CAPTURING THE SOUL THROUGH THE EYES : on CAROL and LIFE (2015)

**

CAROL (2015)

CAST : ROONEY MARA, CATE BLANCHETT, SARAH PAULSON, KYLE CHANDLER, JAKE LACY, CORY MICHAEL SMITH .

DIRECTION : TODD HAYNES.

**

Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) are people who don’t wage a war against conventional diktats. Still a quiet uproar they do stir up within a tiny coterie of people. The filmmaking gravitas of Todd Haynes is so astute and alive to the cadences of the heart in this 2015 feature film that we instinctually become participants in the two women’s quest for seeking purity in their friendship and expressing clarity for their strong mutual connection that overrides the challenges that an open declaration will invite. They are people who don’t intend to create a simmer of scandal because they know their love is equivalent of the humanity they try to possess within each other and extend to the one they deeply love sans any ulterior motivations.

They don’t hurt society in any way because their own internal battle has defeated them to be resigned to a private space that limits their evolution. They plan to negotiate with nobody for the freedom to be with each other. A QUIET CHAOS. A BURNING SENSATION. The poetry of love and fear of loss. So can’t they just be two dignified souls left to explore the world together?

CAROL makes you ponder these dilemmas of two individuals who are already beset by certain expectations within a male bastion. However, Todd interlinks them with emphatic men who don’t know better than to love them and when conventions of the world get sidestepped as the women bond with each other like nothing they have ever known, mounds of anger and hurt come to occupy the conversation. Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy, hence, bring pathos to their parts. Their concerns are stronger than the tempests that draw them to an empty inner world.

**

A gripping conversation occurs between Therese and the man she is seeing played by Lacy where the idea of falling for someone of the same gender is discussed ; he doesn’t express disgust towards it but like the thinking we still hold, says there is always some background behind it while her surprise, confused temper and rejection of his idea that she can fall in love with Carol when he poses a casual enquiry exhibits the full concentric circle of identity. Their friendship is normal to him, the term ‘love’ also implying deep admiration for someone of the same gender. But to her, it’s something unique.

**

CAROL is also, for me, a beautiful example of approaching relationship dynamics from a perspective that sustains the permanence of bonds rather than the supposed physical ardour of two people coming together in the name of attraction. It’s sensual which is worlds apart from the exploitative, sexualised depictions we have come to expect in recent years in cinema. The moment where the two adults at the heart of the story commit to all the tenderness and longing they have been withholding for perhaps lifetimes is enlightening then. For me this was reflective of the kind of flexible, honest stance I, personally, like to maintain in terms of two people coming together, that is in a deep unspooling of the soul and not arising from a place of lust although the latter sentiment often blinds us to submission. That deep unspooling doesn’t have to necessarily be between men and women only. The nature of attraction is fluid and CAROL is opposed to a binary evaluation of it. It’s beautifully pensive about it.

In fact, it is very much a coming of age tale for Therese and a meeting of the twain for Carol and her, beginning with their first meeting at the department store to the revelatory moment where Carol enunciates Therese’s name like nobody in the world will; it is such a sensual moment aglow with passion and a lack of verbosity just like the rest of the film.

I hope the LGBTQ tag, one day, ceases to exist because for me the individuality of two people in what they share as a bond is sacred. If there exists a pure soul, no way of the world can break it down into smithereens or atomised shells of a former ideology. I’m glad our world is opening up to an inclusive, universal approach with each passing day on that important tangent. Human beings should be far removed from the certitude of labels and dogmas.

**

CAROL is set in the 50s and so the surface is idyllic in the absolute sense. Hence the dignity and studied stoicism of these women are products of the era. But then that’s often the facade we associate with that era or any other and a refined nature is a personal strain, applicable to anyone, anywhere. Music composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Edward Lachman and editor Affonso Gonsalves are successful in beautifully evoking an era as also the persistent battle for identity wrought through the ages and timelines. It is like a distillation of experiences reaching the present era, expressing the universality of it all.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are excellent, flawlessly tuned to the inner workings of their connected selves. Blanchett as Carol is a woman with the power to have an inimitable sway over others owing to her sophistication but also the fragility to be completely helpless, as with her role of a mother coming under scrutiny and her passage of separation from Therese. Class strictures bundle up here with gender fluidity and the path to its optimistic resolution is ultimately earned. Till the end, CAROL proves that a sustained look or gesture can transfer a million worthy signals of an extraordinary awakening, the kind we feel once.

Sarah Paulson, too leaves her mark here in a good supporting arc. Above all are Carol and Therese. They endure as individuals and part of a collective whole representing the sanctity of a ‘live and let live’ principle.

**

LIFE (2015)

DIRECTION : ANTON CORBIJN.

CAST : ROBERT PATTINSON, DANE DEHAAN, BEN KINGSLEY, KELLY MCCREARY.

**

LIFE operates on an observational standstill in terms of pace and narration, which is kind of an ironic thing to say considering the title of the film. But a month after watching it, I can reckon more with its style of presentation as it chronicles the eventful life and times that iconic photographer DENNIS STOCK shared as he captured the enigmatic rising star JAMES DEAN and helped establish the mystique of those deep eyes and intense gaze that has been etched in popular culture till the end of time. To think Dean passed away at 24, shortly after this masterful partnership and having scored success in motion pictures with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, it’s surreal how his images still convey a thousand words indeed. The unassuming star was hence heralded to the front ranks by the equally down to earth Stock.

He (Robert Pattinson) had survived active duty in World War 2, a teenage marriage, divorce and the cold impasse of non communication with others and then he met James (Dane Dehaan) Capturing him in images, he also found an equal who communicated with his quiet force than mere words.

In delineating this partnership, director Anton Corbijn, photographer extraordinaire and director behind some of U2’s iconic videos and cover art, keeps things languid, composed, in slow simmer. In low whines and moans of voices, the soft spoken protagonists do well in establishing the lazy idyll before glory beckoned both or it could be the muffled beginnings of interpersonal bonding that makes this biographical sketch apart from the star- making ethos cinematic renditions usually strive for. This slow burn is both the predisposed way of conducting things for essentially people who were always mentally alert to minute sensations and is the langour of the burden of inherent genius. Silence is preferable to this personality. It is effective in showing us the two men as they are, without a hint of artifice.

Note also that it’s set in the 50s and hence the quietude. It shares the tale of a person discovering the world through the camera with Therese in Carol.

**

Photography captures the essence of a person and Dennis achieved that with Dean. LIFE is also like an unlikely love story between two men whose natures mirror each other and who fatefully assimilate in the fabric of bonding through the prism of common decency. It is love that mixed friendship with deeper understandings. The film recreates the great, moving images Dennis created of Dean, especially when he visited his hometown and seemed most at peace. It is a tale of nurturing creativity.

No wonder the film begins with the lighting of a bulb, particularly the focus on its filament, in Dennis’ redroom. LIFE is a little short on narrative hold but as a person slowly inching towards the intricacies that come with maturity as a cinephile, the langour never strikes me as odd. Now when I look back on it, it is a way of broaching the idea of introverts being some of the best architects in public spheres of the movie world. Their work does the talking. It was the case with both men portrayed here.

Away from the prying eyes of shallow stardom, Dennis made Dean accessible and sensual without thinking about the legendary status he was to occupy. The behind the scenes quality of LIFE then is a novelty. Both actors do well in maintaining that rhythm. KELLY MCCREARY (Dr. Maggie Pierce on Grey’s Anatomy) as James’ friend and fellow artistic savant EARTHA KITT , Sir Ben Kingsley as monumental producer Jack Warner and Joel Edgerton as Dennis’ editor are competent.

**

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THE WIND RISES : on WALK.RIDE.RODEO. (2019)

WALK. RIDE. RODEO. (2019)

CAST: SPENCER LOCKE, MISSI PYLE, BAILEY CHASE, SHERRI SHEPHERD, CORBIN BLEU, MAX EHRICH, ANN RALEIGH CAIN, KATHLEEN ROSE PERKINS, MITCHELL HOOG, POWER, THE HORSE etc.

DIRECTION : CONNOR ALLYN.

**

With this post, I will be hitting a milestone. This is the hundredth post on my blog and since starting this renewed journey of putting my words in this precious mould in June 2018 I have only garnered strength, the support of fellow writers and readers and the sheer durability of the blogging community from where creativity begins as a stream and then gets diversified into multiple tributaries, all depositing in the eternal sea of exchanges. SO THANK YOU AND MAY THE POWER OF OUR WORDS ALWAYS BE MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD AND BE OUR ONLY WEAPON OF CHOICE AGAINST UNRAVELINGS OF THIS WORLD.

**

I’ll not take much time here. It feels good to write my hundredth post on an inspirational tale that reinforces the proverb of WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER affixed with our will power and a Zen like zeal to overcome all odds. In recreating rodeo champion AMBERLEY SNYDER’S life script in which a chance accident left her paralyzed from the waist down but never truly crushed her spirit, WALK. RIDE. RODEO. becomes more than a title or even a literal one. It becomes a mantra for self definition, just like Amberley didn’t let her physical debility affect her chances of participating in rodeo championships. In the process, bouyed by the support of her kindred and a divine power to rise above present circumstances inbuilt in every human but exercised by the truly brave, she got back on her beloved equestrian partner POWER and tasted victory.

The movie, which I watched on Friday, May 24th, 2019, was lucidly structured and did well in attempting to grasp the helplessness and passages of anger, hurt and resignation she experienced. For a sportsman and competitive player, a debilitating physical condition can feel like the end of the world. It can be so for everyone since the functioning of the body as a cohesive whole is central to our very day to day existence, so much so that we take it for granted and when out of the blue, an unlikely change overcomes our anatomy, we snap. Amberley weighs her options, dreads the premature end of her flourishing rodeo career but burns with the desire to get back on the saddle and conquer milestones galore. That is a stubbornly defiant and empowering stance. The way she controls her mind is exemplary.

She instinctually understands and internalizes the reality that she can possibly never walk again owing to a severe spine injury . Yet she evinces hope that her life can mean so much more than a designated void. She extends that hope to herself first and then to others.

As for the writing, it’s simple, lucid as I had mentioned earlier and even the part of the accident and its aftermath is rendered without making it sensationalistic.

The key takeaways from the film are a sense of community it builds for a survivor, starting at home as with Amberley’s family. So the values are instilled in her to be a good sport and others too motivate her, down to the couple that helps her revive herself and calls up medics at the site of the accident.

Another takeaway is of rodeo getting represented as this spirited proclamation of individuality. It’s an old fashioned sport and it fits in with the old fashioned, well meaning ethos of the tale set in coyboy country – the region in which rodeos are lifelines for the people. It’s a good thing in these times to let high spirits prevail in a non-exhibitionist way.

Above all, it’s a clean family film so you can watch it with everyone. The life lessons are especially a must for younger demographics as Amberley was a teen herself when she experienced a life changing transformation.

Inspiration from and directed towards the specially abled is paramount in WALK. RIDE. RODEO. Of course Amberley had the resources to get rehabilitation but it’s not about money. Some people have the resources but zilch emotional motivation to guide a survivor while others rise up by inspiring actions even if there is a hole in the pocket. Here it’s the emotional resilience that wins the day for her and her coterie of supporters.

The performers are sincere to the hilt. Spencer Locke is just right as Amberley, Missy Pyle is great as her mother while the others do full justice to this biographical tale. Above all is the majesty of POWER, the touch of beauty in Amberley’s life.

WALK. RIDE. RODEO. has been added to my feel good American film canon. It inspires and at 1 hour 39 minutes utilises its running time to tell a good story with its heart in the right place. It upholds the great American Dream narrative.

***

YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL : on THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

FROM THE MGM STABLE

THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

This is my original writing on this beautiful, underrated classic from 1991 that I had written on 18th August, 2014.

Of course as if with all things bright and beautiful, I saw it on the MGM channel.

***

Those initiated with general knowledge regarding popular culture will cite THE MAN IN THE MOON as Hollywood vanguard Robert Mulligan’s swansong as the veteran passed away after wrapping up the production. However such an infinitesimal or one – sided recognition of this work will mean unfairly categorising the maker and his heartfelt, carefully constructed creation ; this film is a youthful yet timeless yarn with an old world truth, lyricism and poetic romanticism, like every good novel or cinematic approximation of life is supposed to be. It is a labour of love on the part of Mr. Mulligan who left us with the beginning of another life force, just like the blooming tale of discovery within the narrative. That beginning was to be with his find for the lead role.

Above anything else, this was the launchpad for a startling, luminous turn by performing world’s best loved darling Reese Witherspoon. At 14, her intimate, bracing portrayal of a 1950s Louisiana girl Dani Trant tugged at our heartstrings. It’s our luck that she continues to thrive all these years later given that child actors don’t always end up prospering due to numerous reasons.

Relaying the movie’s identity turns out to be just as much impacting down the line for us . THE MAN IN THE MOON stakes its drama on the first flush of uncharted joy experienced by Dani as she falls head over heels in love with her charming 17 year old neighbour Court Foster (Jason London) ; positive reciprocation sets her private sanctuary of innocent musings astir like it never was. Before we can bat an eyelid, her elder sister Maureen (Emily Warfield) joins Dani’s chorus and coos beatific notes of true love for the same guy.

So going by this gist, one may think this screenplay is about congealed passions mingling with sibling rivalry and a battle of wits among them. Never does this sensitive progression toe the predictable metrics of such an outline and the dynamics of emotional vulnerabilities accosting our three protagonists are naturally designed according to their collective adolescent angst. There is the prominence of precocity, stubborn will and rosy guilelessness on Dani’s part. There is also the splash of age appropriate curiosity regarding the nature of things in each one’s share. This post puberty boom of self enquiry gets caressed by the naturalistic filmmaking etiquettes of Mulligan whose eventful credits include such great, all time venerated classics like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (I have seen it last year) and SUMMER OF ’42(which has been highly praised by many of the older prefects of my family)

The throb of hearts beating for a ray of light, a moonbeam and beauty in their lives, all symbolic of the ardour of companionship, are to be found in the filmed sequences. These include Dani’s clandestine swimming escapades with Court, Maureen and Court’s profound moment of clarity in which they seal the strength of their mutual attraction and the spring in Dani’s spirit as she sings along to Elvis Presley’s definitive ditty IT’S ALL RIGHT while putting clothes on the laundry line, to put her finger on feelings for Court.

Then one fine day, these bittersweet dreams get washed away as a sudden downpour of melancholia lashes the fertile, innocent playground harboring them. Court comes in the throes of an unforeseen circumstance.

Never resorting to wringing sentimental characterisations or plot points for the sake of it, this concise exemplification of cinema has an astral, star struck and, in the later passage, emotional gravitas that benefits largely from the lead trio’s performance. I have to say that if Reese could give such an astute performance then it’s no wonder that as of today, she has emerged as a true blue superstar balancing her glamour struts with realism, sass, box office success and great choices, turning every script to gold.

Gail Strickland, Tess Harper and Sam Waterston stand in for practical wisdom, anchoring the leads as their parents and the stalwarts bring years of experience to profound effect.

Kudos especially to music director James Newton Howard and cinematographer Freddie Francis for capturing the required nuances of storytelling .

THE MAN IN THE MOON has an efficacy and humanism difficult to match, in a world where love and lust have breached boundaries while adolescence has become a wellspring of misguided self destruction. Another one of MGM ‘s dearly admired works of art, for me, this one is a winner and a reminder of the simplicity and lucidity of the 1990s era.

***

SWEET CHILD OF MINE : on THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

FROM THE MGM STABLE

THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

CAST: REESE WITHERSPOON, JASON LONDON, EMILY WARFIELD, TESS HARPER, SAM WATERSTON, GAIL STRICKLAND.

DIRECTION : ROBERT MULLIGAN.

**

Like the very profound MY AMERICAN COUSIN (1985) that I had written about here in the beginning of the month , THE MAN IN THE MOON was another dramatic work set in the 1950s and informed as it surely may have been by director Robert Mulligan’s own inputs and memories from the era in which he was young and thriving with a sense of the world around him, it recreates the simple passions of the time. You can feel every intricate thread of emotions and the setting in its frames. Like I have always maintained, ultimately, it’s not about one era or place as cinematic representations portray the timeless mould in which humanity progresses through different epochs. THE MAN IN THE MOON does that for me. It was another gem that I was fortunate enough to watch on the MGM channel.

**

To this writer and cinephile, the title of the film serves as a symbol of an old world innocence that existed without technological know- hows and could thrive along with a spirit of enquiry. The delicate quietude of a simpler time when kinetic barrage of overinformed minds didn’t threaten a sense of wonder among children and adolescents is there to guide the film’s script. Of these impressively, closely held illusions of sweet moments when we are at a particular juncture of life. Later in the film, the MAN IN THE MOON becomes the memory of one beloved but now deceased. It is continuum of a wonder so harmless and heartwarming that it shatters our hearts to realize that the tragedy of loss is unsparing, as for DANI, the protagonist of this film. The remembrance of first love follows her coming of age.

**

THE MAN IN THE MOON, as to point towards the lovely incandescence of first loves, is the prevailing mood of admiration for the one beyond our grasp, like the moon. Someone we seek from a distance as is the case with Dani’s admiration for her neighbour COURT (Jason London)

When she and her sister MAUREEN (Emily Warfield) look at the moon and converse in the presence of its comforting light, it becomes a testament to the mortal journey of lived experiences and the voyages to a cosmic otherworld we spin yarns about. Given its 50s setting, this was the pre Moon Landing era and so Dani’s fascination with the moon as it appears solemnly in the sky is natural to the mood of the times. Nobody, still, knows much about what lies there in the vast void of a starlit space. To a child of the 50s, the sight of the moon surely warranted a silent prayer for the order of things, not the fear of darkness but the order of tranquility and peace.

THE MAN IN THE MOON encapsulates all that for me. In the next post, I will write down the original review I had put to paper many years ago after watching it.

**

A CINEPHILE’S DOUBLE RECOMMENDATIONS: V FOR VENDETTA and BROTHERS.

More cinematic experiences means the impetus to write about and articulate those images, making them find clarity in the readers’ mind and allowing them the opportunity to watch and explore the titles. In many cases, this exchange of ideas ends up being cherished for a long time.

So here I am, once again sharing my views on some challenging, provocative and thought provoking works. Diverse in treatment, the message in each is borne from complexities of real life. Read this post to know more. The good thing is, both films talked about here feature one of my favourites NATALIE PORTMAN.

***

V FOR VENDETTA (2005)

DIRECTOR : JAMES MCTEIGUE

This was such a popular cultural specimen back in 2005 when I was a newly anointed adolescent and its Guy Fawkes mask wearing protagonist and unanimous critical praise within Indian publications itself established a permanence of being. So many years later I finally watched it. V FOR VENDETTA succeeds in maintaining mainstream appeal and yet it can occupy a niche of its own. Its title is the very basis for the fire and brimstone tone at the heart of its revolutionary social matrix.

Written by the Wachowski siblings who rewrote every rule with their Matrix trilogy, V FOR VENDETTA is about two individuals who rise up against a totalitarian regime, in a future world where America has fallen and England is the last bastion of power. Sounds like those times when the island nation had literally ensnared half of the world in its imperial fold. This implicit topicality works well for it.

Yellow vest protests, anti Brexit din and uprisings in Khartoum, Sudan, Israel – Palestine infractions, this tale resonates for all of these current crises. V(Hugo Weaving) is a symbol of protest, of the unaided voice and collective of the common man who speaks out rather than bending the knee to the powers brainwashing one to blind subservience. Evey (Natalie Portman) is initially within confines of a violent, patrilineal order in which she has to be rescued by the vigilante one night. Together, their implicit and explicit sense of individuality collide to give momentum to this tale.Given the many acts of counter violence, is it stoking terror imprints, we ask. The complexity of it all is there as a strong current. It is actually propulsive, with its pro change ideology fitting desperate designs of the present and coming future. To me, the design of the screenplay is a direct salute to Guy Fawkes and countless other freedom fighters who graced the living world.

Hugo Weaving then has a Shakespearean flourish as V and the verbosity never comes off as pedantic in his masked presence; his is truly an unique performance as he never shows his face . The weight of his voice carries the film splendidly as well as his physical agility. It implodes with a concurrent charge, with the background score being tuned to those sensations. Natalie is the point of view character and she does full justice to this pendulum swing from delicate resignation to fearlessness. However, her spirit is always in the democratic berth even before she grasps V’s iconoclasm.

On the other end of the spectrum, the late great John Hurt as the despot who speaks through a huge screen is hugely effective here.

Within this narrative, a lot of empathy is generated for people of all hues who are on the margins as when Evey is in the prison and reads about them through letters jotted on tissue papers . Her bald head and torture as part of the imprisonment is enough to chasten us. V FOR VENDETTA speaks directly to anyone in throes of conflict which is why it is so relevant. V and Evey are, essentially, resistance fighters canvassing for universal suffrage.

**

BROTHERS (2009)

DIRECTION : JIM SHERIDAN.

Susanne Bier’s dramas have an optimal slow burn within domestic settings. Be it THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, SERENA and even BIRDBOX, the phenomenal 2018 success. BROTHERS (2009) is based on her original Danish film of the same title. One needs to know that the Oscar winning Bier juggles handsomely between her native industry with such works as AFTER THE WEDDING and IN A BETTER WORLD as well as English language works that includes the television miniseries THE NIGHT Manager. A penchant for multiple arcs and personal characteristics of people interests her and BROTHERS revels in those concerns.

The directing duty passes on to Jim Sheridan here. While I haven’t seen the original, I can say the man in charge of the English language adaptation does a decent job. It’s just that nothing actually holds one by the scruff of the neck until the important volte face in the second half. The implosive action in the latter parts is genuinely, emotionally stirring.

The ‘action’ hence is concentrated on the homefront as an armyman (Tobey Maguire), who has been released by the Taliban after months as a prisoner of war, comes home to realize that his inner darkness has unspooled to every corner of his soul. In the time he was pronounced dead, his once irresponsible brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), now reformed, and wife (Natalie Portman) have drawn closer. His own doubts add fuel to the fire. Plus no one really wants to commit to him, now that he is a ghost in a shell, one who came back from the dead into a pattern of things that had been reset in his absence. The duality of human nature is explored here. Even a token brand of compassion eludes the ones closest to him. Distance becomes his refuge. Above all is the unruly triangle that the brothers and the lady of the house are caught in. The mature script will not allow neutral viewers to point out the wife as being in the wrong or the brother to be an opportunist or that they jumped into an ‘almost there’ attraction a little too soon because they resist and bond for the sake of the two kids.

BROTHERS is about the bond shared among parents and children too as in the fraught one that Jake shares with his father ( played by the legendary Sam Shephard) who uses the elder brother as a reference point to contrast the younger one’s transgressions. It seeks empathy for the better aspects of one’s being. Mare Winningham adds good support here as a confidante of the family who lets better sense prevail when the men lose track of things. Carey Mulligan shines in a solo scene where the grief of a young widow is expressed with her usual non – exhibitionist gravitas.

It’s like walking out to an eventual minefield. This is where the sparks of Susanne’s Midas touch is replicated and the slow burn comes to define the film as a complex character study. Tobey Maguire adds pathos to his eternal Good Man image wherein his anger, frustration and sheer helplessness becomes extremely heartfelt and internalized.. . He has undertaken harsh decisions to survive, with a gun held to his head. He is a tough soldier who serves his nation and own moral obligation. But underneath it all, he’s human, distressed and a gentle soul attempting to come out of the days that have besieged his mental unraveling.

There is a scene where his older, pre adolescent daughter (Bailee Madison) makes a shocking declaration at the dinner table and this should be absolutely alien to an Indian experience as the child precociously, under duress, tells her father about the sexual nature of two adults’ mutual relationship within the family . The lack of an emotional understanding towards veterans returning from warzones with PTSD is another poignant reminder of compromised empathy.

The War at Home scenario is a tangential progression of melancholic properties here as a national hero is reduced to ashes within the constricting domains of the world that wants him to be ‘normal’ with a snap. He has seen too much. Borne the burden of massacring his compatriot as dictated by his captors. Held guilty within his own tribunal of the mind.

BROTHERS is too elemental for atleast the first half. But by the end, Tobey alone makes us commit to the profound struggles of those suffering from the aftermath of traumas beyond their control.

**

DEVI BY SATYAJIT RAY : OF THE DILEMMAS OF FAITH.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Satyajit Ray’s ‘Devi’: A potent work of cinematic art

9 months ago

By Prithvijeet Sinha

**

THE FOLLOWING IS MY WRITTEN ARTICLE / FILM APPRAISAL THAT WAS PUBLISHED ON CAFE DISSENSUS IN AUGUST LAST YEAR. BY SHARING IT HERE, I WISH TO LET OTHER READERS KNOW ABOUT A TOWERING WORK BY ONE OF THE WORLD’S FINEST MINDS SATYAJIT RAY AND THE ISSUE OF FAITH ADDRESSED WITH SUCH HAUNTING PROWESS IN DEVI(1960) .

***

Devi(The Goddess) , the title of this Satyajit Ray Bengali classic, acts as a decoy to pull in the viewer and engage his/her mind with a host of viewpoints appertaining to religion and the cult of individuality.

‘Devi’ is suitable to describe the doe-eyed gentility of Sharmila Tagore’s movie oeuvre since that honorific status has more or less settled down and crystallized to form the nucleus of her most affecting melodramas. Take a trip down memory lane and you will realize that director Shakti Samanta had taken strides of almost epic dramatic proportions to characterize her saintly comportment as the archetype of female representation. She was the woman wronged by decrees of an unjust society who rises above her ranks to eventually be hailed for her integrity and untainted honor, be it in the midst of complex values (Aradhana) or definitions of virtue (Amar Prem).

Where Aradhana went a little too far in prioritizing her as the fountainhead of invincible motherhood, in Amar Prem, Tagore sailed through murky waters with a sentimental yet nuanced take on her silent struggles. She was the motherhead with an uncompromising purity of being in a soul-stirring screenplay that attacked hypocrisies running deep in every society’s veins. The term ‘Devi’, thus, was a prominent dialogic mainstay to bring her persona closer to reality in these celebrated retro milestones.

On closer inspection, Devi’s script is one founded on tenets of myths and superstitions. But Ray’s masterful sleight of hand uses this blueprint to stark and realistic effect, where myth-making and the ardour of blind faith precipitates and in turn necessitates the movement of plot. The setting is 19th century rural Bengal and Chhabi Biswas (who gave a definitive performance in Ray’s Jalsaghar) is promising as Kalikinkar Chaudhari, an elderly zamindar devoted to the worship of Goddess Kali, the purveyor of divine powers of destruction and life force, long visualized as a tornado tipped between poles of good and evil.

His spiritual reawakening, a quality inculcated by those at the cusp of dotage, is intercut with beatific scenes of a happy married life of his son Uma Prasad (Ray favourite and mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee) and his young wife Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore). As their names suggest, Umaprasad is a liberal Bengali bhadralok with educational dawn (Uma) of rationality as his firm principle, while Dayamoyee is the traditional homemaker. Compassion (Daya) and care are cornerstones of her existence. Taking stock of her qualities, her father-in-law dotes on her and her sister-in-law’s son, nicknamed Khokha, is the cradle for her natural role as a nurturer and playmate since she is herself sixteen. Lest I forget, let me add that her sister-in-law is played by the formidable Karuna Banerjee who essayed the role of Apu’s mother Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali and Aparajito.

***

The volte face appears in the form of an expertly crafted dream sequence in which Kalikinkar (note the inclusion of Kali and its conjunction with his full name) views a pair of eyes, an exact reproduction of Goddess Durga’s powerful countenance. The only difference lies in the fact that those eyes belong to none other than Daya and this propels him to accord the event with earnestness of divine intervention. Convinced Daya is an incarnation of the Goddess herself, he ensures she is ordained as one, thrusting the innocent girl into a whirlpool of psychological and emotional crises of conscience.

Subrata Mitra’s sepia-toned photographic credits and the editor, Dulal Dutta’s nifty touch assist Ray’s virtuoso vision. The trio let sequences flow with a trickle of unnerving tension and this gets fused with the audience’s interpretive credibility, in the process throwing open floodlights on some fundamental human struggles.

This premise, in my view, is timeless in the sense that such concerns have not died down with the march of civilization. Isolated instances of religious/spiritual extremism continue to taint the fevered fabric of our beliefs to this day and age, cutting across lines of nationality, creed or orientation of any kind. One of the most impressive slants that the movie launches with tactful sensibility is towards idol worship. In fact, the beauty of Devi lies in its ability to initiate discussions amongst film buffs, casual viewers, and cinephiles. This befits an opportunity to satiate our aesthetic tastes too, starved as we often are for a breakthrough as this one.

Ray’s reputation as a towering figure of world cinema is visible in a number of scenes. You have to note the image of Daya holding this absurd, supposed pride of place in the Thakurghar with a garland around her neck and a bevy of priests chanting. This image of a helpless young girl forced to bless her coterie of worshippers who abide by her powers of healing and miraculous touch reminded me of Sharada Devi, spiritual leader of eminence and fellow kindred Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s wife whose images, along with Swami Vivekananda, adorn Ramakrishna Maths around the world. A similar model of spiritual singularity is seen in Dayamoyee/ Devi. However, as one of my friends brilliantly pointed out, she sits with her head stooped down, in a frail show of her imminent human tendencies and patterns. There is nothing to remotely suggest a halo of Godliness around this ordinary young lady. Divested of food or proper care to uphold her larger than life core, she crumbles under pressures heaped on her.

Her husband’s sense of bewilderment is palpable in Soumitra Chatterjee’s pitch perfect performance. His enlightened calls of reasonable doubts fail to dispel the halo around his wife’s stature. In one startling scene, Tagore’s aptitude at understanding the storm within is realized perfectly. As she escapes with Uma, she views a Durga idol in the river, thus implying her conviction in her role as a DEVI.

The play of chance and fate keeps inviting dual contours as the arcs of a fakir’s dying son and a personal tragedy within the Chaudhuri household retain an uncertain edge. These posit Daya’s presence as a lonely ghost sleepwalking through her overnight metamorphosis or as a carrier of catharsis for Kalikinkar and his ilk. What strikes me in the film is how the vestiges of zamindari system impose covert indignities of exploitation, particularly on women. In Daya’s forced salvation, Kalikinkar hopes to absolve his past misdeeds. But ultimately, it’s the woman who buckles under a man’s wish or vision. It’s like a disturbingly inverted Pygmalion scenario. In a nutshell, this one is drawn on a precarious platform, where the cult of individuality is consecrated or desecrated on the basis of changing mores.

Devi is an eye-opening, sensuously potent, sometimes harrowing, and ever so unconventional film. It sidesteps mawkish sentimentality to conjure up the ways of the mind, hitting hard at our deepest fears. At a time when alleged ritual killings in Delhi and Kerala have claimed lives, it’s a potent work to understanding our contemporary pathology.

**

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India.