On a chance look up on Google I recently discovered that Istvan Gaal is no more. Apparently he died 5 years ago in Budapest on September 25, 2007, aged 74. RIP my friend, you were a good man.
Istvan was an important guest lecturer over my years in FTII. He taught our direction students—always at the 2nd year level—over 4 or 5 occasions. Considering that he came from overseas, it would be among the highest number of visits by an international teacher. The only other person to match perhaps would be Krzysztof Zanussi in his earlier years.
Istvan first came to India as a delegate to the International Film Festival of India sometime in the mid 70s. As per the prevailing practice, we would meet up important filmmakers during the festival in Delhi and invite one or two for a week’s stay afterwards in Pune. That would save us the international sector fare, as also the administrative hassle to separately get them over. On that first visit an interpreter accompanied him and oddly enough I remember the interpreter more than Istvan’s sessions. Mostly she sat interrupting—pun intended—rather than facilitating flow of discussion. Istvan had known the problem from Delhi but still asked to continue her, considering that it was brave of her dealing in a rarely needed language in India. For the same reason he asked me for a raise of her payment slab if possible.
Before Istvan’s visit, we had been bowled over by his debut film Current (1964), which had earlier been acquired by the National Film Archive of India. Set in the Hungarian countryside and shot in striking black and white, the film opens with 6-7 youngsters coming out of their homes in various combinations and heading for a swim in a nearby river. During bath one of them is noticed missing and the rest of the film is an investigation over what may have happened. To me the most remarkable feature of the film was its critical pace. Being a comment on the fleeting nature of memory, the film is mostly composed of group shots and is woven like a teaser where, as you follow the development, you are constantly trying to recall the missing boy’s face but can’t. No picture of his comes up during the rest of the narrative either.
That the formal aspect of Istvan Gaal’s cinema should be as important as its subject and narration was borne out by two more of his films that followed Current. Falcons (1970) and Dead Landscape (1971) are both in colour and both have this understated, holding back quality which nudges you to contemplate. Falcons in addition has the novelty of a brilliant sequence involving falconry, with all its challenges of shooting, sound application and trim cutting. I remember asking Istvan if the oppressor-oppressed symbolism suggested in that sequence was consistently applicable to the rest of the film and to my surprise he denied it. Which made me wonder if such piecemeal application didn’t make the device somewhat frivolous, even irresponsible. His answer didn’t satisfy me but he held his ground.
Another formal feature of his art was his allegiance to the principle of Golden Section. He once showed us Ingmar Bergman’s Silence on the Steenbeck, stopping and pointing to example after example of its use by cameraman Sven Nykvist in shot compositions. I don’t remember if he also applied it lengthwise to that film’s dramatic structure but strongly suspect that that was the case for one of his own early short films, Railroaders (1957) that he once brought to show us.
The film opens on a section of railroad on a hot day in the middle of nowhere. Pick and shovel sounds fade in as we see a group of workers striking on gravel. Monotony builds over a variety of shots; workers in 4-5s, twos, singles; allowing us to see the way they look, dress; all in conflicting low angles and all covered by the broken up clatter of sound. At the peak, a train whistle is heard. The rhythm breaks, workers step back, pause, sit, stand. The train, a mechanical thunder, passes and is soon gone, leaving behind beaten silence as they variously look. Then, one takes a swig, gets up. Followed by another. Work resumes, as does the broken up clatter.
The whistle I think should occur at the Golden Section point. I may be wrong on detail but am spot-on on the spirit of the film. It’s a brilliant little gem built only on sound effects. Ideal as a study for film students. It is possible we kept a video copy of it in the library. And if I was behind the effort, it would be properly labeled and catalogued.
Clearly Istvan Gaal belongs to the Eisenstein school of filmmaking. His firm handshake coupled with a warm squint-eye grin somehow always struck me as greeting from a true communist. A lal salaam of sorts. He would demonstrate the essential structure of a bridge by making two students stand holding hands toe-to-toe and leaning back, drawing support from each other’s weight. The curvature of the arms would be the dynamic optimum of the structure.
Even his outlook on life suggested a sense of dynamic muscle rather than tame summation. I spent a lot of private time with him and have some snippets from memory to offer. Passing by a long row of roadside vendors of cheap garments at the beginning of Laxmi Road, he would lament the heartless face of capitalism implicit in the immense effort that went into first setting up shop in the morning and then folding up at the end of the day, day after day after cold, hot or wet day. Both of us enjoyed drinking green coconut and his fun started right from the time the vendor started hacking off at the fruit. “It’s a near-thing, eh?” he invariably said with a twinkle in his eyes, marveling at the final chop that sliced the top before dipping the straw in the brimming water.
He loved Indian tea and brought his own set up to boil and brew it in his room. First thing on arrival, he would buy different varieties from a Deccan shop, which he knew from earlier visits and test them out during his stay. Then on the last day he purchased packets to take home for friends and his own extended use. He hated the idea of tea bags and that’s what was always offered in Director’s office. He would accept his cup, of course, but itched to sooner or later slip in his to-me-familiar comment, “That’s the capitalist’s greed, selling left over tea dust as special tea in a new packaging!”
At the end of his last visit in October 1996, he left behind his glass kettle saying it would be useful in case he made it another time to Pune. I still have that kettle. On the same visit he got Mehboob sahib and me two Hungarian padlocks as gift. Earlier once he had given me a 1.5 litre used plastic bottle, pointing out repeatedly that it was a “heavy duty” one!
Istvan Gaal was a simple man, almost a villager at heart. That’s the reason I suspect that Internet doesn’t have much information on him. But as my late friend Pervez Merwanji (of the 1989 film Percy fame) would ask: What difference does it make to the cost of tea in China?
In Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad (October 1996)