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[The following is a translation of a set of letters between Raymond Bellour and Marie Redonnet on Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), originally written in 1993 and published in Bellour’s Pensées du cinéma (2016, P.O.L.)]

Days and Nights in the Forest

It’s always strange to walk out of a film with another person when we don’t know them well enough to be sure (a dangerous certainty) that they are thinking what you’re thinking. Especially when the film surprised you, took unexpected turns that you felt you followed well, and you don’t know if the other person, who might not have the same relation to cinema, reacted to the film in a similar way, or will at least use similar words to describe it.

Here, on the other hand, was a certainty, still a silent one: we liked the film. Terribly so: it left us speechless for a while, but we knew we’d have time to discuss it in the evening (a civilized ritual around the 8PM screening: have the dinner after the film in order to work on it slowly, privately, like an event that you don’t want to overload with other things, or digest at the wrong time).

Like all memories, of course, it later becomes something of a dream (I have always admired, with perhaps an excessive mistrust, those who are able to recount old conversations as if they had recorded them: are they so different from me, or do they implicitly embrace a mixture of truth and fiction? Or maybe they take notes immediately. But in that case, etc. etc.) I remember latching on to some references to articulate my surprise, to rationalize my amazement: this Satyajit Ray, who couldn’t apparently be more different, made me think, at least in his setup, of Rohmer (this was suggested to me by a friend of mine who loved the film and urged me to go see it right away), of early Fellini (I Vitelloni, for example), or even of Hawks (the fate of groups, the games of men and women, the transition from light to serious, the logic of plot reversals: the miraculous balance of “classical” cinema, modern though it is). In short, it’s still about the Rules of the Game between ethics and aesthetics (now that I’m writing (to you), I recall that Ray had assisted Renoir on The River).

I perhaps told you this, we thought it was really extraordinary that we could prepare for this transformation, that we could retain all the trivial elements of this story, as though suspended in a fishing net, in order to fully make use of them, in the form of a viewer memory, when the story veers, first slowly and then suddenly (that’s where the dexterity, the miracle lies), into the tragic, assuming a sweeping density by endowing its four merry men with a touch of fate.

We didn’t need to recount the film to each other at that point because we had just walked out of it, but we have to play that (minimal) game here. It’s not wholly true though: we did recount it in way, in order to pinpoint the moments in the film that had struck us and to arrive, unwittingly, at what had transfixed us.

So I’ll recall the crux here: four friends leave Calcutta to spend some time in the countryside. Two of them, familiar actors in Ray’s films, look like respectable executives; the third is a famous sportsman (he’s the only one with a backstory, presented through a really unexpected flashback that occurs during their journey, in the middle of their banter, signalling the future course of the film: his girlfriend has left him brutally following a mediocre, incriminating letter from him.); the fourth is the joker of the gang. They move into a forest guest house after bribing its watchman. There’s another house nearby, and the men get to know the family living there: father, daughter, daughter-in-law and her young boy. There are also women of the village, Duli being one of them. The film tells the story of these four bachelors who are out seeking adventure, going around these women towards whom their desire remains vague, only to turn concrete before their imminent departure: Sekhar, the jester, doesn’t get anyone; the sportsman Hari is committed to Duli; Asim to the daughter, Aparna; and Sanjoy to Jaya, the daughter-in-law (I checked these names in Charles Tesson’s book on Ray).

We were hardly interested in Hari, I think, except in order to notice what was extreme about the beautiful native (Duli) who sells herself, who is of a sensuality at once raw and perverse, mastered and uncontrolled, but very autonomous in any case, during the love scene in the forest, the only scene of lovemaking, of which the hero ends up being the victim (after the young woman leaves, he is assaulted by a villager whom he had unjustly accused of theft: the villager had observed the scene, which thus becomes more intense)

But the impression left by the scene fed into what we were constantly thinking about: that here was an extraordinary film on men and women, extraordinary because of the stance taken by a man to show the superiority of women when it comes to intelligence and behaviour in romantic relations.

We soon arrived at the great scene between Asim and Aparna, which could appear to be the most beautiful moment in the film. The groundwork for it is laid by two previous scenes thanks to which the film takes a turn and speeds ahead: a memory game in the forest in which Aparna crushes everyone, Asim in particular, the only one who puts up a fight; and a visit to the local fair, during which the group splits into three couples, with the sensual counterpoint of traditional dances to go with it—it’s audacious of Ray to film these female bodies so modestly and so sensually, to show them in harmony with the couples trying to find their feet.

We were amazed by how Aparna’s character, quite enigmatic so far, somewhat charming but sarcastic and rather removed, bursts out with a contained violence towards a half-flirtatious, half-romantic and mostly childish man, to whom she nevertheless imparts a consistency because she confides to him: her ability to memorize everything since early childhood, her brother who killed himself three years ago seemingly without reason, her mother who set herself on fire when Aparna was twelve. All this to explain her distance, her inability to enter the game of explicit seduction and her marked singularity (I thought so later, I think so now: is this Ray’s romanticism, an idealism that bestows the woman with an extra bit of aura and depth? Or as we originally thought: the naivete and vulgarity of men with their simplistic, dull desire—or, at least, the image they give of that—which rejects not only what is singular in a woman’s desire, but also the identity proper to a mutual desire, its only chance of being shared.)

But we hadn’t yet come to the scene that became, for us, the scene—that’s why we wanted to see the film together the next day, to freely write a few pages each to prolong the memory of what we discussed that evening, before, during and after the sad result of the elections (I’m looking at this obscene image on channel 2 again, enough to singlehandedly condemn television, which can never be cinema: between Madelin and Longuet, presentable forty and fifty somethings passably done up, stands a pulpy student of twenty-three years, fleshy lips and long hair, supposedly representing French youth and especially showing the desire they may have for her).

I think it was I who stopped suddenly at the scene that was hiding beneath what we had discussed before, like how one stops before an evidence: I told you that we’d just witnessed one of the most violent scenes of desire that cinema has ever offered. Until this scene, Jaya seemed, in contrast to her sister-in-law, a rather simple character: a sociable, cheerful woman (we have just learnt of the suicide of her husband from Aparna, but our attention doesn’t shift to her). Jaya returns home with Sanjoy from the fair to which he had accompanied her; she offers him coffee; they are alone in the house, where Ray has set up a muted but very charged lighting scheme that tightens the space. Jaya goes into her bedroom for a moment (there’s a fluctuation of memory here stemming from one of those loose ends characteristic of great mises en scène) and comes out of it transformed, covered with jewellery bought with Sanjoy at the fair. She offers herself with an absolute immodesty that reinforces what she recounts: the death of her husband, widowhood, the wife’s desire expected to vanish with her husband’s death. Sanjoy listens to her in silence, terrified. He is unable to take a single step towards her or make even one of the gestures he evidently imagined and looked forward to; he can only clam up. The more Jaya’s desire saturates the space the more thoroughly Ray’s sequencing withdraws into itself, so as to suddenly limit the whole world to what is happening—or rather, what is not happening—between this man and this woman.

That is where we began to feel differently. I was with Sanjoy, lost, understanding of his terror, projecting something of myself onto the character without knowing where each of us was, caught in a vague no man’s land. I told you how, when confronted with certain bodies, bodies that are too strange but whose strangeness is fascinating, a kind of imaginary madness opens up; I guess everyone has his own, which he recognizes the day it happens (this is amplified for me here by the evident otherness of the Indian woman that Jaya embodies so strongly: heavy, somewhat fleshy body of a glowing sensuality that doesn’t coincide really with the material body and induces a disorder, a dissociation between seeing and touching, or even between two modes of seeing, two modes of touching, which we’d prefer keeping apart). You seemed surprised by this male thing; and you spoke to me about the woman. You told me (I couldn’t think of it that way): a woman can offer herself like that only in order to want to not be taken. She remains in her mourning, which she bears tragically, which she exhibits, to the point of obscenity. This excess she indulges in is what protects her; this excess in which the other is nothing, can’t project himself into, for she desires him in a dead man’s place, as though to prove to him that he has no place there. Writing to you, I wonder if it’s this very intuition that Sanjoy has, considering that his terror mounts to such a degree: the fear of being denied, like the fear among women, as they say, when they can’t tolerate a pure, immediate physical desire. The harrowing magic of the scene, which we must see again to know more about, at least on the means of producing such a shock, could be in not letting either the man or the woman, who are trying to talk to about it like us, decide whether there’s a shade of comprehension or an opacity in what surfaces and dramatically stops between a man and a woman, whether either of them is aware of the horror they provoke in the other or whether these two horrors simply coexist in a space that has become, either way, unbearable.

R.B.

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[The following is a translation of an article by critic and filmmaker Pascale Bodet published in Trafic 95 (September 2015). I’m immensely grateful to Mr. Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of the article and to Ms. Bodet for her permission and generous support.]

The Golden Bird

Let’s begin with two dreamlike, unsettling fictional films made by Amit Dutta at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, the film school he was trained at: Kramasha (To Be Continued, 2007, 22’) and Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan (The Man’s Woman and Other Stories, 2009, 78’)[1].

Here’s one of the three stories in Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan. Married man Jainath is obsessed with the tattoo of his wife Krishna Bai, who has her own name tattooed on the hand. Jainath wants to cut his wife’s hand off. He wanders around with his friend who jokes (“Till the wrist, or till the shoulder?”), then incites Jainath to scrape the tattoo with a blade, then to attack it with sulphuric acid. In this tale, there are no good spirits to suggest tattooing both names—Krishna Bai’s and Jainath’s—on the same hand. The friend makes increasingly evil suggestions until the moment where Krishna Bai’s name appears, not just on her hand, but on the marital pillow. Noticing this new inscription, we understand that Jainath has let go of his evil spirit (who withdraws out of bitterness) to become his own good spirit. Jainath has another obsession now: he loves his wife; he forces her into embroidery. Independently of its sonic and visual (35mm) beauty, of the charm of its sound effects and of the tropical, diurnal, nocturnal dampness, I remember that the character of the friend/evil spirit renders this tale at once more prosaic (two friends wander about, talk, meet again and separate) and more fantastic (the friend is the evil double of an already malevolent hero).

Now, can we review the viability of cinema as an instrument for the search of truth? Money and human relationships always intervene in filmmaking but technology minimizes their necessity, giving more space and time to the inner journey. Filmmaking becomes more personal, almost intimate. It happens outside the purview of an audience, at least a real audience. No money to be earned, nor much fame. Then what is the reward left to the filmmaker? The answer for me could be: ‘the process’*. The possibility now to live one’s film more profoundly and intimately than ever. The kind of subject one chooses, the reading, learning and thoughts one lives through the making of a film become the most important reason for making it. Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty, and eventually truth (?).

*In Kashmir Saivism, some scriptures have the concept of prakriya denoting a prescribed practice (of ritual or meditation), which is the same as the highest knowledge; the path therein is one with the destination. [2]

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Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Within the first five minutes of Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a widescreen turkey directed and produced by Howard Hawks for Warner Brothers, the original audience must’ve gotten what they paid for: several thousand extras marshalled into a spectacular victory parade through the Egyptian desert. Teeming crowds are amassed on the sidelines and instructed to wave awkwardly at the passing army that, clad in multicolour uniforms, consists of soldiers supplied by the Egyptian military. I can imagine Harry Warner, or some other honcho at the studio, walking out of the preview after five minutes, assured that the money spent can be seen up there.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

If the parade and its reception vaguely resemble Nazi rallies, they are intended to be. The man leading the parade is the pharaoh Khufu. He’s just returning from a war campaign that has won him vast amounts of treasures and slaves. The pharaoh, a voiceover tells us, lusts after riches and power. In the ideology Hollywood sells (but doesn’t itself believe), this means only one thing: Khufu is going to bite the dust. Hollywood filmmakers were adept at condemning vice while harnessing its spectacular possibilities to the fullest. So the next hundred minutes of Land of the Pharaohs details the wrongheadedness of Khufu’s pursuit even as it invites us to marvel at the wonderful the result of his sin: the Great Pyramid of Giza he builds for his burial. This duality also dovetails with the production’s obligation to promote Egyptian tourism while upholding Christian admonition against pagan pageantry.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

But it isn’t Khufu who is the artist figure of the film. That would be the slave architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), recruited to design an inviolable labyrinth around Khufu’s future tomb. It isn’t clear what tribe Vashtar and his kinfolk belong to, but they serve as stand-ins for the film’s Western audience, covertly commenting on the barbaric practices of pharaonic faith and law. Vashtar is righteous, willing to sacrifice his own life for the freedom of his people. He bargains with the pharaoh, using his expertise to carry out his social vision. He is the filmmaker equivalent to the studio executive Khufu, who does little more than exploit his artists and workers to death in his quest to immortalize himself.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Khufu is played by British thespian Jack Hawkins. Like Rex Harrison later in Cleopatra (1963), this stage actor, with his stately line delivery and swaggering gait, brings gravitas and finesse to a two-dimensional role. He’s absent for considerable stretches of the narrative, which only enhances the impression of his importance. There’s an impressive little gesture he does to get the prostrating crowd back on its feet. However, I am with Luc Moullet in wondering how it might have been with John Wayne in the role. Wayne, who was busy playing Genghis Khan at the time, would at least have bought something of the ridiculous and the sublime to the rather staid proceedings.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Being a Hawks film, the romance between men overshadows the heterosexual ones emphasized by the script. The object of the pharaoh’s affection is his chief priest Hamar (a demure Alexis Minotis) who goes to the grave with his ruler at the end. When the jewellery-loving pharaoh returns home in the first scene, his fondness for women is on public display, while he reserves his affection for Hamar for his private chamber. He comes out of the shower bare-chested, eats a plum, and reminisces about his youthful days with Hamar. The conversation is interrupted by the queen, who has come to urge her husband to spend more time at home. Women, as is not unusual in Hawks, spell trouble: Khufu’s first queen discourages him from war, his second queen discourages him from peace.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Watching the film, I was reminded of Straub-Huillet’s Too Soon, Too Late (1981), the second half of which takes place in the fields and streets of Egypt as well. I’m fond of Serge Daney’s article on the latter film, which makes a distinction between acupuncturist-filmmakers and meteorologist-filmmakers. Where the acupuncturist Straubs, through trial and error, attempt to feel out the only morally defensible choice of lenses and camera placement in each of their shots, Hawks the meteorologist always goes for the widest possible angle from the farthest possible distance, so as to pack the greatest number of extras within the wide frame. At times, like the Straubs, he films extended panoramas to expand the space and multiply its spectacular possibilities. It’s a proto-fascist idea—of reducing people to specks on a hagiographic canvas—that results in a number of awe-inducing compositions.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Finally, while the Straubs are looking to capture something of the real present—the winds sweeping Egyptian fields, the gaze of the workers trickling out of a factory—Hawks’ film exudes Hollywood fakery on every level. The dialogue is heavily dubbed, with dilated, accented voices replacing the original. “They sang songs of their faith and of their joy”, tells the voiceover, even as we see thousands of men and women, who may have never been before a film camera, reluctantly march past, barely trying not to stare at it. The irony of an American super-production hiring Egyptians as dispensable extras to build a turgid monument in CinemaScope is, no doubt, lost on the film. But, hey, they got paid.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

[The following is a translation of an ‘ad review’ by Serge Daney published in Libération on 13 May 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma)]

May 1982. There’s always the temptation to put advertisements under the scanner of film criticism.

The scene takes place in a shop. There’s the saleswoman and there’s a client. What’s being sold? Rolls of fabric arranged in base cabinets or wrapped over an asexual mannequin placed on an old-fashioned sales counter? It’s not very clear. Everything melts into a fuzzy, pastel-coloured set: mauve, pink, green. The two women are in sober clothing. The saleswoman is modern, glowing, with sparkling eyes: she could feature on a leftist political poster. The client is a posh, snooty, idle bourgeois woman: she’s the kind that starts dancing abruptly in American musicals. At least twenty years separate the women. The shop window overlooks an abstract, scarcely-populated street. A pensive, bearded man passes by. The action begins.

  • Could I help you? (a revolving tracking shot, straight out of Universal-period Sirk, accompanies the client towards the counter).
  • I’d like to see that one… show me everything actually (the client is very mobile; she begins a kind of seduction dance in front of the saleswoman, who never leaves the counter).
  • Each one has its own scent… The pink one: rose; the mauve one (close-up of the saleswoman): lavender; the green one: vetiver, I’d say (adds the client dreamily) … Let me see the mauve one under the light (she goes off screen from right).
  • 2-ply, ma’am! (the saleswoman raises her voice from afar)
  • And what sizes do they come in? (Wide shot of the shop showing the saleswoman behind the counter, over the shoulder of the client, who is mincing in the foreground)[1].
  • Just one! (close-up once again). That should easily be enough. (Embarrassed).
  • Hmm! (pauses). Oh! I really don’t know which one to pick. Couldn’t you give me a sample from each? (The acting here is very good: a sudden cutaway shows the slouched body of the client from a three-quarter back profile, as if this body were saying, “I can’t take it anymore, I give up, I leave it to you” and falling apart dangerously only to pull itself together during the movement that brings the client back, beaming and childlike, towards the counter).
  • Certainly, with pleasure. (Close-up of the saleswoman who trots out these words with gleaming eyes, stressing on the word “pleasure”).

All this lasts thirty seconds and thirteen shots. The reader must’ve understood what I’m talking about. It’s about a commercial and it’s about pleasure. The object being sold isn’t silk or batik, but elegant rolls of Trèfle brand toilet paper. A final shot, the fourteenth, shows the multicoloured rolls as a voiceover coos: “Trèfle in four scents: a very fine collection”. There are so many reasons to love and analyse this anal, and hardly banal, commercial that I won’t resist the pleasure of listing two or three of them for cine-telephiles.

Selling toilet paper as though it were a collection of rare and priceless fabric is one idea. Imagining a shop that sells just that is a second (rather dreamlike) idea. To have two women play the scene is a third one. “Normal” sanitary ads generally begin with a dreadful observation about filth in order to construct the ideal of a miraculous cleanliness (one recalls the terrible Mr. Clean). It’s the opposite here. It’s because the whole scene is drenched in the cleanliness of a pastel-coloured dream that the evocation of filth assumes its entire weight. And that it’s a confrontation between two women introduces an undeniably perverse dimension.

This small masterpiece of classical shot sequencing could help introduce our film school students to things as serious as the shot and the countershot, the cutaway and the depth of field. It’s the entire tradition of American comedy that comes alive before our eyes, by way of the obvious reference to Jacques Demy. From McCarey to Cukor. The impossibility of showing certain (lowly) things compelled the American filmmakers to invent a very cunning mise en scène. The dirtier the idea, the cleaner their shot sequencing. It’s the same case here.

For this little film on the pleasure of wiping yourself clearly deals with the unspeakable. The RFP (Régie française de publicité [French advertising board]) wasn’t mistaken either. From what I’ve heard, they may have censored the film. A flushing sound was supposed to accompany the shot where the unrolled roll becomes a kind of umbilical cord between the two women. The RFP didn’t want this noise. Nor this desire.

And yet, the voiceover of the fourteenth shot tries pointlessly to make us memorize the expression “Trèfle in four scents”. But the damage has already been done: it’s the penultimate shot, the thirteenth, with the mysterious “Certainly, with pleasure” that remains in memory. At this precise moment, the saleswoman conveys another message, a message that no product can make us forget, something along these lines: I can satisfy your choice, whatever it may be. Your demands will always fall short of what I can offer you. And that is the real message of the commercial, of all commercials.

 

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s Note: A couple of details in the article are incorrect. Here, for instance, Daney describes the reverse view of what is actually seen in the ad. Two lines later, he ascribes the client’s movements to the saleswoman. I have corrected the text accordingly.

Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta

I’m elated to announce that my book on Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta has now been published! I’m really grateful to Lightcube for editing, designing and publishing this smashing-looking volume and to the Raza Foundation for its financial assistance.

The book is a critical study of Dutta’s work, from his earliest diploma films to his recent digital production, as well as his three books. It devotes special attention to formal qualities of the films and attempts to locate them within a broader national and international artmaking context.

I’m convinced that this is the most significant writing I’ve done so far, and I’m very hopeful this book will fill an important gap in the literature on experimental cinema in India.

Mubi India is having a retrospective of Dutta’s films till October (and a global retrospective is likely in the months that follow). For the first time ever, you can watch Dutta’s films from your home. And I’m confident this book will serve as a good reading companion to your viewing and provide useful insight into Dutta’s work and practice.

The volume has been published independently and with modest means. Its life will depend entirely on the backing of kind readers and generous patrons. I request anyone interested in supporting this book to share this information in their personal and professional networks. Please buy the book, yes, but more importantly, please review. That will help give the book some crucial momentum.

Links below for the book. We hope to bring out a paperback version the coming year. If you represent a publication and would like a review copy of the book, please drop me a message below or at justanotheremailid@gmail.com.
 

Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation. They propose newer forms of cinematographic expression through their constant, ongoing dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it examines how Dutta’s work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism, one that bypasses Eurocentric rites of passage, inviting us to reframe our ideas of what being modern in art means.
 

Links

Link for the Kindle e-book: http://getbook.at/modernismbyothermeans

Link for a pdf copy: https://shop.lightcube.in/Modernism-By-Other-Means

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

– Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.

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[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Four hands: another contagion effect (No Highway in the Sky, 1950)

James Stewart appeared on the firmament of the film world in 1938 with Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. This celebrity comes about awkwardly: first of all, Stewart has only the fourth role in the film, after Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur. More importantly, even though he is the prototype of the indolent dreamer, his character belongs to the world of the rich, while his fiancée lives in a family of outcasts, among whom he feels totally at ease. The interest is thus centred on the conflict between the heads of the two families, Stewart putting them in contact with each other. His role could’ve been stronger had his character reproduced the mentality of the rich, whereas it’s the opposite here.

This shakiness is aggravated by the fact that Stewart hasn’t yet found his line as an actor. With his co-star Jean Arthur, he copies Cary Grant (and she, Katharine Hepburn) as he moves across the restaurant, stuck behind her to hide the ridiculous inscription she has on her back, some months after the similar—and more successful—scene from Bringing Up Baby. The second film he makes with Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, contains some shots—notably during the turbulent meeting with the press after the publication of an article ridiculing him—that relate him to his great friend Henry Fonda: his hair falls over his forehead and comes close to his cheeks, making his face look very thin. We perceive in him the hunted, rebellious man of You Only Live Once. At one point in You Can’t Take It with You, he has, on one part of the forehead, the famous little lock of hair of Gary Cooper, the protagonist of the first Shopworn Angel that Stewart just remade. Moreover, Mr. Smith, with Capra’s help, is a close cousin to Mr. Deeds.

This proximity can be linked to the fact that Cooper, Fonda and Stewart are all Tauruses. I had the greatest contempt for astrology until the day I realized that most great actors (Fonda, Welles, Gabin, Fernandel, James Mason) were born under this sign. It’s too good to be a coincidence, especially considering that Capra was born on the 19th of May, a day before Stewart, and that Borzage (who gave JS the leading role in Mortal Storm) belonged to the same vintage: it’s really a great family…

From You Can’t Take onwards, Stewart’s individuality starts to manifest itself: his novel play of hands often has a precise signification. So the dance of his fingers on the table constitutes a direct allusion to the guests who are enjoying themselves at the house of his future father-in-law. The work on repurposed gestures is very successful: he raises his hand toward the boy employed by his father, as though to slap him. He abandons his primitive impulse, and regains his gesture in a way, so as to not look like an idiot: in the continuity of the movement, he goes on… to brush his jacket.

This work on hands is quite good in one scene of a film made slightly later, Made for Each Other (1939): he informs his mother that he is married to the girl next to him by pointing his thumb alternatively towards the girl and himself. In the same film, we find an identical principle, but with the head this time: he lets the viewer know that he has understood his wife’s allusive speech suggesting that she is pregnant, simply by lowering his head four times in a twitchy manner. Before this, we weren’t sure of the real meaning of this speech. This sharp movement, mixed with emotion, helps us understand everything. Great art consists of doing away with speech, of saying everything through gesture, especially when it involves important events: a marriage, a birth.

In You Can’t Take, his stubborn way of keeping his mouth open without speaking is particularly audacious. This trait allows us to better place the character: it’s the Capraesque Naïf, dazed and out of sync with reality. This perfectly suits Stewart, who displays the temperament of a dreamer in real life and whose physique, with his wide cheeks somewhat depressed towards a visible chin, midway between Jerry Lewis and Eddy Merckx, and his lanky figure, give the impression of ingenuousness.

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[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Boxing films are always something more than about boxing. The violent quality of the sport, the limited space of the ring and the unique social profile of its participants render it conducive to productive artistic interventions. Adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s prose poem of the same name from 1928, The Set-Up (1949) centres on Stoker (Robert Ryan, in a characteristically tough, anti-heroic turn), a 35-year-old boxer riding on a string of failures, getting ready for what may be his last shot at success. Unaware that his managers have made a $50 deal with the opposing team to ensure he loses the match, Stoker prepares for the fight against the wishes of his girlfriend (Audrey Totter), who wants him to give up fighting and settle down.

It isn’t usual for Hollywood films to be adapted from poetry. But March’s composition, which one commentator described as “a noir poem”, with its vernacular language and short, punchy verse lends itself easily to cinematic transcription. March himself was a film enthusiast who admired the economy of movie storytelling (“I learn something of value every time I see a picture, even if it’s rotten—and when it’s a really good one, my eyes pop out and I feel like taking up embroidery as a life work.”) His poem’s protagonist is a black man described thus: “Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown / And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown”. In the screen adaptation, this character is changed to a white man, Stoker, who identifies with the one black boxer in the changing room.

This whitewashing of the protagonist has two effects. One, it shifts the story’s social focus from race to class. Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement was still tongue-tied on the question of race, but it was always more responsive to the plight of the poor white. With the war over and veterans returning to civil life, the triumphalist tone of war-time movies made way for a more sombre atmosphere in films dealing with urban realities. RKO studio head Dore Schary, director Robert Wise and writer Art Cohn were well-known liberals with interest in social themes. In The Set-Up, they use the situation of a washed-out pugilist to emphasize the impossibility of the American dream and the persistence of violence in public consciousness.

The first time we see Stoker, he falls face down on the ring following a knock-out. This downbeat image gives way to a shot of a street with neon lights sardonically reading “Paradise City” and “Dreamland”. Stoker, like his peers, clings to the dream against incredible odds, always believing in the illusion that he is “one punch away” from success. The Set-Up is certainly an underdog story, but one which recognizes that the underdog loses the war even if he wins a few battles, especially when the system is betting on his failure. Stoker does come out on top against his rival in the ring, but soon as he leaves the arena, he is thrashed by a group of men who break his right hand for good. Casinos, those embodiments of the American dream, have taught us the lesson: you don’t get to win against million-to-one odds and walk away scot free.

Making Stoker a white character also imparts a markedly existentialist thrust to the narrative. This is because stories amenable to existentialist reading, or written in existentialist terms, were often structured around a white, male subjectivity. Stoker’s predicament is explicitly formulated as that of a man trying to find meaning in an absurd universe. He is an aging boxer struggling to prove his worth in a world where the new is constantly replacing the old. In the changing room, he experiences vicarious pleasure and fear watching young, idealist debutants getting ready for their first match or expressing their hope for a chance at the title. This boxer of twenty years, whose sole supporter is another aging newspaper boy, sees the doors of his life shutting one by one. The spaces he inhabits in the film—his apartment, the changing room, and the arena—seem like claustrophobic, enclosed spaces with no exit.

More than the boxing ring, it’s the changing room around which the film is structured. This constricted room of male bonding, whose busy activities are filmed in deep-space compositions, is a zone where men can express their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness, a privilege unavailable in the ring or elsewhere. All the emotions Stoker experiences before his final shot at success — fear, ambition, disgust, temptation and domestic anxiety — are externalized through other characters in the room, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The changing room is a purgatory of comings and goings, a limbo between dream and reality. It is also a transitional space located literally between home and the ring; Stoker keeps peeking out to see if Julie has left their apartment, his anxiety relieved when he notices that she might be on her way to the match.

Julie, though, refuses to enter the arena. She spends her evening wandering the city streets, gripped by the dread of imagining Stoker hurt beyond repair. A moment of respite finds her observing young boys and girls indulging in pranks and games of chance at a penny arcade—a dream-like space as artificial as the ring. The film gives the appearance of unfolding in 72 minutes of real time. But it nests two experiences of time within its narrative. Julie’s 72 minutes agonizing over her boyfriend’s fate feels much longer than Stoker’s waiting for his match, which marches on like the clocks we see throughout the film, implacably, indifferently. It’s this binocular perspective of time, accelerating or slowing down depending on whose point of view it’s sharing, that lends the film a meditative, philosophical quality.

Julie’s refusal to enter the arena is also a refusal to partake in its violence. Throughout The Set-Up, and during Stoker’s fight in particular, Robert Wise intercuts the boxing with reactions of people in the arena. As men and women whoop and holler, changing their allegiance to whoever is landing the harsher blows, we witness a primal taste for animalistic violence sublimated in sports. Images of bellowing spectators make us aware of ourselves as movie viewers, revealing the sadistic gaze underpinning all violent spectacle, a gaze that has the power to kill. To this end, Wise photographs the match from outside the ring, so that the ropes are visible at all times during the fight. This decision conflates the film viewer with the spectator in the arena. It also creates a sense of entrapment around the fighters, who come across as captives made to kill each other for mass entertainment.

But that doesn’t prevent The Set-Up from being a spectacle in itself. Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), exhibits a dynamic style comprising of elaborate camera choreography, wide-angle, high-contrast cinematography that makes use of all image planes, and a great sensitivity to the movement of boxers in the ring. The film barely has any musical score, and its soundtrack is made almost wholly of dialogue and environmental sounds. Even so, we don’t feel distanced from the action for a moment. In presenting the fight in all its vigour and energy, but breaking it regularly with somewhat repulsive shots of gesticulating spectators, the film has its cake and eats it too. Like many of the wonderful films discussed in this column, The Set-Up is a thing and its opposite, suffused with those perplexing, contradictory impulses that make the best of classical Hollywood cinema so rich and alive.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Each of the four limbs follows one or two different directions (Indiscreet, 1958)

Cary Grant is in the same boat as Cooper or Wayne: his first films, made for the same company—Paramount, as it happens—during the thirties, offer us a rather aseptic, standardized actor. We have the slightly caricatured proof of that in his role in Blonde Venus (Sternberg, 1932), where he plays opposite Marlene Dietrich as her wealthy seducer and impresario. Despite his brief scenes, we get to see him in the attire of a horseman, a yachtsman, and in several other expensive costumes. The husband, Herbert Marshall, and, especially, Marlene Dietrich get numerous medium shots. Not Grant, who is more of an image, a silhouette. Sternberg’s contribution to the film somewhat surpasses Paramount’s standards. With Cary Grant, Sternberg seems to have wanted to replicate the Gary Cooper of Morocco: the same short sentences, the same emphasis on the nose. Choosing Cary as a first name in 1932 was perhaps not an innocent choice. Grant appears much older than his age of twenty-eight. It’s perhaps the only time in his career that he has a massive appearance. With his large, immobile face, he resembles Sternberg’s future actors like Mature or Mitchum rather than Cooper. He moves very little. He delivers a blow to an adversary the first time we see him. He is entirely a Sternbergian man, having little to do with Grant’s personality of the years to follow.

Sylvia Scarlett (1935), his second excursion from Paramount, gifts us a real actor. The film revolves around a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) who is obliged to dress up as a man in order to help her fugitive father. Grant plays a curious character, an Englishman like himself (while he would be an American in the great majority of his films) of an indefinite status: a conman, he begins by shamefully exploiting the father and the “daughter” before helping and protecting them. He generally plays leading men in other films, but here, he vanishes towards the end, letting Katharine Hepburn marry Brian Aherne. But this isn’t exactly a disappearance, since Hepburn wears Grant’s black jacket and closely imitates his behaviour in the train, seen in the film’s very first scene.

There is a key to better understand, to differently understand Sylvia Scarlett and Grant’s entire body of work. At the beginning of this book, I intended to abstain from talking about the private life of the artists. I hope the reader will forgive me if I contradict this principle. I promise not do so again. But this infraction of critical ethics appears indispensable to me. Grant was married five times, for quite short periods of time. This added to his legend as a handsome seducer. But the recent biography by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley [1] indicates that Grant was bisexual, and that his heterosexual relations were generally, let’s say, less happy than the others. Since the book was not mired in any controversy, we could trust its authors. This explains the brevity of his marriages, and perhaps even Grant’s delayed paternity (at sixty-two years). The many marriages served, if not as a cover, at least as tryouts with varying degrees of success. These particularities were hushed up by gossip columnists. For if it was known that the greatest seducer of women was closeted, the whole Hollywood scaffolding could likely collapse, and the squealers with it.

I probably don’t even have to apologize for this reference to private life. For it fortunately makes up for another, more or less unconscious reference to a fake private life: if we were blind to Cary Grant’s ambiguity, it was because his image as an eternal skirt-chaser distracted us from the reality on screen, and prohibited us from thinking even for a moment of this ambiguity.

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[For its 45th “anniversary”, I wrote the following article on the Internal Emergency as seen by the short films produced by the state-owned Films Division of India]

It’s obvious today to anyone who watches them that the documentaries and newsreels produced by the Films Division of India (FD) conceal as much as they reveal. Set up as India’s official film production unit under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) in 1948, FD had for mission to inform the people of a new democracy about what their government is doing for them, and what the government in turn expects from them as responsible citizens. In short, propaganda. Even so, as Peter Sutoris illuminates in his book Visions of Development (2016), the various organs involved in the making of the films had a margin of creative autonomy that helped usher in some degree of artistry.

This was especially the case after the protean artist Jean Bhownagary took charge of the organization when Indira Gandhi was heading the MIB. FD works of the late sixties and the early seventies are among the most innovative films ever created in the country. When the Emergency was declared on 25th June 1975, however, FD was forced back into its straitjacket and its resources marshalled to defend the clampdown and to sing praise of the PM and her Twenty Point Programme. To be sure, apolitical work such as documentaries on art and culture were still produced, but the films made during 1975-77 that did deal with the political situation had to toe the official line more strictly than ever.

While a straight-up hagiography like The Prime Minister (1976), which follows the dear leader’s everyday routine, still has currency in our political discourse, many FD films about the Emergency remain odd historical curios. One recurring theme was the futility of violence and militant protest. In shorts such as Kidhar Ja Rahe Ho (1975) and Kaisa Andhera (1975), decontextualized, stock images of violence are cut to a Hindi-movie-like song expressing dismay at the damage to public property being caused. In Maa Ki Pukar (1975), an errant young man is convinced by his mother, who bears a resemblance to the PM, that violence isn’t the solution to the nation’s problems.

But propaganda wasn’t limited to purveyors of kitsch alone. Even original voices like S. N. S. Sastry were recruited into smoke and mirrors exercises. In a characteristic fashion, We Have Promises To Keep (1975) mixes approving street interviews, old-style documentary and violent contrasts to develop an impressionistic picture of a country where forces of order are at war with those of anarchy. Though not without some irreverent ambiguity (the film opens with a shot of a skull cut to one of Indira Gandhi’s eyes), Promises offers robust proof that the avant-garde can be put in service of pretty much any ideology.

The career of one particular filmmaker encapsulates the complex, conflicted public response to the Emergency. Sukhdev was a fierce independent who kept his distance from FD, finding real artistic footing in the organization only after Bhownagary took over. In their righteous anger and their rejection of all-knowing voiceovers, Sukhdev’s earliest films, such as And Miles to Go… (1965) and India ’67 (1967), are a far cry from the patronizing, didactic quality of the typical FD production. The years that followed, however, saw the filmmaker taking increasingly pro-government stances. For instance, in Voice of the People and A Few More Questions (both 1974), Sukhdev interviewed common people across social strata about their opinion on the impending all-India railway strike. Focusing on its potentially catastrophic effects rather than the demands driving it, these films present the strike as a selfish action of a few at the cost of many.

Compared to Sukhdev’s first films, Thunder of Freedom (1976) represents a volte-face both ideologically and stylistically. Though made of interviews of people opining on the political situation, the film is held together by the filmmaker’s authoritative voiceover, which interprets public unrest as an abuse of freedom. It walks us through the benefits of the Emergency using the same ‘before’ and ‘after’ model of the FD factory that Sukhdev’s early works violently rejected. With few exceptions, subjects talk to us about the welfare of slum resettlements, crackdown on profiteering and worker exploitation, quality control in ration shops, increased industrial productivity, and vast improvements in women’s safety and civic sense. All those interviewed express a concern that these changes might be reversed once the Emergency is removed.

One of Sukhdev’s last films, After the Silence (1976), presents arguably his most compelling case for the state’s iron fist. Politics remains out of the picture for the most part, the film probing into the horrific effects of legal and illegal bonded labour. The filmmaker is typically brash, even offensive, as he gathers testimonies from rural women sold into Delhi’s brothels, but the film retains a poetic, polemical force thanks to its stark photography and humanist conviction. Having established the urgency of problem, Sukhdev describes how the government has been able to abolish this practice and save thousands from unspeakable misery. It’s a wrenching film, disturbing in its methods but also empathetic in its exploration of intersectional poverty. It also demonstrates that Sukhdev’s relation to the state was more complex than it appears, that people were always at the focal point of his work.

A publication titled “White Paper on the Misuse of Mass Media During the Internal Emergency”, published under the new JP government in 1977, details the way the preceding regime abused the media, including FD, to glorify the Emergency and stoke a personality cult around its leader. This included commissioning a four-hour documentary on Indira Gandhi for an exorbitant sum of 11.9 lakh rupees. The document also hints at the special favours Sukhdev enjoyed, receiving projects directly from the MIB, without having to go through FD. At the same time, he wasn’t indispensable to the state, as no individual is. The MIB rejected one of his films, and he wouldn’t get any commissions from the JP government, which saw him as a collaborator in the Emergency.

An FD film made under the new government indirectly reveals what was, historically speaking, at stake during those 20 months. Directed by Sai Paranjpye, Freedom from Fear (1977) is a powerful account of the horrors of the Emergency: stories of torture, detention and disappearance, accounts of journalistic resistance and statements by students who had no choice but to become politicized. Unsurprisingly, the film promotes the new government as a champion of free speech that not only allows artists and reporters to criticize the state, but even offers a space on national television for the opposition to express itself. The film ends on an uplifting note, with images of children at school cut to a voiceover reading “Where the mind is without fear”.

What is most curious about the film is that we barely see images from the Emergency itself. When it wants to show public unrest, it employs footage from before the period, drawn from the FD archives as usual, like that of the railway strike of 1974—footage that, ironically, Sukhdev had shot. This absence suggests that the Emergency is really a black hole in our cinematic historiography, which makes the oral testimonies in Paranjpye’s film, stilted and preciously few in number though they are, all the more valuable.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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