large windows on two opposite walls and with bookcases lined along the other two longer walls. In fact, Punu jethu meant this one to be the living room. At one extreme side of the room, beside the windows, stands a divan. The corners of the room are disarrayed with a jumble of various musical instruments: an esraaj, a tabla, a khol, a harmonium, a taanpura, a long-play record-player... Hung on the walls are a few portraits of great Indians, the most prominent and colossal being that of Tagore’s. The major portion of the rest of the room is left bare. Carpets and mats are laid over the floor. It is here that we presently take our seats. Punu jethu asks us to feel at home and gets back downstairs to make us tea. He moves with a spring in his step and waves off all kinds of help in the kitchen, saying, “This is my home. My family! You are my guests!”.

Punu jethu has stayed single. But, he never gives us the impression of being disgruntled or unhappy, as most bachelors do. He’s so completely a family man. A family of threesome: himself, his books and his music. Punu jethu is quite a popular and a lovable man in the little town he lives in. As a pastime after retirement, he teaches Sanskrit and Bangla to the kids of his neighbourhood. On weekends, a few friends of his – all well-above sixty and equally wise, cultured and simply dressed – come over for a homely get-together and a warm little adda and music.

On this particular morning, the sunrays, filtered through the long leaves of the date palm trees in the backyard, enter through the windows. The entire room suddenly seems to be breathing; enlivened by the grace of nature. A current passes through my entire being, as a sudden heavenly touch uplifts my soul. I muse, “People needn’t go for long, difficult pilgrimages to feel pure or to attain salvation...”

The clink of cup and dish lifts the trance off me. I realise that Punu jethu is back, and is presently offering me a cup of tea. After we talk a little, we ask him to play the esraaj. He adjusts the knobs and tightens the strings, and after a bit of a screech-and-a-hitch, begins to play. As he plays, the tune mingles with the light and the breeze in the room, with the sun and the green, out through the long leaves of the date palms, higher and higher towards the blue, towards the infinite...

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Turtles Can Fly

To wholly understand this film, we must assess what we mean by children's cinema. Where can the possibilities that can be explored by the genre be limited? Further, is it cinema meant for children, or cinema made by children? The clues to these we shall find as the journey wears on. Till then, keep your head clean.

Bahman Ghobadi lends the film its colours from, among many things, a variety of well-drawn characters. There is Satellite - so called for his fame throughout the Turkey-Iraq border, where the film is set, as a proponent and installation-expert of dish-television. But Satellite has a more important role as well: he is able organiser of boys in the refugee camps. He divides, supervises and directs the large group, which includes several handicapped boys, to nearby fields for combing landmines. These are sold off for money - much needed and equally missed, if not more, in the war-ravaged country. There is a disconcerting ease and dexterity about this affair - the little boys hesitate little while toying with death or, worse, crippling injury. The whole unthinking simplicity of it, almost petty errand-like, takes us close to the human tragedy of war-torn people. If one must embrace fatal peril to live a day more, so will he! This queer coexistence of life and decay is also quietly evident in the village landscape, where many of the homes are abandoned battered battle-tanks and missile launchers. Satellite is not immune from the snobbery of being a leader, neither can he help being smitten by Agrin. This young girl has a beautiful face, unassuming and quiet; the pall of gloom and pain only helps accentuate her personality. Agrin is remarkable in her silence, her intense eyes are ever on the look for some saving grace: a purpose to justify her existence. Silence shields away her torrid past - she was raped in early childhood and her family was eaten up by war - the first fact no one but her brother Henkov and herself is aware of. She is burdened with a relic of that sad incident, a physical reminder of what she wants to forget: a little child Riga. Riga is blind - possibly God's wish to keep him oblivious of and untainted by the ugliness of this world. As he gleefully rends the skies with his bubbling peals of laughter and innocent weeping, there is no way that one can stop the tears rolling down. Riga speaks to humanity's conscience, consistently posing our minds the crucial and difficult question - why some people must go through such terrible oppression and injustice - and at the same time appealing to our heart through his ironic innocence. His father is some cruel beast unknown to him, one whom even his mother does not possibly remember! Yet how different the river is from the source. When Riga goes plaintively crying out to his parents amidst war-debris, silence answers him back. For he is a child of severed circumstances. Silence is Henkov's shield too: behind it he holds a pained empathetic heart, at times brimming with rage, but unfailingly humane. Even optimistic - which is a difficult quality in someone whose consciousness has been marred at every stage by terrifying incidents. He wants to live, whereas Agrin wants to escape into the soothing skies. She cannot make peace with her circumstances anyhow. Henkov's concern and love for little Riga is deepened by his sister's neglect of him. While Agrin is always spurred to abandon the child, her brother wants to draw him closer and safer.

Satellite, inspite of his seeming arrogance, has a soft heart. His concern during a bomb-scare is not only for his own associates but every refugee boy in the area. His attempts to win over Agrin are earnest and innocent. Acting as counter-foil to the illustrious Satellite is his second-in-command Pashow and faithful disciple Shirkooh. The latter is mostly introduced for comic relief: ever-inquisitive about the meaning of "USA", "Come on!", "Hello mister" and suchlike; getting bullied by elderly Esmaeel and relating the grave injustice meted out to him with a rare touch of both humour and compassion (you smile at first as Shirkooh rattles off teary-eyed, then realising his innocence you suddenly feel like comforting him with love). Pashow is ever-ready to follow in his leader's steps. The sight of him, disabled leg dangling carelessly, running behind Satellite in swift strides with the aid of his crutch is one to behold. Ironically, the leader has to follow in his second-in-command's steps later as he falls victim to a landmine.

There is a scene where Riga is abandoned by Agrin just beside the barbed-wires between Iraq and Turkey in the hope that the Turkish guard on the other side will shoot him. As the little one wrenches hearts with his tears, Satellite and Pashow are passing by. Driven both by curiosity and compassion, the two come to Riga's rescue. To make him smile and 'chide' the guard, Pashow grabs hold of his defunct leg and points it like a gun towards the Turkish guard with mock-menace. It is a fine example of the director's ability to reach into the most cornered recesses of the human mind - the image conjured up is brutal and shocking in a playful non-chalant way.

In another sequence, Riga finds himself alone in a mine-plugged field. A step in any direction could spell danger. When Satellite hears of the incident, he reaches the spot. Riga's position is precarious, yet blindness blocks off any awareness of his surroundings. As he stands there scanning the air about with his senses, Satellite must find a way to save him. This emboldens the humane side of him already revealed before: his concern for others is unaffected by any factor save the immediate need for it. The crisis also adds an unknown dimension to two fringe characters - so troubled are Pashow and Shirkooh about Satellite's safety that they are ready to take the risky plunge themselves. Their leader however vetoes any such intervention. The repeated tinkling of a bicycle-bell ensures that little Riga is delighted, while also drawing his attention to the repeated warnings not to move from his spot. Ears strained to follow instructions, Riga ponders for a while before bursting into renewed peals of merry laughter and jumping here and there egged on by the sonorous cry of the bell. And just as Satellite crawls to touching distance of the child, a mine goes off. A scene with palpable taut tension, yet one that evokes the deepest of empathy for both Riga and Satellite, while offering a glimpse into the hearts of as many as three characters; culminating into an emotional upsurge. Once again, Ghobadi displays his fine understanding of human psyche - Riga's joyous laughter in such a grave situation can only be called a cathartic experience for the viewer. The director defeats expectation when the mine explodes, and yet does not come off as one merely looking to disappoint or shock his audience.

The skies accept Agrin's prayers however. She flies into them from a cliff, burying her troubles in a war-torn land. Strife swallows up Riga too - not so much one fought with guns, as one between Agrin's troubled heart and conscience. The only one left of the family is the compassionate, quiet and brave Henkov. His clairvoyance comes a little too late for help. The only memoir of the past Agrin leaves behind are her slippers, a souvenir the pained Henkov keeps with him.

It is fitting that a bitter condemnation of war should end with a dark realisation. Throughout the film, Satellite is in awe of the American legend. A concoction of iconic images and catchphrases - Titanic, Washington, San Francisco, Bruce Lee and Zinedine Zidane (an aberration Pashow rectifies) - is part of that hallowed glossy dream (the distance - psychological and geographical - helps no doubt). Besides, America is noble: they'll rid Iraq of Saddam's terror-reign. And yet, as the depressing deaths of his sweetheart Agrin and endearing Riga touch him, the legend corrodes gradually. So when, in the final scene, a relieved and excited Pashow exclaims "Look! Didn't you want to see the Americans?" as US troops file by, Satellite turns his back on them. His silence - that most potent weapon Ghobadi uses throughout the movie - reveals his deepening doubts if there really is a good side to this war; if really anybody's victory calls for celebration. (A note: I am aware some critics perceive Ghobadi's leanings to be pro-US. However, that is not evident in the film. Kurds are initially portrayed wishing for US intervention, but through the protagonists - Satellite and Henkov - the denunciation is of war itself, without colour and without side.)

And yet for such a bleak subject, the treatment is not all brooding and ominous. There is humour centering around the Islamic dogma of chastity in thought - the village governer visibly shakes as he encounters a "sexy channel" on TV. There is, of course, amusement in the dialogues between Satellite and Shirkooh and Esmaeel. There's a hint of dark comedy too: as a gift to his dear injured boss, Shirkooh brings along the broken hand of Saddam's gigantic statue (the demolition of which has now become an iconic spectacle). The director's palette comprises of poetically composed shots - the distribution of colour across the screen is remarkably refreshing (of the same school as Majid Majidi's work). The camera does not rely on daring tricks, and yet makes efficient use of props in the locale. One memorable illustration has Satellite perched on the very head of a cannon whose shaft can be moved about, and the scene ends as he is slowly lowered down with just Satellite's ever-present baseball-cap ducking out of sight at the last moment.

Now, to think of my questions at the very start of the essay. For one thing, I am certain that none of the kids who caught the show with me at Nandan completely understood what they witnessed though they may have laughed at the jokes, felt at one with the joyous laughter of Riga and sympathised with the plight of the affected. Which is quite a lot: the audience just connecting at an emotional level, even if not comprehensively analysing cinematic theme and technique, is something any great director would wish for... in fact, wishes for! Analysis is only for academics, enthusiasts and the like. It is also noteworthy that the simplicity and purity of emotions portrayed could only have rested in a child's bosom. This is children's cinema. Relegating the genre to fluff like Hanuman Returns (sorry Anurag Kashyap, I love almost every other film you've directed!) is underestimating a child's inherent emotional and intellectual faculties. That's a mistake every sensible filmmaker - and broadly every sensible adult - should avoid.

To end with, one of the very best films I've seen. (It, along with Majidi's films and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar, has awakened me to the Iranian New Wave - thanks in no small measure, Mr. Ghobadi.) Oh, and Hossein Alizadeh's background score is gorgeous. Not merely an embellishment, rather an essential part of the film's being.