Amitabh Bachchan, An Autumn Afternoon, An Indian New Wave?, Antonioni, Bansi Chandragupta, Breathless, Dharmendra, Film Finance Corporation, Filmfare, Godard, KK Mahajan, Kumar Shahani, Last Year in Marienbad, Mani Kaul, Maya Darpan, Mohan Rakesh, Nirad Mohapatra, Ozu, Professor Bahadur, Red Desert, Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray, Sholay, Uski Roti, Vinay Shukla
[Going by the popularity charts that service provider WordPress makes available to me, my Mani Kaul-Kumar Shahani starer is threatening to give serious competition to that other block buster of the times, Dharmendra-Amitabh Bachchan starer Sholay!
Read on. It only gets better. We are talking about the first showing of Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti in the Institute as we resume…]
The film started. Quiet titles, held longer than normal and simply cutting to the next, were striking. That was perhaps giving unit members of that low budget film respect as makers of what you were about to see, a respect always denied in the commercial cinema. The duration also enabled you to notice the calligraphic style taken from old Hindu scriptures with two vertical parallel bars bracketing each line of the titles. That certainly was novel if not new since the silent Indian films used similar style as a routine.
The titles also helped you to settle to the pace of the film, which we had heard was very, very slow. That it was also empty is what we were left to discover for ourselves and that was painful. A stone tossed upwards out of the frame and something falling to the ground five shots later, presumably a guava fruit, was difficult to connect (or even not connect) in a cause-effect relationship. A question is asked and the shot holds. The actor has even begun to blink, but never mind, keep watching. The answer comes much after the shot has cut to the next, the new actor having waited blankly for a while (as they do in rushes, waiting for “Action!”) before opening his mouth to speak. After some futile struggle I gave up and switched to admiring KK’s beautiful black and white photography. Stunning tones, static compositions for most part and near still life ‘studies’ all through. And all of it shot—as also projected now—in the elegant academy aperture proportions, which the Institute has taken care to maintain all along to this day, whereas commercial theatres had already by then gone wide-screen.
Suddenly when dialogue came, it hit you like a stone and you remembered it was a sound film. But why such a tone of voice? The backdrop of the story—Mohan Rakesh’s as well as Mani’s—was the heart of Punjab and the characters rural rustic Punjabi, but why were they speaking in Hindi? And why in a manner as though they were doing the language a favor?
Then equally suddenly and without warning, a shot began to jump frames. Was it a damaged print (already?) repaired by a careless projection assistant? No, it was a deliberate effect to jump that character’s posture, now as this and now that. Alienation, you were supposed to understand.
And likewise music when it came…
For a while I sat absolutely shattered. Is this what the whole fuss had been all about? Then a chair creaked, which was a relief to many others who, too, broke off from the screen and turned to look. But nobody, not even the lowly acting students, left the theatre until very, very late into that one and a half hour long—one and a half hour too long, you might say—film.
“You have no right to criticize a film if you have not seen the whole of it,” went the Institute credo. “Never trust your first reactions to a film,” Professor Bahadur had told us. “A new work may be too new and it may be trying to break a completely unfamiliar ground for all you know.” That had indeed happened with me in relation to Marienbad, almost all Godards (bar perhaps Breathless), and even Ozu whose An Autumn Afternoon, seen in the first projection ever of any Ozu in the country—a 35mm colour print fresh from Japan but seen without any fanfare since Ozu was yet to be ‘discovered’—I had found pretentious and suffocating. Why isn’t he moving that camera? Why are they sitting stiff, never touching each other and talking so formally even though members of the same family? Is that the famous Japanese family? And why is he cutting from anywhere to anywhere as though nothing like an Imaginary Line ever existed? And then, what is this Jump Cut business in Godard, what is he talking about anyway? If Marienbad is supposed to be all memory, which of these shots are the ‘real present’ in relation to which the rest might be memory?
But somehow in all these films I had invariably felt the urge to return in order to check, examine, verify. To re-live the experience after related reading, discussion and contemplation, hoping you had grown in the intervening period. And sooner or later the coin did fall in the slot and you found your peace with these superior makers. And then you realized that there was another thing ultimately common to all the apparent diversity that these masters presented—that they were all in sur, in tune. That their rhythms were there, that their design-making was not only real but perfect, in fact aggressively so. And that what you saw, therefore, qualified to be called art in the first place. Robert Bresson, whom Mani had been swearing by, is nothing if not smooth and technically impeccable; he is austere in an extremely rich way. Is that the class or kind of material that we were faced with as we sat looking at the present ‘footage’? (Professor Ramchandra Rao’s expression for this class of films).
“Well, how was it?” asked Mani with his characteristic arrogance, standing midstream among people as a small group of us came out trying to hide behind each other
Fortunately Vinay Shukla, who was anxious to corner all of Mani’s favours from lavish praise before anyone else could upstage him, headed straight towards Mani and made a speechless gesture as though he didn’t still know what had hit him.
“Wonderful,” said another as Mani turned to him.
“Well, it certainly is boring like Bresson,” I tried to laugh when my turn came. “Other merits of the film will get clear only gradually I guess…”
Reading my lines of more than a quarter century back, I must admit to a feeling of pride at having both my head as well as heart in the right place. Soft-pedaling in any way would have been neither in keeping with my temperament, nor light on my conscience. And no less was it an act of courage to defy a tornado considering you don’t have many—in fact, any—of those on the Indian film scene today. It was a very stressed reaction calling Bresson boring but I was glad to have taken my position at the first available opportunity. I would be floored or hold forth to a filmmaker, not on the basis of his trappings, but the film he has to show for it, I had decided.
My first experience of that second born-classic of the Wave, Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan, is less vivid in memory mainly because it wasn’t as big a disappointment. After Uski Roti, you could say Maya Darpan was more of the same, only in colour.
An incident before the shooting of that film is worth a recall. I had just completed my course at the Institute and was home in Delhi generally wondering what to do when I received a letter from Vinay Shukla. This must have been around October 1971 because Ray’s article An Indian New Wave? had appeared in Filmfare the same week. Kumar, Shukla wrote, was finally ready to commence shooting that first feature and that he was going to assist him. (This I knew, for I had also asked Kumar to take me on, but he had by then got all he needed.) The shooting, Shukla said, was to be in Jaipur but before that both of them were coming to Delhi to purchase material for costumes for the film. It was to be the first low-budget colour film financed by the Film Finance Corporation and I had heard that Kumar was experimenting on colour. Of course as it turned out, the film wasn’t straight on anything else either—narration, casting, acting…
When we met, Vinay could not say along what lines the experiment was to be but he had obviously enjoyed being with Kumar as they had gone rejecting material after dress material for reasons that left a puzzled look on the salesmen’s faces. It seemed Kumar had worked out a “palette” in mind and went tallying colors with that.
“But the palette would apply not just to costumes but everything else in the frame,” I asked Shukla. “How about furniture, walls, things? And what about outdoors—trees, houses, the sky?” Antonioni’s Red Desert, which hadn’t yet come our way, was said to have had whole streets painted to the director’s wishes and I wanted to know if some such thing was being attempted here.
“Well, all that has been thought of between KK, Bansi (Bansi Chandragupta, Ray’s genial art director, who too had been roped in) and Kumar,” Shukla was very impatient with detail. At the moment, moreover, he was itching to get to something juicier.
“You know,” he finally confided, all the time looking for my reaction, “Kumar is very nervous.”
“Nervous?” I was surprised. “Seeing all this time he has had since the loan was sanctioned, I should have thought he would be rearing to go.”
“He is, he is.” Shukla hurried to hold me back. “You don’t understand. You see, even Bresson is nervous every time he starts a new film.”
Clearly, Robert Bresson has much more to account for than what the old master might be aware of in the wildest of his dreams. My friend Vinay Shukla was, of course, superficial—from being a high priest of the Wave while at the Institute, his was perhaps the most unabashed somersault taking to dialogue writing for masala films once he was out in the field. But what he was doing here clumsily is what the practitioners of the Wave and their sympathizers have all along done with varying degrees of refinement. Ask them nothing about the films themselves, but the rest of the paraphernalia— signing manifestos, issuing calls, addressing seminars, press conferences and the rest; attending festivals, leading delegations, floating-unfloating ‘designer’ magazines etc.—had all been reproduced most authentically as in the best of film movements anywhere, anytime in the world. Vinay had simply absorbed the culture like so many others and was furthering it the best he knew how.
By the time Maya Darpan was completed, Nirad Mohapatra and I had started teaching part-time at the Institute…
[To be continued]