(Nearly) random excerpts from Robert Bresson’s Notes On Cinematography (1977):

 

  • Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.
  • Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.
  • Shooting. No part of the unexpected which is not secretly expected by you.
  • Many people are needed in order to make a film, but only one who makes, unmakes, remakes his images and sounds, returning at every second to the initial impression or sensation which brought these to birth and is incomprehensible to the other people.
  • Economy: Racine (to his son Louis): I know your handwriting well enough, without your having to sign your name.
  • Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.
  • Actor. The to-and-fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.
  • To defeat the false powers of photography.
  • Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. (The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?)
  • From the beings and things of nature, washed clean of all art and especially of the art of drama, you will make an art.
  • X demonstrates a great stupidity when he says that to touch the masses there is no need of art.
  • Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy or by drama.
  • Empty the pond to get the fish.
  • Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses).
  • Your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism), but in the ineffable that they will emanate.
  • Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion.
  • The CINEMA did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.

Maya Darpan (1972)
Kumar Shahani
Hindi

Your brother’s going away hasn’t changed him a bit. Such pride! Even your leaving will not shame him. He is as he was.

 

Maya DarpanKumar Shahani remains one of the directors in that rarely seen and even more rarely discussed group of filmmakers that includes names such as Mani Kaul and M. S. Sathyu. Unfortunately, neither are there home video releases for most of their works nor are there widespread public screenings or film fest retrospectives within the country to generate interest. Heck, they don’t even make their way into the world of file sharing and peer to peer networks. We are now at a point where even the original negatives of the films face the risk of extinction. One can only hope that institutions like the World Cinema Foundation will do something about it. Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) is a seminal work in Indian Parallel Cinema not just because it canvasses critical social issues (a facet that, more or less, in hindsight, has become a characteristic of the movement) but also because it attempts to seek out a new aesthetic, which does not try to straddle mainstream cinema and art cinema, to do that. The very title, Maya Darpan (literally “Illusory Mirror”), aptly sums up both the film’s social (imprisonment by one’s own “image”, as defined by the class system) and formal (Maya Darpan could well be a sobriquet for cinema itself, encompassing both its illusive and realistic properties at once) concerns at once.

Shahani’s film is set in a provincial town in Northern India, at a time following the nation’s independence in 1947 (The film could well have been set in 1972, just after the worldwide leftist revolution had been put down, and there wouldn’t be much change to the script) when India was yet to be completely integrated as a political entity and when Nehruvian socialism was about to take on the existing feudal hierarchy. Taran (Aditi) is the daughter of a wealthy landlord (Anil Pandya) and lives with her father and her widowed aunt (Kanta Vyas) in their ancestral mansion (which goes on to represent the whole of upper class in the film). The town is witnessing protests by newly formed labour unions which are partly being politically educated by the local railroad engineer (Iqbalnath Kaul), who seems to have an unspoken romantic relationship with Taran. Taran’s unseen brother, who had, to the chagrin of their father, renounced his class privileges and gone off to an Assamese tea estate, asks Taran to join him. Stuck in a stifling patriarchal order, with pressure to get married to an upper class groom mounting, Taran decides to talk to her father about her plans. Actually, much less goes on in the film than what I’ve described and the film is more interested in assessing the formal possibilities of the medium than in following a seamless opportunity-conflict-resolution trajectory. Taran’s character does not arc in the traditional manner (she seems to have already entered the third act) although she eventually manages to switch roles with her lover.

Maya Darpan is a film about transition and transformation – from the bondage of regressive social structures to a progressive state of liberty and equality, from a setup where people have to assume rigid roles irrespective of free will to one where a individual can free himself of inherited roles and think for himself/herself (Taran recites a poem – “I’m called to birth again” – that recalls the legend of the phoenix, as she washes her hands). In other words, it is about the process of breaking the cycle of repression and exploitation into a zone of freedom (Shahani even inserts newsreels depicting World War 2 battle sequences and Gandhian protests during the British rule of India, perhaps to suggest all forms of oppression and subjugation). Shahani finds the cinematic idiom to express this cycle in the form of duplicated shots, redundant compositions and repeated actions and dialog. There are many shots that depict characters moving from the right edge of the screen to the left that are so schematic and mundane to the point of being humorous and self-parodying (One of Taran’s daily routines is to dust the set of chairs – presumably the symbols of power and authority in the film – that her father and other landlords use during their teatime. Fittingly, they are left scattered and disowned by her towards the end of the film). This transgression of social boundaries is also depicted by having characters cut through boundaries and cross railway tracks regularly. Consequently, Maya Darpan plays out like a piece of complex musical composition with many minute variations on a few primary motifs (The film’s unexpected coda itself is a set of classically choreographed tableaus that, I believe, presents the class conflict in dance/martial art form).

Maya DarpanShahani apparently assisted Robert Bresson on A Gentle Woman (1969) and the influence of the French director on Shahani’s style is obvious (especially the extraordinary opening sequence of that particular film, which is echoed at multiple places in Maya Darpan). Like Bresson, Shahani’s shot division has a tendency to break down sequences into their most basic components. Images of hands and feet, isolated in action, often punctuate the narrative. Also Bressonian is the use of sound in the film. Shahani employs tremendous amount of off-screen noise to complement the imagery rather than reinforce it (This divorce between image and sound is alluded to in the very first scene of the film – the nomadic camera, at first, seems to be searching for the voice on the soundtrack and eventually settles down near a sleeping character. The voice turns out to be non-diegetic). The presence of trains, automobiles, oxcarts and taps are all established by the soundtrack. In fact, the camera is never made privy to any sensational action. These actions are either relegated to the space off-screen or they are only provided to us through words. But the influence of Bresson is most palpable in Shahani’s use of his actors. He asks the actors, all non-professionals, to have no expression whatsoever on their faces when spouting their lines monotonically, without any modulation. The effect is all the more unsettling given how vehemently it goes against the natural speech pattern of the country.

As a result, Maya Darpan could be described as a film in which the sociopolitical concerns of Shyam Benegal and John Abraham are distilled through the minimalist aesthetics of Bresson (with a dollop of Resnais, Antonioni and Pasolini to boot). However, it should not be assumed that Shahani’s style is entirely derivative. Shahani’s Bresson influence is just the base upon which he works out his own ways. For instance, in Bresson’s films, conflicts would largely be kept internal and would very occasionally manifest in the characters’ physical actions. In either case, Bresson thoroughly remains a realist of space and time. Shahani, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to slip in the borderline-surreal elements. Large stretches of poetry and prose are recited by the characters on the soundtrack, which touch upon their psychology but abstain from analysis, while we see them wandering the barren, debris-filled streets of the town. Furthermore, Bresson’s characters have to go through a process of suffering before they can attain deterministic grace and happiness whereas Shahani’s protagonist is an active entity who chooses to change her life through conscious effort. Even the handful of comments online about the film mentions its innovative use of colour, which I find to be the least important aspect of the work. Shahani does this through the costume and production design of the film, which doesn’t exactly seem to succeed throughout.

Satyajit Ray once commented about Maya Darpan, along with other acclaimed works of the period (almost all of which he was critical of!), in his collection of essays Our Films, Their Films. I’ll type it down here:

Shahani’s other allegiance [in addition to Ritwik Ghatak] is to Bresson with whom he had worked on a film. The legacy of that lesson is to be seen in the girl in the centre of Mayadarpan [sic]. She, too, like Mouchette, suffers inwardly and wordlessly. No quarrel with that. But we are concerned with what happens outwardly. And here, I am afraid, Bresson evaporates. Does Shahani seriously believe that the major outward manifestation of such suffering is a slow, rigid ambulation up and down verandas repeated every five  minutes or so throughout the film? Film language would be threatened with extinction if this were really so. To me Mayadarpan seems a combination of poor psychology and poorer stylization. Even the sophisticated response to colour goes for nothing in a film that is so gauche in its handling of the human element. Even more than [Mani] Kaul, Shahani seems to forget that when one imposes a rigid style on the actor without a thorough working out of its expressive possibilities, it becomes indistinguishable from bad acting. The method becomes, extremely risky in a story with an urban background, where the nature of life and work severely limits the expressive gestures. The only possible approach here is the psychological one, for which Shahani seems to have no use.

While I would not be so harsh and unforgiving about Shahani’s film, I do believe Ray makes some fine points there. Shahani sure does seem to be on an experimental ground, trying to figure out the most effective means to get his points across. Not all his flourishes work and there are a number of rough edges to the film. Some shots seem o serve no purpose except perhaps to further disengage us from the already alien narrative. But it would be a tad unfair to say that Shahani eschews psychological exploration altogether. True that he does not work towards psychological realism through the conventional means of writing, acting and scoring. His psychological examination is, akin to Michelangelo Antonioni, carried out through actor choreography, his compositions and his mise en scène (and, to a minor extent, through the poetry-driven non-sequiturs that brace the narrative). Taran is almost always composed against the mansion’s walls and amidst the imposing interiors of the building. She is arrested and suffocated by the endless amount of doorways and pillars in the mansion. During the course of the film, it’s as if the monstrous structure assumes a life of its own, consuming Taran into the void within. This is starkly contrasted with the lush and open spaces of Assam and of the working class section of the village. The bottom line is that, if not anything else, films such as Maya Darpan are of considerable interest to the native viewer since they repudiate accepted norms of psychological realism in a country whose cinema has always thrived on those norms.

Khesht Va Ayeneh (1965) (aka Brick And Mirror)
Ebrahim Golestan
Persian

“Do you see those panes, those windows? Behind each, there is an evil eye, a wicked tongue, a jealous black heart, each detesting the other and all unified to detest each other.

 

Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) begins inside a taxi. The man at the wheel changes the radio station and a voice begins to narrate:

“The night had settled over the forest. The hunter trod through the thicket stealthily. Danger throbbed in the dark. Fear filled the forest. And terror sparked the night. The night was hard. The night seemed long. Nothing was reflected in the eye of the owl but anguish. And fear was life’s only sign. The hunter trod stealthily through the night. Beasts were staring. And the eyes of the thousand-eyed perils were wide. It was dark. And in the dark, there was no one to tell the hunter and the hunted who was the hunter and who was the hunted.”

The camera, meanwhile, gazes safely from behind the windshield, the vast city of Tehran. Night has well fallen and all the street lights are up. It seems like thousands of gigantic eyes staring at the camera, hiding behind the darkness, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting taxi. After a couple of minutes, we cut to the face of the driver – a thirty-ish gentleman resembling De Niro during his prime. Golestan’s composition is immediately striking. The taxi driver, here and throughout the film, is placed at the margin of the frame, with the dark city pushing him to the boundaries. One gets the feeling that this one might just be the (premeditated) Iranian reply to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Brick and Mirror

Brick and Mirror is unlike anything I have seen from Iran, for it is my introduction to Iranian cinema before the revolution. With the world’s eyes keenly focused on Iran, – politically or otherwise – there prevails a risk of drawing a monolithic portrait of the country. Watching Brick and Mirror, one can see how starkly different the two ages are and how drastic a cultural shift its citizens were subject to after 1979. Golestan’s film, more or less, also testifies the strong relation between France and Iran that prevailed during the Shah’s regime. He, evidently and interestingly, draws inspiration from both Godard and Bresson, apart from incorporating tenets from other famous schools of filmmaking. With complete control over every aspect of the film (writing, directing, editing and producing it by himself), Golestan churns out a film that is clearly Iranian in content, yet could pass of as one of the French New Wave movies.

Brick and Mirror
takes place over the course of 24 hours in the life of this taxi driver, whom we come to know as Hashemi (Zackaria Hashemi). That fateful night, a woman in a veil (apparently played by the iconic Forugh Farrokhzad) boards his taxi and leaves behind a baby. Unable to locate the woman, Hashemi is forced to provide shelter to the child for the night. He is helped by his love Taji (Taji Ahmadi), a woman who works at the local pub. But the most important of all characters in the film is the city of Tehran itself.  The city is also the most powerful of all characters, devouring mentally and physically one character after another. Never has a metropolis been filmed so beautifully yet menacingly. Using the cinemascope judiciously and employing camera movements that are seldom meaningless, Golestan and cinematographer Soleiman Minassian ensnare their characters, like the city itself, surrounding them and locking them to their environment. And how often do we see a tracking shot that is as pregnant with emotion and significance as the final shot of Taji standing at the end of the long, dark corridor of the hospital?

Hashemi and Taji are two well written characters, who complement each other emotionally and ideologically. He is a thorough fatalist, classifying every outcome as good or bad luck. He prefers to live in the dark, literally and figuratively, away from prying eyes of the society. She, on the other hand, is the quintessential existentialist (Again, a possible influence of contemporary French philosophy), believing strongly that we make our own lives and being too prude is no good. But she is also an extreme romantic, always giving Hashemi hope for a new beginning, who seems to shrug off her philosophies (At one point, Golestan even frames Taji in such a way that she appears as one of the photos on the walls of Hashemi’s house). In an explosive scene shot on the streets, both of them plunge into a heated discussion after he delivers the baby to an orphanage against her wishes. The camera tracks in front of them as they walk arguing with each other. And all of a sudden, in a humbling manner, they break into utter silence after a funeral procession cuts through them, reminding the about the futility of their words and the ever tangible presence of death.

Brick and Mirror

Hashemi does bear a striking resemblance to Schrader’s Travis Bickle, in the sense that both of them are marginal characters who are forced to witness a society that is vigorously dragging itself to doom. But the commonality stops at that. While Bickle is an alien frustrated by what he sees in the rear view mirror, Hashemi is the one in that mirror (In one scene, the driver of the taxi that Hashemi boards cribs about his profession and tells the latter that he is lucky not to be a taxi driver). Moreover, Bickle’s decision to do something about it all is exactly contrary to the borderline-agoraphobic Hashemi, who believes it is better to stay low and go through life unnoticed by anyone. True that he comes to know of all the rotten crevices of the city and the breakdown that it is leading to, but, being the determinist that he is, is satisfied with having posters of heroes in his room rather than becoming one. In fact, it is Taji who is closer to Bickle than Hashemi. Only that her search, here, is for inner peace.

Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the film as being Godardian. I doubt if there is any other way to describe it at all.  Take a look at the narrative structure of the film, whose episodic nature and style reminds us of My Life to Live (1962) than any other Godard film. Like the French director, Golestan lets his script freewheel all the way. Characters come and characters go. Their lines are seldom relevant to what is happening. But as always, what they speak is less important than why they speak so. The spirit of the 60s, especially of Paris, seems to show clearly in Tehran too. Intellectualism seems to have taken control over pragmatism and emotionality. People sit all day in pubs philosophizing and indulging themselves with tangential conversations. Consider the scene at the bar where Hashemi arrives, carrying the baby. One of the well dressed gentlemen, out of the blue, begins a monologue about the importance of alphabets in the search for truth and the relation of crossword puzzles to all that (Don’t ask me!). One is reminded immediately of the scene at the pub in Made in U.S.A. (1967), where, too, one of the characters goes on talking about the futility of words and sentences!

Brick and Mirror

Furthermore, Golestan never cares about the progressive coherence of these episodes. He generously shifts gears and tones throughout the film. Hopping regularly between vérité, expressionism, documentary and realism, he concocts something very fresh and unique, even by the New Wave standards. Yes, the jump cuts are there too.  Additionally, Golestan’s shot composition shows influence of Bresson also. Golestan breaks down action into atomic parts with no history or future, attaining the same effect that the French master achieved. Also Bressonian, and one that would go on to become the forte of directors like Kiarostami, is Golestan’s use of off-screen space through sounds. Often, we see that the camera is fixated on certain characters, even when they are not the ones talking. When Hashemi and Taji are out in the streets, their voices are regularly consumed by the noise of the city. One scene would perhaps sum up the entire attitude of the film. There is a sequence at an orphanage where Hashemi is trying to admit the child he is holding. There is also a middle-class woman in the room who, at one point, breaks down revealing that she has been feigning pregnancy all the time. This is an intensely melodramatic moment in the script and the natural reaction for a director’s camera would be to gradually zoom in to the crying lady’s face. Surprisingly, Golestan shows us the face of the receptionist of the orphanage, who turns teary-eyed for a reason that might not at all be related to the drama of the instant.

Almost the whole film, both formally and script-wise, never conforms to the popular law of cause and effect. Golestan refuses to explain everything and seems to want us to not understand the city, much like Hashemi himself.  Who is that crazy female at the hell-hole that Hashemi meets earlier? No answer. What is the guy, whom one might have called a charlatan earlier in the film, doing on the national channel talking about the ethics of living? No answer. Could that female, whom Hashemi sees the second night be the same lady who left the baby in his car the previous day? May be. But surely, all these aren’t merely confusing or distancing devices. Each of these scenes reveals something about the city and the era, in one way or the other. Each of them has indirectly managed to document history – cultural and cinematic. Consequently, now more than ever, it feels that these seemingly stray events are the very elements that can help us perceive better a country that has been unjustly homogenized using, what Brick and Mirror shows us, a faux identity.