GENESIS OF THE INDIAN POPULAR CINEMA:The Early Period - part two
The period under review (1913-40) also saw the rise of themes, different from but as powerful as that of Harishchandra. I shall restrict myself to just two - Devdas and the themes portrayed in Shantaram's two films - Duniya Na Mane and Aadmi. Their main difference with the Harishchandra theme is the absence of God. The people in Devdas and in Shantaram's films live in an undivine, cruel and chancy universe. They do not have external gods to protect them. In a sense these films - for all their faults - signal India's drive into modernity. And - as much as Harishchandra - they have a progeny extending to the eighties.
P.C. Barua's Devdas (1935) is a much-misunderstood film. The story revolves round the tragedy of two small-town lovers Devdas and Parvati, childhood friends. Differences of class drive their families apart. Parvati, the girl from a less affluent family, is married off to an older man, whose children from the first dead wife she looks after affectionately. Devdas meanwhile wallows in alcohol in the dissolute city (Calcutta). As he lies dying, a bullock cart brings him back to his beloved's house.
Devdas is based on the novel of the same name by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, published in 1917. The critics have been hard on the novel. Rajendra Yadav, a Hindi novelist quoted by Meenakshi Mukherjee in Realism and Reality (1985) says, "Devdas is the elegy of the romantic despair of youth. It celebrated their inaction and defeatism". Critics have been no kinder to the film. Filmmaker Sridhar Kshirsagar (currently maker of popular T.V. soap operas) sounded off in Cinema Vision (April, 1980): "Defeated self-indulgence where alcohol as a vehicle for self pity is given exalted status". The great filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak found Devdas a repugnant character, "shiftless and cowardly". The story of Devdas, he said, is in fact the story of Parvati. "It's a saga about the courage of a woman who accepts her responsibility."
These criticisms are besides the point. They are emanations of modern, progressive attitudes. They do not examine the essence of Devdas, its cultural importance and its continuing influence today, either in remakes or in indirect impact.
In Devdas the socio-cultural milieu of Bengal is in the process of break-up. Devdas is better off than Parvati but his estate is breaking up as the joint families split up. Calcutta remains the focal point of 'education' as well as good life. The disintegration of Devdas as a person is as much due to the disappearance of a 'home' as to betrayal in love. In fact the lost home is as haunting as the 'lost love'. To understand this aspect one has to closely observe the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak for subtler evocations of exile.
Calcutta is both the 'civiliser' and 'destroyer'. You have the Devdas 'friends' who polish him up, and you have the courtesan halls where singers dance and sell themselves. Chandramukhi, who falls in love with Devdas and abandons her profession to serve him, is the first of the honest whores in Hindi cinema. She entertains, she is civilised, she is capable of conversion to a 'higher life'. It is easy to dismiss this as a caricature. In fact, this is an aspiration embedded in the Indian psyche - hankering after a 'higher', more 'moral' life. This is not hypocrisy, but a genuine longing. It is a fundamental difference with European or American cinema, where such ambitions - put torward in this simple fashion - would evoke hoots of scorn. This is probably why Indian variations of Irma La Douce and The Best Whorehouse in Texas - Manoranjan and Mandi fell so flat on public viewing. Chandramukhi has had a distinguished progeny - Vyjayantimala (Devdas, 1955), Waheeda Rehman (Pyasa), Shabana (Doosri Dulhan) and the latest Meenakshi Seshadri (Allah Rakha, 1986). Of course, all these honest, aspiring courtesans have their own variations.
The nature of the Devdas-Parvati relationshilp is interesting. As children the Krishna-Radha theme is evident - he is the mischievous tormentor, she,the willing victim. Akhileshwar Jha ("Sexual Designs in Indian Culture", 1979) makes some significant remarks about the nature of this love as distinct from the western conception: "For romantic love relations it borrows not from the West (even in medieval European romances the delineation of love is made in terms of varied experiences which encompass various aspects of social life) but from its own Radha-Krishna tradition. And yet within this it also fits into a Rama-Sita tradition of a man-woman relationship. Out of this conglomeration of traditional and moral elements has evolved a moral outlook which pervades the film and is universally upheld". It is this multifaceted vision which informs Devdas. Devdas-Parvati-Chandramukhi are in the coils of this ancient and implacable moral tradition. It is not the weakness but the strength of Devdas that is exemplified as he struggles to shore up this tradition. He desires Parvati, yet is shocked when she comes to him at night. Chandramukhi loves him, gives up her trade, yet becomes a resurrector rather than a lover.
A further unique element becomes noticeable in Devdas for the first time. This is the fusion of the Bhakti and the Sufi elements. The Sufi element is present in the obsessional love (ishq) and in the obstacles placed to its fulfilment. The Bhakti element is present in the adoration. The fusion is perfect in Saigal's great song: Balam Aao Baso More Man Mein (Beloved. enter my soul). You cannot separate Saigal's singing from the complex theme.
Finally, the sequences which show Devdas on his last journey - the journey to the end of the night - is it 'sickness' to depict so powerfully and elegiacally, this road to dissolution? No, it is right in the mainstream of the Indian tradition of renunciation, of the desire 'to miss the march of this retreatirlg world'.
The Devdas theme will always be an elemellt in the 'Indianness' of Indian cinema. If you are in doubt see the fifties films - the golderl age of Hindi cinema. Or see Saagar (1985).
The last of the three groups to be dealt with here are the two films of Shantaram, Duniya Na Mane (1937) and Aadmi (1939). They stand apart from and perhaps even in cultural opposition to the Harishchandra and Devdas syndromes. There's a blend here of a kind of'secularism, realism and purposive moralism which is the progenitor of a third and a very specific strand of filmmaking. To call this strain 'socially purposeful' would be reductive. At least in Shantaram's two films there's lots more - idiosyncracy, irreconcilable clash of temperaments or situations and a very definite undercurrent of sex. The contrast between the vision of life in Devdas and that in the two films of Shantaram has often been commented upon.
Perhaps some (I would not claim it to be exhaustive) light is thrown on this by a passage in Meenakshi Mukherjee's Realism and Reality: "Recently Vasant Bapat, a critic, has argued that although Sarat Chandra has been translated and read widely, he has not influenced subsequent literature in Marathi because the Marathi mind responds in a different way to emotional situations. It is not easy to comprehend the causes behind this, but maybe the history and geography of Maharashtra, its socio-economic conditions have moulded the Maharashtrian mind in a different way. The Marathi mind is used to overtones of intellectualism and reasoning. It is averse to the power intuitive approach to truth... he cannot much relish the idea of understanding life through the medium of compassion".
These days we are a trifle patronising towards Duniya Na Mane. We find its style passé and rhetorical in the age of Bresson, Godard and Truffaut. At the most we say: "Yes, it was relevant for its time''.
Duniya Na Mane has an importance beyond what critics in the name of 'universal criteria' impose on it. I do not think lower middle class Indian life, (the life of the majority) has ever heerl evoked so trutllfullv (in an essential sense) and so movingly as in these two films of Shantaram.
We see a ferocious man-woman war brilliantly played by Shanta Apte and K. Date. The sexual repugnance on the one side and lust on the other, in fierce collision, has yet to be bettered on the Indian screen. Frankly, after this exhibition of a no-holds-barred power play, Aparna Sen's Paroma and Saikia's Agnisnaan, both products of 1985, seemed ineffectual to me.
A second feature is the nature of the battleground - low-roofed, characterless, meagre, soul-reducing lower class domesticity. Perhaps this is the last time this locale was shown without glamour or squalor.
A third feature is the way the irrepressible Indian spirit survives in such apparently niggardly surroundings. There's the young girl Akka (Vasanti), Nirmala's only friend in the new home, singing artless patriotic songs, becoming for me the one breath of life in the all-pervasive claustrophobia. Then there was the Mangalagouri Puja, [rituale] performed for a happy married life. Today that would be a signal for one of our talented actresses, turned 'commercial', to surrender to the new-found wonders of a traditional marriage. Not for Shanta Apte. For her it is a homage to the freshness of natural life. Again from behind her caged life, Shanta hears and sees a street singer boy sing that unforgettable song, Man Saf Tera Hai Ya Nahin Pooch Le Jee Se (Ask yourself, is your mind pure or not?). Songs in such quality thirties' films were set like gems.
No, Duniya Na Mane is not merely a socially purposive film. Like Devdas (despite differences), it is both a statement ot the misery of this subcontinent and a description of a culture that fights that misery - tragically perhaps, but with a touch of nobility.
Aadmi attempts more than Duniya Na Mane and therefore, perhaps, doesn't succeed as well. It's the story of a policeman who falls in love with a whore (Shanta Hublikar). As in the much later Pakeezah (1975), Shanta cannot become respectable. She flees, is pursued by a relative blackmailer and murders him. She goes to jail, warning the constable that "love is not enough". The constable marches on...
The film has a period charm. Its parody and its national integration dances still captivate.
But the film has three other aspects which set patterns for the cinema of the future. First, the whore here is 'honest', but she is also impish. She is pitted against the police constable. This is worked out delightfully in the first half of the film. It can be illustrated by a reference to a film of a very different quality - Preminger's Carmen Jones. The constable (Sahu Modak), like Joe in that film, represents order and stability which tend to become rigid and lifeless. Shanta, like Carmen, represents openness, vigour, fluidity, but also chaos and aimlessness. This contrast was attempted in later films but never with the finesse and lightness of Shantaram.
The second feature is the way the futility of merging 'openness' and 'order' in a stratified social structure is shown. This theme was again worked over in the following decades, the recent examples being Pakeezah and Mausam.
A third, and to me, an unsatisfactory feature, is the triumph of 'duty' over 'love'. Shanta goes to jail, Sahu goes grimly marching on - almost goose-stepping - as a constable. No doubt a riposte to the 'passivity' of Devdas.
There's an interesting cultural point to be noted here. Indians have always been ambivalent about personal loyalty (which includes family caste loyalty) vis-a-vis 'national interest'. The conclusion of Aadmi is a confused reflection of this soul-searching. Here again the pattern was set for countless fraternal battles in the name of 'duty' in our cinema. This is one element which is a direct reflection of an actual cultural conflict.
Many notable films of this period have been omitted. I shall return to some of them in succeeding articles. The attempt here has been to set out certain distinct but connected patterns of narrative structures up to 1940, which haunted the audiences and reverberated in our films in the next four decades.
I would not at this stage, make too definite a connection between the religious cultures of India - both classical and popular, the day-to-day life of the people, the difficult and demanding circumstances of that life, the rise of new ideologies since the twenties and the myths of Indian popular cinema. But this much is certain - Indian popular cinema is in one sense, a battleground of the intellectual processes, the material circumstances, and ideologies mentioned above. It is to this process of part antagonism, part reconciliation that the articles in this series, covering the subsequent decades. will be devoted.
Rām-Sītā: rapporto che lega Rām, eroe del poema epico Rāmāyan e considerato la settima incarnazione di Vishnu, alla sposa Sītā, la pativratā per eccellenza della tradizione hindu, ovvero l'ideale di assoluta e costante devozione femminile allo sposo (patī), considerato un dio (dev), quale che sia il suo comportamento.
Bhakti: lett. "devozione"; si allude qui alla corrente devozionale che si sviluppa dapprima nell'India meridionale, tra il IX e il XIV secolo, e in seguito nel nord, nei secoli XV-XVII; movimento di rinnovamento religioso che contempla un diretto rapporto d'amore tra dio (soprattutto nelle figure di Rām e Krishn, incarnazioni di Vishnu) e l'uomo, è anche un momento di rinnovamento sociale e di grande importanza nella letteratura.
Sūfī: mistici musulmani, così chiamati forse per la rozza veste di lana (sūf) che indossavano; il sufismo è una delle correnti dell'islam che più prondamente si radicano in terra indiana, anche per le somiglianze tra certi aspetti del sufismo e alcune sette hindu, come la meditazione e il controllo del respiro tipici degli yogī, l'importanza del maestro come nel tantrismo, il rapporto d'amore tra dio e l'uomo e la ricerca dell'unione col divino. Sufismo e bhakti si sono influenzati reciprocamente e il simbolo, anche letterario, di questa sintesi è il grande poeta Kabīr (1440-1513). .
Film citati nell'articolo (regista, anno, lingua):
A cura di