A few months ago, someone in my building was trying to get me excited about the Tamil action film Vishwaroopam, and specifically in getting me excited enough that I’d trek out to Richmond Hill to see it in its full splendor. I told him, quite honestly, that this was an impossible task – I wouldn’t go to Richmond Hill to star in a film (so I’m a big downtown snob, what did you expect?) I did look at the trailer on YouTube, but that just made it look like more digital mayhem of the kind I’ve seen hundreds of times (and not even just in English). I was intrigued by this aspect of it though: the film’s obviously a huge deal even in pockets of our own city, but if you don’t move in those pockets, then even a relatively cinema-savvy person like me might overlook its existence altogether. Until fairly recently, I found it hard to let go of a vision of cinematic omnipotence, based on the premise that I could realistically aspire to have seen every notable film ever made, but thankfully, I’ve given that up now.
I’d concede Indian cinema as one of my major blind spots – I’ve seen virtually nothing of what’s called “Bollywood,” although for whatever reason I did see the Canadian Bollywood/Hollywood, which seemed to me just wretched. I once saw the 1955 Raj Kapoor Shree 420, which I quite enjoyed and at the time might have thought would lead to further viewing in that vein, but it didn’t. That’s almost it for my viewing of Indian popular cinema. I guess there’s something aspirational about my cinematic allegiances – for instance, I always loved Japanese films, and so I wanted to visit Japan, which I also duly ended up loving. I’ve never been that interested in visiting India, which perhaps limits my interest in its cinema (or vice versa). (For reference, I was never particularly interested in South American cinema either, and when I finally traveled there a couple of years ago – to Ecuador – I was held up at knife-point, so now I feel even more justified in these instincts. I do like Iranian cinema without feeling a great need to travel there, but I guess no correlation is perfect.)
Anyway, I sometimes manage to score a point with my Indian acquaintances by citing a few examples of Indian, uh, unpopular cinema, which I’ve seen and they haven’t; often they’re only vaguely aware of the films, if at all. For example, not long ago I watched Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 film The Cloud-capped Star, a very moving portrait of a young girl essentially destroyed by the demands of supporting her poor family. It depicts a society alive to ideals, intellectual pursuits, dreams of advancement, but devoid of any sustainable infrastructure for achieving these, especially for women. The film is very detailed and evocative about the limits of money and of the ambiguous attitudes to it, and it’s a bleak slab of life, in no way overplayed or fanciful, but sometimes evoking an almost cosmic incomprehension at the extent of human illogic and injustice.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get to see any more of Ghatak’s twenty or so films (he died in 1976). His most famous contemporary, by a long way, was Satyajit Ray, much of whose work remains a bit more easily available. Ray maintained a reputation in the West from his very first film, Pather Panchali, which won an award in Cannes in 1955 for “best human document,” and he even won an honorary Oscar in 1992 “for his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” The notion of humanism recurs in assessments of Ray’s work – his isn’t a cinema of high concepts, but of deep awareness of human struggle and constraints. The comments I just made on The Cloud-capped Star might well apply to various Ray films, except for the bit about the almost cosmic incomprehension: Ray is the most quietly earthbound of directors, which is both his great, tangible strength and perhaps, if assessed by the highest of standards, his relative limitation. You come out of his films marveling at your new understanding of India, but not so much of yourself – even when you feel that “human” connection, it’s perhaps too easy to say, well that’s India, and to escape the sense of personal culpability.
That’s not to say Ray’s films aren’t consistently fascinating and rewarding. I most recently rewatched Days and Nights in the Forest, made in 1969. Four young men take a road trip, deciding to stay in a vacation bungalow and steam-rolling their way in over the gatekeeper’s objections, despite not having the required permit. They get drunk, kill time, flirt with local girls of various social class. It becomes plain that none of the four really have anything going to justify their jocular sense of privilege, and this drives the film’s increasingly stark examination of India’s bitter, callous class distinctions. By the end, Ray has masterfully demonstrated the severity of the lacks in their perception – both of their immediate surroundings and of the bleak facts of life histories more generally (and the “forest” of the film’s title is about as barren a location as you could ever imagine attracting that label) - but it seems unlikely that anything will change: the demands of what it takes to keep going are just too all-consuming.
Lack of angst
That summary doesn’t convey the fluidity of events and exchanges or the unforced vitality of Ray’s observations: the film is entirely engrossing even when little seems to be happening. In other works, he explores other aspects of the country’s tangled identity and history, finding little to celebrate unambiguously. For instance, his late film The Chess Players suggests that what to Western eyes often seems most “civilized” or “refined” about the country may be at the heart of its over-passivity at the hands of the largely unprincipled (behind all the pomp and formality) British occupiers.
In trying to sell me on Vishwaroopam, my acquaintance seemed to put a lot of weight on what he perceived as the film’s lack of angst, and I guess the Indian cinema I’ve described has a lot of that. From all accounts, India has a flourishing, tech-savvy business class that likely sees as little connection between itself and Ray’s protagonists as a Bay Street lawyer sees between herself and the protagonists of Goin’ down the Road. On the other hand, I’m not sure jaunty yarns about international terror networks and secret identities really have much to do with any of us. Such I guess is the eternal see-saw of cinematic virtue…