Posts Tagged Indian cinema

The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)

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Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.

With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.

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Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.

Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.

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Devi (S. Ray, 1960)

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A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.

Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then…  CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.

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In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:

No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…

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And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.

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