Pramod Pati’s pocket-sized dynamite, Explorer (1968), opens with a rather representative image: alternating horizontal black and white strips, resembling window blinds, flickering on what appears to be a screen (within the screen) that is being refreshed vertically – like television display – at a relatively slow rate,. The soundtrack, likewise, alternates between high-pitched, discontinuous noise of what might be telegraphing and printing machines and the comparatively bass sound generated by the Damaru. It is through this audiovisual thicket that the name of the film reaches us, appearing and disappearing along with the strips, oscillating between two typefaces – one fragmented and stretched and one sturdy and more conventional. This deeply dialectical title sequence pretty much sets up the tone, the modus operandi and the primary thematic and stylistic concerns of the seven-minute phantasmagoria that is to follow. Pramod Pati, who died an untimely death at the age of 42, worked for the Films Division [sic] of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in India, which generously commissioned feature-length and short documentaries as well as short animation films for the purposes of cultural archiving and nationwide information dissemination. The documentaries generally consisted of profiles of artistes practicing traditional forms (sometimes directed by names as big as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan and Ritwik Ghatak), standard ethnographic explorations, educational films for adults (such as on family planning, which Pati was involved in) and other socially-oriented films while the animation was usually targeted towards toddlers and young adults, presenting simple moral tales and basic literacy courses. Although there was an obvious restriction on the type of subjects filmmakers can choose, the Films Division, like the Kanun in Iran, was free from commercial concerns and thus presented a higher scope for formal experimentation for directors. In Explorer, Pati seems to have harnessed that liberty to the fullest to produce a doggedly inscrutable, remarkably witty and manifestly personal work.
The eerie title sequence of Explorer gives way to the first “photographic” image: a miniature Hindu idol in profile, magnified by its distance from the camera. We assume that it on the plane closest to the lens, but Pati reconfigures our depth perception with a fluid racking of focus – rack focus forms a major motif in the film – that discovers an oil lamp nearer to the camera than the idol, before revealing a man – in profile as well – reading sacred verses. We don’t hear him though and the soundtrack, strangely, gives us the cry of an infant, as if trying to reach out. This somewhat serene shot is interrupted by a startling cut, followed by a short, rapid zoom accompanied by the noise of a cymbal. Before we even begin to register the scene, Pati switches to a barrage of images in which with the bobbing camera captures the faces of ecstatic teenagers in extreme close-up, interleaved with extra-brief shots of the religiously-charged alphabet “Om” represented in Devanagari script and of the chicly-dressed gang, from at a distance, dancing to what might be rock-and-roll tracks. The audio, however, uses loopy non-contiguous samples from traditional music including classical instruments and vocals overlaid over a continuous stream of Ghunghru sounds, punctuated now and then by clapper board-like noises. The association here is, of course, between tradition and modernity, between ecstatic rapturous tripping and religious fervour – and it is here that the film announces its context – urban India in the sixties – and its central idea.
The sequence is also one of the few occasions in the film when we are asked to make a purely intellectual connection between the shots, between the sound and the image. For a large part of the film, the montage is also rhythmic, and sometimes even metric, as is the case with the immediately following segment in which the preceding staccato arrangement makes way for a rather mathematical audiovisual pattern: A snappy pan shot from right to left followed by the face of a Buddha idol, a quick pan shot from left to right followed by a painting of Radha and Krishna. This model repeats a couple of times before being abruptly interrupted by a brisk tilt shot of an electronic machine with hundreds of small lights on it, which, in turn, is interrupted regularly by close-up shots of the faces of youth, before culminating in a slightly intimidating, negativized image of another god, (The latter intervention is thematically and stylistically vital to the film). The linearly assembled audio, in this section, curiously enough, neither spans across multiple images nor consists of overlapping tracks. Each sound accompanies an image. The whole setup described above repeats once more, faster than before, with additional interruptions by sound graphs and B&W film headers, after which select images from the whole film thus far interspersed with a hazy shots of palm lines and fingerprints play over a sound stream composed of what might be samples from sci-fi and thriller movies. What follows is a sprawling ten or so seconds bursting forth with polemical ideas. The visual backbone of this stretch – the (by-now-familiar) tracking shot of hundreds of analog indicators (of pressure gauges? speedometers?) – is disrupted by disparate single-frame images (a la Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled To Death (1957-2004)) hurrying past from right to left in a way that also reveals the “filmic” nature of Pati’s work: faces of gods, the word “War” printed on paper in bold, black letters, the cover of a porno storybook, an open eye and a medieval painting on whose central figure’s chest is a white circle with the self-censored words “F.ck Censorship” in capital letters. The soundtrack here, though, is unbroken and is made up of repetitive noise of machine/automobile exhaust. Then, another horizontal-vertical assemblage like the previous segment, now with the image of a huge plant leaf inserted right in between. In retrospect, it is probably at this point that the film’s primary ideas clearly surface.
Explorer was made in 1968, a time right in between two wars with Pakistan, a time when the scientific race among the superpowers was at its most feverish, a time when the Vietnam War was shaking the world and a time when Western media was becoming increasingly permissive. Urban India, meanwhile, was vacillating between the forward thrust of scientific and technological development and the conservative tendencies of its dominant culture, religion and art forms. Explorer subliminally charts this polarization at the heart of this ancient-yet-young country, in ways that are just more than textual. This conflicting duality is embodied by the colour (strong blacks and strong whites), movement (the diametrically opposite directions that the camera takes), the sounds (ancient chants and electronica, ritual noises and machine humming) and the very material of the film (developed and undeveloped negatives). Till I saw Pati’s film, I’d thought Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1988) really had no precedent in Indian cinema. Exactly like Swaroop’s pièce de résistance, Pati attempts to portray a country caught between a number of opposing and diverging tendencies – between war and celebration, rock-and-roll and Bhajan, science and religion – in all its richness, convolutedness and madness. Alongside such analysis, Pati’s film seems to wonder about the future of the nation, especially that of its youth. Palm lines and fingerprints from the chief leitmotif of the film. As if, ironically, practicing palmistry through assortment of sounds and images, Pati strikes a conceptual parallel between the myriad divergent lines of the palm with the numerous incompatible and expansive practices emerging with the march of progress. Perched at the crossroads of 1968, Explorer is an idiosyncratic – but ever loving and never cynical – examination of where the nation is and where it is heading. It is a “palm-size” state of the union address.
By the same token, Pati’s film is an outrage against film censorship. The Film Censor Board, coming from a country where the most famous and explicit book on sexuality was produced, too, seemed (and it still does) to have been caught between similarly opposing currents, when the rest of the world was opening up to hitherto scandalous representations. Pati’s placing of such elusive placards disapproving censorship and the bunch of barely-identifiable images of porn magazines and nude women throughout the film is, patently, an attempt to break out of this entrapment. Likewise, three pairs of opposing camera movements characterize the visual field of Explorer, which are simply the three geometric axes: a up/down movement consisting of fast tilts and headers consisting of everyday symbols, an in/out movement made up of numerous rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs and protracted rack focus shots and a dominant right/left movement involving zippy pan shots of the dancing crowd and machines at work and handheld shots at a university library. The camera frequently hops across these major axes, as though being swept by their force, oscillating to and fro within them. There are also a number of (possibly metaphorical) crisscrossing diagonals – the veins of the leaves, the leaves of the tree – that seem like vectorial resultant of actions on major axes. (One useful point of reference for Explorer is Artavazd Peleshian’s electrifying Beginning (1967) with its equally rhythmic back and forth movement of crowds and its eclectic sound mix consisting of popular dramatic sounds). The notion of present as a meeting point and a dialogue between the past and the future is further emphasized in the way the film often juxtaposes images we’ve already seen so far with those we are yet to see (and will see a little later).
After the psychedelic opening minute or two, the film applies brakes to present a series of “melodic” rack focus shots – some of the longest in the film – that appear to meld images of idols and paintings of god (which were intercut with the faces of exuberant young people) and those of laboratory machines. We hear a teacher and a student reciting “Ramayana, Parayana. Kuran, Puran” one after the other and we see youngsters handling microscopes (much like how Pati uses his medium). This passage is followed by another series of brusque imagery and soundscape: a shot of a bearded man meditating and those of a group chanting the Vedas, interwoven with a spate of western symbols and psychedelic wallpaper patterns, archival images of riots, women in the nude, the face of a monkey (Hanuman?) and the now-familiar attack on censorship. (A case could be made for Explorer as a sur-realist – even Buñuellian – portrait of the mind of a teenager in urban India in the sixties). The film’s construction becomes more mystifying following this, with both the images (not just religious and scientific, but archeological and cosmic as well) and the connection between them appearing even more abstract, although the aesthetic choices remain pretty much the same. There is a marked predominance of images of science, technology and education over those of religion and tradition, possibly hinting at a resolution of the conflict thus far. But not for long. As the film moves into its final “section”, where we see the same close up shots of the faces of youth, among negativized images of the dance sequence at the start, . the soundtrack becomes, once more, infused by classical vocals and Hindu incantations. In the final few seconds, the film is reduced to a sustained flicker, with a looming image of the letter “Om” becoming the visceral centre of the imagery. Beyond this point, the whole film seems to go backwards, calling forth a flood of recognizable images from the film in reverse order within a matter of seconds as the film’s title flashes in the middle of the screen. The film is actually undoing itself. Here in, Explorer, like Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), becomes a Sisyphean tragedy; not of a man unable to escape the process of film, but of a film unable to escape the claws of a reactionary establishment. As indicated by the lateral tug-of-war involving the film-strip-like imagery throughout, Explorer is a film that fails at breaking free into full-on modernity, instead getting sucked back (and backwards) into the mouth of traditionalism. Forget it, Pramod. It’s India.
[The Explorer (1968)]