Kumar Shahani’s Maya DARPAN(1972) is an arthouse classic that I had heard and read a lot about since the last few years. This Sunday, dated 25th of July, 2021, I finally watched it on YouTube after having saved it on my watchlist for almost a month. I know many people will wonder why I would be watching something so ‘cerebral’ or ‘leisurely paced’ on a holiday. My answer will be the same: rediscovering meaningful cinema is my forte and there should be room for every human story to be told and hence recognised through the filmmaking medium.
Maya Darpan or the mirror of illusion in English has Taran as a protagonist. Darpan also means reflection or image. Here, Taran is like a bhoot(ghost) or bhut(statue) because she is living in a somnolent state of wakefulness, which is why we find her sleeping on the bed in the very first images opening the film. This state of sleepy purgatory that divides her yearning for freedom from the prison of her mansion and societal position of upper classes is striking. It is realized in the same way here.
This is prime example of a Cinema of Loneliness, such as the ones I wrote about earlier like 36, Chowringee Lane, The Spinster, Pestonjee, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge etc. ; works appropriating the exhaustion and exasperation borne from a static life.
In this instance, the sense of claustrophobia literally spoke to me, especially given the times in which we live ourselves, mostly ensconced within our homes where situations cannot always be ideal.
It is worth repeating again that status and material privilege is a curse unto those born into it. This post-colonial characterisation is prevalent in pithy dialogues and mannerisms of the few people present in this screenplay.
Taran becomes one with her surroundings, trapped within her ‘home’ and never really blossoming into acquiring a relationship with practical life. One should know that this is no case of a protagonist exploring idealized nature in the absence of a healthy familial core either. Maya Darpan’s conceit is far from it, impacted by the stance of neorealism. Aditi, the singular named actor performing this routine as Taran, brings us closer to an innate understanding. If you ask me then I personally know about dozen or so people within both sides of my maternal and paternal family who were cursed into the same internal pit of fatique owing to generational pride and a lackluster attitude borne from being born to aristocratic upper echelons. So I know about tales of doom that have come to fruition owing to a resistance to change or a refusal to work like others.
Static shots here capture the daily continuum of that contained life, as if it is in freeze frame.
An emaciated Taran, given to little verbal articulation, is essentially a robot given her inexpressive movements and vocal delivery. A voice in monotone is a corollary to her introverted foregrounding as that is what happens when we are repressed for years on end. Watch how she moves through the home like a wandering ghost, in motion yet as if carried by some mundane pattern in which she willingly doesn’t want to participate. Or she has hopelessly grown used to it.
Taran is also a plain looking young woman. There is hence no illusion in this world of antiquated aristocracy that has been left behind for her. Vedna/ melancholy is of aesthetic value here. Given that the film is titled Maya Darpan/ Mirror of Illusion, she doesn’t pay attention to the mirrors, even the smaller ones on the walls. This is an individual whose youth and possibility of companionship have been vanquished by the melancholy of her antecedents. In fact, it is difficult to distinguish between her and a distant shadow. That is the way she has been framed, never in tight close-ups. Her daily bearings and pallor mark something close to death within a room, the death of a soul, expressions which we often use to wake someone up from depths of lethargy or inactivity. But Taran has no other option. Her indifferent father has brought her to that point. Her poetic soliloquies enhance her inner being because she doesn’t possess her individual agency to act or demand something more, beyond her station.
The use of the sarangi and sarod, flutes for instrumental foregrounding by Bhaskar Chandavarkar lends it further pathos. Actually, the sound design is starkly naturalistic and hence captures the spectre of this doomed loneliness brilliantly next to the cinematography by ace virtuoso K.K. Mahajan.
Taran’s father(Anil Pandya) is one of those who have taken the passing away of aristocracy as a cruel punishment and that self-flagellation has engulfed the whole ethos, distancing him from his children. Respect and fear for him over the years only broaden that gulf.
Additionally, his past glory in terms of societal prestige has waned in independent India. So this is a cultural and emotional void. Taran’s gender only makes it more pronounced. But given that her father has no qualms about employing harsh treatment towards his son who has left him, she isn’t alone. Watch how prolonged silences greet her limited interactions with her father who doesn’t even raise his eyes to her level or with anyone in general. He is a ghost in his own shell. Which makes his treatment of Taran more cruel.
On her part, she is a cowering shadow who grasps freedom in her solitary long walks. Only thinking of going away to her brother’s tea estate in Assam, the son to a proud father who walked out on his own static life and sought respectable work, work that is beneath his father. This same judgement has made him not get his daughter married. So she carries on, day and night, wandering.
In Maya Darpan, the long passages, hallways, courtyards, balconies, doors and windows are inanimate but punctuate more than the human presence here. Taran’s suffocation became mine as I let that feeling seep and percolate, sharing that palpable sadness. Do I not feel the same way often owing to certain inescapable circumstances of my own life? I do and I wouldn’t lie about it.
In a startling scene, she is shown running towards the train- perhaps a contrast to her vapid, stationary everyday. It could even be a suicidal alternative or an image of escape. But she doesn’t commit to it.
For even sleep is akin to insomnia to her, offering no relief.
Her bua/ paternal aunt( Kanta Vyas) relates the best portions of this screenplay, vibrating with the unease around silences. As a young widow, she came back to her paternal home/maika and continues to just be trapped in perpetual disappointment. She wishes for a breakthrough for her niece. To no avail.
It’s a generational parallel-that both the elderly Bua and the young Taran yearn to leave the mansion. But stay back. That is the subtle evocation of not so much the patriarchy but foundational society itself that traps men and women equally. Watch that heartbreaking scene where the patriarch’s cruelty unites them and Taran expresses her resigned disappointment so well, her face a canvas of melancholy.
Within the same scenario, Taran smiles thrice, when reading the letter from a supposed lover, on the boat on the lake and when she has given herself up, to her own choice of culminating her desires with the good-looking young engineer( Iqbalnath Kaul)
She was seeking freedom and a separation from the everyday. Through her union with someone from the opposite sex, her repression has been defeated for the moment. Her content and relieved smile signifies that when with ‘engineer babu’
A dance of desire through classical recitals and shots of an idyllic lake close the film, signifying that the lushness of her intrinsic physical longing has been fulfilled.
Looking back, the lushness of Kumar Shahani’s KHAYAL GATHA(1989) which I watched prior to this and wrote about is in opposition to the stark desert town of MAYA DARPAN. But I was fully invested in the world of empathy that this underrated classic addresses. It is a picture of reality, free from delusions of grandeur or a sudden change in circumstances. Taran is, thus, an unlikely protagonist but relatable to all those who become loners not by choice but by the hands of others. That is the way of life.