Los Olvidados (1950) (aka The Young And The Damned)
Luis Buñuel
Spanish

Watch out, here’s the mangy dog. Look, he’s coming. That’s it. I’m falling into the black hole. I’m alone. Alone! As always, boy, as always…

 

los-olvidadosIf there is a synonym for “iconoclasm” in cinema, it might well be Luis Buñuel. It’s almost as if it is a need for him to go against conventions and established practices, – social, cultural and cinematic – pick out their weak points and hit them so hard that their absurdities are exposed. I’m far from being qualified to make general statements (including the above) about Buñuel, but the few films I’ve watched of him provide a more than clear picture about his role as a cinema pioneer and a social critic. In the legendary debut work Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel and Sali present us a plethora of images – ones that would be termed “Lynchian” nowadays – that refuse temporal and spatial continuity on which popular cinema thrived on at that time. Apart from a filmmaker’s impulse to break stereotypes, what Un Chien Andalou showed us was the way we looked at movies and the elements of cinema that we had taken for granted. The conventional viewer, who tries to assemble the images into some form of theme or narrative, would invariably fail.

Buñuel’s follow up to the first authoritative surrealist film, L’Âge D’or (1930) also shattered conventions, but of a different kind. Apart from employing an experimental structure of the script, Luis Buñuel lashes out at the ultra-prudish morals of the hypocritical aristocracy and our own obsession with sex. Fraught with perplexing and often teasing images, L’Âge D’or confirmed Buñuel’s position as an auteur and more importantly, as a genuine firebrand. His definitive comeback film, which he made in Mexico after years of puzzling silence, Los Olvidados (1950) is no less unorthodox.  After turning Hollywood and Expressionist form of filmmaking inside out in his first two features, it looks like Buñuel had deliberately waited for the next big film movement to establish itself. With Neo-realism rising to power after the war, backed by many critics and theorists, it was but a opportune moment for enter the scenario and create chaos.

Los Olvidados opens with the following lines:

“Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London, hides behind its wealth, poverty-stricken homes where poorly-fed children, deprived of health or school, are doomed to criminality. Society tries to provide a cure. Success for its efforts remains very limited. The future is not bound to the present: The day will come when children rights are respected. Mexico, large modern city, is no exception to the rule. This film shows the real life. It’s not optimistic. The solution to this problem is left to the forces of progress.”

Following this declaration of depiction of reality, Buñuel cuts to the streets where we see a bunch of noisy kids playing. The setting is apt for another neorealist feature – kids on the streets, the scorching heat and images of massive reconstruction. Los Olvidados follows the life of Pedro, a street urchin and the other children of the locality he spends his time with –  Jaibo, the eldest of the lot who ultimately shapes Pedro’s life, Ojitos aka Small Eyes, a lost kid from the country side and Julian, the only “responsible” person in the gang. The film’s content proceeds from being raw, to cruel, to immoral, to misanthropic and culminates in traumatizing despair.

The older people in Los Olvidados are either sick, perverted, physically challenged or drunk. And the young are no good. But their worlds are not, by any stretch of imagination, mutually exclusive. The youth abstain from responsibility and abuse their agility and power. They could easily be labeled Les Enfants Terrible and Mexico, no country for old men. However, there are no angels in Buñuel’s land. The hypocritical seniors, on the other hand, judge them in plurality. They carry on with their old traditions and spend time cheating each other and cursing the younger ones (The blind Don Carmelo, the first victim of the brats’ “ultraviolence”, supplements his street music with his witch-doctor act). The only neutral elements of the film – the police and the judiciary, possibly representing the bourgeoisie – spend time philosophizing about poverty and the urgent need to eradicate it. This isn’t just a generation gap. What we have here is two competing and almost internecine worlds that refuse to conform.

Buñuel applies magnanimous amounts of violence – both simulated and otherwise – to the already unnerving realism of Mexico streets that is sure to make stomachs churn, especially now that CG has made us numb to everyday violence. But Buñuel’s violence is all the more unsettling, than say A Clockwork Orange (1971), because imminence of its possibility. Kubrick’s mystical and often anti-realistic setting prevents the barbarism of the Droogs to seep into the present and the film itself is, at its best, prophetic. Buñuel, on the other hand, exploits the neo-realist premise to situate the events in the tangible present and, as the opening statement of the film says, universalize the hypothesis. The fact that the victims are the violence are the physically challenged, the “morally” good and children makes it exceptionally scandalous to bourgeois sensibilities. Coexisting with the neorealist wave was film-noir craze where (also) the grey heroes never hesitated to pull the trigger unwarrantably. But even there, the victims themselves were like the protagonists – always carrying with them a fair reason to get killed – thus causing no harm to the existing moral framework.

But Buñuel’s world isn’t an appeasing aquarium which can be gazed at from a safe distance. He gets close to the characters, much more than the neo-realists, even giving us glimpses of their dreams but always eschewing psychoanalysis. Nor does he have one-to-one relation between images and their meaning. The chickens that appear throughout the movie may be a symbol that stands for some deeper meaning or a token for entry into the surreal from the real or plainly, a chicken. Like the eye-slitter of Un Chien Andalou or the cow in the bedroom gag of L’Âge D’or, Buñuel shocks us with one inexplicable image after the other, eventually pushing us to a “zone of no reasoning”, after which one just has to accept the reality that he gives us without questions. “This film shows the real life” says the title monologue. “Reality” here is tricky. It is Buñuel’s reality. He is happy to indulge himself into reality that is not just skin deep. And this is where Buñuel departs from and slays Neorealism.

los-olvidadosThe children in the classic Neo-realist films were sympathetic and often pawns of fate or power plays. Buñuel’s Pedro is also a product of his environment and the prejudices against him. But that does not mean all of Buñuel’s kids are sympathy-magnets. Most of them are, in fact, instigators of social disturbances that the “neo-realist kids” are subjected to. Buñuel breaks away from that “objective gaze” of the Italian pioneers and takes us on a tour into the subconscious world of his protagonists. Moreover, Buñuel questions the moral integrity of its protagonists, or rather does away with that concern completely (Buñuel apparently wanted to put an orchestra as the backdrop to some major scenes which would have broken another tenet of the Italians). But all this subversiveness isn’t just a product of a desperate need to break rules. What Buñuel does here is, like he did in his first two movies, that he exposes the inherent flaws of a cinema movement. In other words, Los Olvidados is a critique of a way of filmmaking written in the form of a film.  Buñuel takes up neo-realism in order to explode it from within and boy, does he succeed! In one of the greatest shots in film history, Pedro, in his reformatory, throws an egg at the soberly observing camera. – An in-your-face advice given by the director asking the neo-realists to cease the nonparticipation and do something about it all. Buñuel has driven the final nail into the coffin of Neo-realism.

Pather Panchali (1955) (aka Song Of The Little Road)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“This is my home, too. But look at it. It’s like living in the forest. “

 

Satyajit Ray’s name has become synonymous with quality cinema from the country and his opera prima Pather Panchali, (1955) its prime example. Made under hopeless production situation like many other great films of that period, Pather Panchali has been hailed by critics, filmmakers and cinema lovers across the world as one of the greatest of all times. And what a legacy it has left behind!

pather-panchali-1Based on a book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Pather Panchali is a series of loosely knit episodes in a poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who also dabbles in play writing. His wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee) manages the household and her two children Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee). There is also their old “aunt” Indir (Chunibala Devi) who loves eating the fruits given to her by Durga. Then there are their neighbours, the well-off Mukherjees, who share a love-hate relationship with their family. Mrs. Mukherjee helps out when Durga falls sick almost as her surrogate mother (as Ray hints early in his mise en scène) and Sarbojaya does the cooking in Mrs. Mukherjee’s daughter’s wedding. It’s a warm and isolated little world of theirs.

The biggest curse for Pather Panchali is that it was made immediately after the war. More precisely, at a time when neo-realism was the almost the in-thing. Almost every description or review of the film seems to kick off by assigning the neo-realistic tag to the film, perhaps more so after Ray’s enthusiastic comments about The Bicycle Thief (1947). It is beyond doubt that Ray’s employment of non-professional actors, use of natural locations, refusal of make-up and high-key lighting, the tendency of having the backdrop speak for itself and a complete abstinence from the exaggerated gestures and practices of popular cinema owe their debt to the masters of the neo-realist movement. But broadly calling Pather Panchali a neorealist film, basing arguments on the above conditions alone, is but unfair to Ray and his style. In fact, Pather Panchali often works against the “written principles” of neo-realism that pioneers like Zavattini proposed.

pather-panchali-5The neo-realists strongly emphasized that the neo-realist filmmaker be just a passive observer of reality without imposing his interpretations on it. That whatever the situation of their characters, – glory or misery – the filmmaker must maintain objectivity, always subordinating reason to action. Although many of the staunch neo-realists themselves couldn’t achieve this complete objectivity, they did attempt to do so in theory. However, in Pather Panchali, Ray never claims to be a mere observer. It is true that he does not comment on the characters’ actions and situation or throw hints to the audience so as to tell them what to feel. But that does not mean Ray does not take a stance (or a neutral stance for that matter). Ray is biased for sure, but not towards his characters but towards life itself. He takes immense joy in infusing life on to the screen and providing a channel of hope to his protagonists. Quite in contention with the neo-realist theory, Ray does not hesitate using Pt. Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack generously (but not without much caution) or in concocting sequences with a tinge of humour.

Further, deeming Pather Panchali to be a neo-realist film would only result in an over-simplification of Ray’s knowledge of cinema. Ray, being one of the country’s biggest and most renowned cinephiles, has evidently seen and absorbed a large cross-section of world cinema that spans various decades, geographies and cultures. And Pather Panchali stands as a testament for that wherein Ray incorporates many of his influences without ever making it look contrived or out of place. Apart from the overt nods to the neo-realist customs, Ray constructs sequences that conform to Eisenstein’s rules of montage (the scene where Durga is punished by her mother stands out), employs indoor sets that have an expressionistic touch to them. Some of his compositional practices, too, show closeness to Japanese cinema. If you ask me, Ray’s filmmaking in Pather Panchali is nearer to Fellini’s than De Sica’s. Ray’s penchant for close-ups, the dramatic zooms, the occasional submission to simple melodrama and the sheer lust for life that he paints on screen are closer in spirit to Fellini’s works, especially La Strada (1954), than any other director.

pather-panchali-3Like La Strada (another victim of the neo-realist baptism), that was as much away from its purely neo-realist contemporaries as it was close to them, Ray marries the neo-realist objectivity that avoids hyperbole and his own subjective view of life producing what may be, like Fellini’s film, called “neo-realism with a heart”. But again, Ray absorbs and deviates. Where, like many a film of later years, La Strada compares a road trip to life, Pather Panchali compares life to a road trip. Ray treats life as an inevitable journey which should go on no matter how shattering its events are. He punctuates his film with images of little roads through the woods and of characters arriving or departing from the village. In other words, Satyajit Ray presents life as a train journey where passengers may come and passengers may go, but the train itself never stops. Ray wasn’t kidding when he put that train in Pather Panchali – a train that Durga never manages to get on and one that Apu would, in Aparajito (1957), my favorite film of the trilogy.

But clearly, the most important character in the film is Durga – one that is very close to nature. Durga is Nature. Ray shoots her almost always amidst flora and fauna. She roams freely through the woods, groves, rice fields and in the rain without anyone stopping her. She is intrigued by man-made objects like locomotives and telegraph poles. Why, she even passes away after getting drenched in the rain. So is Auntie Indir who is nobody but a grown up version of Durga. Like Durga, she is also thrown out of house by Sarbojaya and who, too, passes away in the middle of the forest. Ray captures Auntie Indir and Durga regularly together in the same frame as he strikes a parallel by cutting back and forth between them. After all, both of them brought Apu up in their own ways. In the poignant end scene, Apu throws the necklace (that Durga was accused of stealing) into the river without an iota of hesitation – returning it back to Durga who has now returned to her nascent form.

pather-panchali-5

Because Ray lets us see only one world (with the occasional letter being the only mode of communication), – that of the village and its people – one can safely assume that Ray is normalizing the world into it and, consequently, that the statements Ray makes about the village are, in fact, applicable to the whole world (or the country in case of social and political observations). However, contrary to popular opinion that the film just talks about the misery of poverty, Pather Panchali goes beyond trivial economic connotations. Except for a few inherent observations about the class system, economics isn’t even a major concern for the film. So aren’t politics and theology that are kept are remote as possible. But that does not mean that the film is entirely universal and just for the sake of being so. Apart from the universal theme of man and nature, Ray’s major concern is the position of women in the society. Although Sarbojaya is the most thoughtful and resourceful member of the family, Harihar rarely listens to her. She is treated no better than a nanny for his kids. Like Mizoguchi (whom he admires, according to his essays) in Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Ray uses his mise en scène to express more than what the script does. But unlike Mizoguchi who used his aesthetics to denote the inevitability of fate, Ray uses it to comment on the pressing social condition of the family, especially Sarbojaya. Ray films her along the margins of the film frame. She is often seen stifled by artificial (physical and social) structures. Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra employ POV shots through doors, holes and ruptures to present a picture like snapshot of the family, with the image of a door often denoting freedom or the lack of it.

If there ever was life on celluloid, it has to be last twenty minutes of Pather Panchali. As the monsoon season takes over summer, skies darken and a breeze picks up. As the surface of the water starts pulsating, flies and other minute life forms start gathering. One wishes that this sequence never ends. The whole scene has a haiku-like visual quality and feel to it, not surprising considering Ray’s exposure to and admiration for Japanese art forms, especially cinema. He notes in his essay “Calm Without, Fire Within” (from his book Our Films, Their Films):

“Then there is the Japanese use of camera, of light. Light is used as the brush is by the painter – to feel and reveal the texture of things, to capture moods, to lend the right expressive weight to a given image.”

In fact, the same text can be used to describing Ray’s style in Pather Panchali that flourishes on the strength of its atmosphere, creating its own world and enticing the audience into it. Unlike the director’s later films such as Charulata (1964), which actually starts seeping through once it has ended, Pather Panchali appeals directly to the sub-conscious. Hypnotic may be the proper word. Throughout the film, there is almost no shot where life is not seen. We always see some life form or the other playing around on the screen. Dogs, cats, cattle and humans galore, Pather Panchali is a film that overflows with vitality. However, such reductive mapping would only lead to another over-simplification that Pather Panchali has been regularly subjected to. Both Pather Panchali and Ray have been called, rather labeled, humanist by admirers and critics all over the world. But such a reading of the film would just conform to a pseudo-liberal view of destitution and reinforce Nargis Dutt’s claims of selling of poverty to the West. In Pather Panchali, Ray turns out to be an animist rather than a humanist and the film itself, pro-life and anti-mankind.

pather-panchali-2Mrs. Mukherjee confiscates the family’s grove as a penalty for the failure of repayment of loan. Later, the people of the village persuade Harihar to stay and tell him that this place is their ancestral land. It is as if the people of the village have assumed the land to be theirs despite of the fact that it was already there much before them. Ray touches upon the conflict between man and nature that has been dear to so many filmmakers before and after him. And this is where Pather Panchali gets deeper than meets the eye. Exactly like Herzog would do in Signs of Life (1968), Ray often composes his shot such that there is interaction between man and nature, with the latter overpowering. It is essentially because of nature – the rains and the cold winds – that the family is forced to move out. Nature has indeed taken revenge. Earlier in the film Sarbojaya tells Harihar that it feels like living in the forest, insisting they move on, and Mrs. Mukherjee that no names are written on fruits. She is, in fact, the only adult in the film who realizes that Land belongs to no body except nature itself. As Harihar and his family move out, a huge cobra is seen moving into the now-deserted house of his. At last, Nature has reclaimed what was always its.

Do Bhiga Zamin (1953) (aka Two Acres Of Land)
Bimal Roy
Hindi

“The land is the farmer’s mother. How can I sell my mother?”

 

DBZPost-war world cinema has been undoubtedly influenced by the Italian realist wave – be it the hard-hitting social commentary by Rosselini and Visconti or the soft delineation of day-to-day struggle by De Sica. After all, it gave birth to India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray! India, too, was quick to join the bandwagon and as a result, produced some terrific neo-realist films. Although a bit melodramatic, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) may well be called the Indian answer to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947).

Shambhu (Balraj Sahni, the Indian Humphrey Bogart) is a petty farmer who is happy with his two acres of land, his wife Parvati (Nirupa Roy) and his son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar, who would go on to become the star in Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954)). Things are smooth until his tract of land comes under threat of industrialization – A scheme spearheaded by the zamindar and loan shark of the village Thakur Hamam Singh (Murad), who tricks Shambhu into either paying up a huge amount of money or relinquishing the claim on his land. As a result, he is forced to go to the city with his son and earn the required sum of money, leaving his father and wife behind in the village. Shambhu takes a range of jobs – from a coolie to a rickshaw puller – just in order to earn those few hundred rupees. Kanhaiya, too, tries to lend a helping hand to his father. The rest of the film follows their harsh life in the city of Calcutta, their hopes, struggles and the denouement of their exertions in a very pragmatic and undecorated fashion.

The ending, a poignant and satirical visual assembly, is a bit sorrowful contrary to the popular happy ending concept prevalent during its times. A very daring move by Roy that tests the comfort levels of the audience – an idea that would be given an in-your-face execution later in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1957). The score by Salil Chowdhary, who also provided the story for the film, is low-key and does not manipulate the emotions of the viewers for most part of the movie while the restrained camerawork matches the intensity of its lead.

The consummate screenplay by to-be-legendary director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who also edited the film, handles many social themes with ease. The issue of internecine twin migration among the rural and urban not only becomes an integral part of the narration, but also serves as an eye opener for the hundreds of villagers who abandon farming in the dream of making it big in the city. Its counterpart, where agrarian lands are scathed, drained and made lifeless in the name of industrialization and development, is also subtly critiqued.

The most positive aspect of the film is the accentuation on upholding of one’s dignity and self esteem in the most perturbing situations. Though Shambhu could have executed his task easily in more ways than one, he opts for the most ethical choice of all – hard work. This universal theme of strong moral stand against a tide of corrupting influences would be seen in hundreds of movies that followed, more famously in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), which stands at the pinnacle of American Neorealism.

The indivisible nature of the family, all of whose members work towards the fulfillment of a single objective, which is a feature of the traditional Indian society yet universal in application, is a motif in the film. All of the members – Shambhu, his wife, his father and son – intend to alleviate his situation and try to contribute in every way possible. Another theme in the film that is characteristic of the then rural India is the issue of illiteracy among small time farmers that results in their economical exploitation by the money lenders and zamindars. On slight deliberation, it is easy to see that the root of Shambhu’s afflictions is his naiveté towards the legal issues of debt and interest. This issue would be lapped up later by Mehboob Khan’s Oscar nominee Mother India (1957).

Bimal Roy distributed the film abroad in the name “Calcutta – The Cruel City”. Indeed, the shattering image of Shambhu overtaking a horse cart as his customer offers more money for going faster shows how humans and beasts are considered no different in the cities. The film carries a recurring contrast between the warmth of bucolic life and the sheer frigidity of urban living throughout. Shambhu is consistently snubbed and ridiculed when he asks for a job in the city whereas he was offered a Hookah in the village without even asking.

Mahatma Gandhi said that the soul of the nation lies in its villages. What happens if the soul is ripped apart by the existentialism of its body? It is evident that Do Bhiga Zamin has been influenced by and influenced tens of masterful movies spanning different geographical, linguistic, social and temporal backgrounds, but still has a firm foot in its culture. This testifies that cinema knows no barriers and can be ecumenical but at the same time, be uniquely encoded in its culture. To paraphrase film theorist André Bazin – “it is both pre-translated and untranslatable”.

First published in Dear Cinema

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