[Warning: long post]
“Taare Zamein Par” won’t be bringing the Oscars to India. Not that we uber-nationalists need to worry—“Slumdog Millionaire” will be winning many and “do India proud”. Coming back to TZP, I cannot say that it deserved to be nominated as I have not seen any of the movies that edged it out. However I can say that I thought it was an exceptional bit of work from mainstream commercial Bollywood, not because of the noble “message” or because of the story but because of its immensely cinematic first half where we are provided a beautiful insight into the world of a child, as he skips out of school and wonders on the small wonders of the world like the glories of paint mixing and the other small miracles we adults no longer are moved by.What it was perhaps missing was a bit of Indian exotica or a bit of the old sweat-and-dung-and-heat kind of muskiness that defines the sub-continetal cinematic experience—the Darsheel character’s dyslexia was fine and all but if he only had leprosy along with it, TZP would have been a “celebration of the wonder that is India”. Perhaps.
India’s most popular blogger, a gentleman appropriately named the Big B, had this to say recently in the context of Slumdog Millionaire.
The commercial escapist world of Indian Cinema had vociferously battled for years , on the attention paid and the adulation given to the legendary Satyajit Ray at all the prestigious Film Festivals of the West, and not a word of appreciation for the entertaining mass oriented box office block busters that were being churned out from Mumbai. The argument. Ray portrayed reality. The other escapism, fantasy and incredulous posturing. Unimpressive for Cannes and Berlin and Venice
Normally I usually let the news media obsesses over the latest blog statement from Amitabh Bachchan (and they do a good job over the obsessing part) but today I make an exception and comment on something from the Big B blog. Why? Simply because this statement of AB does make an interesting point and most importantly it serves as the perfect lead-in to something I have been wanting to write for some time now. What that is, I am coming to.
First let’s look at the first part of the argument. Namely that somehow mainstream Bollywood fare, the kind of stuff that made Bachchan famous, has not been given its due by the Western cognoscenti.
What constitutes “good art” is forever a matter of dispute and ultimately a subjective highly personal assessment that varies greatly from individual to individual. Mr. B may very well believe that excellence in cinema ought to be defined by its popular appeal or as Himesh the Great succinctly puts it on SaregamaPa “Public ke dee-i-shon (that’s how he pronounces decision) is all that matters.”
However Cannes and Berlin and the Oscars rely on a different aesthetic while evaluating movies—an aesthetic that favors “I could have been a contender” over ” Hum to tamboo main bamboo lagaaya baithe” (even though the latter may have got more whistles), Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Psycho to Mandakini’s waterfall scene in “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” (even though more people may have remembered it), the “swing” scene of Ikiru over the swing scene of Sanjog when Jaya Prada sings Zhu Zhu Zhu (even though more people may have wept at seeing the second than the first) and the magic realism of La Strada over the surrealism of thousands of lemons bouncing down the hillside to Jeetendra’s dance moves and the accompanying poetic lyrics “Choli tere tan par kasi kasi “ . (though I personally consider the latter to be an award-worthy directorial touch). An aesthetic I felt would also favour TZP but alas it did not.
Now this preference may seem elitist and out of touch with reality (this is what Bill O’Reilly says) but then again the Oscars or the big film trophies never claim to be popular awards.
In that respect, its not as if these awards have an axe to grind only with popular mainstream Bollywood . The Oscars and the big international film festivals also refuse to acknowledge escapist, fantastic and immensely popular cinematic creations from Hollywood like White Chicks (which comes in at the level of “Aaya Aaya Toofan Bhaga Bhaga Shaitaan” in terms of recall factor) and iconic movies like Star Wars and Die Hard whose audience-pleasing abilities have been validated over generations by commercially successful sequels.
Do Cannes and the Oscars always remain consistent to their aesthetic? Of course not and at least for the Oscars these transgressions have become even more egregious over the years. After all, how could a movie like “Titanic” sweep all the golden statues? Film festivals and academy awards are prone, like anything that has a committee, to manipulations—through lobbying, influence-mongering, personal connections and other overt and covert forms of what the French call “jugaad”.
There are certain themes that Oscar committees have a well-known bias for and so sometimes mediocre and cliched movies can simply play the system and win big if they strike the right notes and pander to the right stereotypes (and we know which potential Oscar winner I am talking about).
However despite the deviations in practice, on paper the aesthetic that guides Cannes and the Oscars remains constant and by that standard, Transformers or Amar Akbhar Antony will never be considered to be the best of world cinema, painful as that fact might be to some.
But what the greatest “There’s something about Mary” or “Terminator” fan will never do is to blame Oliver Stone or Scorcese for why their favorite movies do not get approval from the critics.
This is however precisely what Bachchan does when he says that Bollywood had to “battle the adulation and attention paid to Ray” as if somehow it is because of Ray’s realism and the “realistic” stereotypes that he defined that Subhash Ghai and Manmohan Desai do not have several Palm D’Ors, Swarna Bhaloos and Best Director Oscars in their living room showcase.
Which brings me to the point of the post. And yes I have taken some time in getting there.
In the 80s, Congress MP Nargis famously declared that Satyajit Ray has won international acclaim because he sells India’s poverty to the West. There were undoubted political reasons for this diatribe, traceable to Ray’s refusal to kowtow to the then-Madam and Ray’s perceived slights to Bollywood, but that is not the topic of discussion here.
The accusation of Nargis however is.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Ray’s work and having no axe to grind would realize straight up that the very basic premise of Nargis’s accusation is false. The overwhelming majority of Ray’s movies aren’t even about “poor” people, where poverty is defined as the grinding sort that gets Westerns to go “Oho…so unfortunate”. Charulata and Ghare Baire are set in rich zamindar families. Kanchenjangha and Aranyer Din Ratri look at social dynamics in an urban, upper-middle class context. Nayak is about a matinee idol. The Kolkata trilogy deals with youth unrest, social changes in urban life and corporate wheeling-dealing. Ray deals with civilizational crisis in Agantuk, corruption in Ganashatru, history in Satranj ki Khiladi, the tragedy of blind faith in Devi, feudalism and the inability to move with the times in Jalsaghar, the tensions caused in a middle class household when a housewife takes up a job in Mahanagar. There are detective stories, children’s fables with political subtexts, comedies about Bengali middle class aspirations—in short a mind-boggling variety of themes are explored by Ray where poverty is totally absent or where it is just a sidelight (for instance the female character in Mahanagar has to take a job when her husband gets laid off when the bank he works for fails) to the dramatic conflict that is at the crux of the narrative.
Even when Ray depicts poverty as he does in Pather Panchali, it almost never becomes the exclusive focus. In a Ray film, there will hardly ever be gratuitous displays of human suffering of the “rolling in excreta and skin peeling off” kind that Boyle and even some Indian art movie directors, who shall remain nameless, use as a means to shock.
Not many people know this but one of the persistent criticisms that Ray faced throughout his life from Left-leaning Bangali intellectuals was that his depiction of suffering was not hard-hitting enough (Ray’s most stark depiction of poverty “Asani Sanket” was dragged over the coals as a “dushtu-mishti” [sweet-naughty] depiction of the Bengal famine because according to the critics it was way too arty and subtle and poetic.)
Some said that it was his bourgeois sensibilities which led him to be defensive about showing poverty. Some said it was because of his upper-class privileged upbringing that he had little idea of true human misery.(These incidentally were the same criticisms against Rabindranath Tagore). My take is that rather than being bookishly “gritty”, as in showing people vomiting on a glass screen and taking a shot from below ( a scene which I have actually seen in an Indian “art” movie popular on the festival circuit), Ray relied on indirection, symbolism, shot composition and use of light and shade to convey his message in a more cinematically aesthetic way. Likewise, Boyle could have used a number of ways to show extreme love for Bollywood celebrities but he chose the “easy way out”—the “shock and awe” strategy. Using perhaps the most gratuitously odious and heavy-handed way of getting the message across [a sentiment echoed here], he no doubt grabbed attention and pleased the crowd but the mechanism through which he achieved this can hardly be considered to be a great example of the director’s craft as it is defined by the “Oscar and Cannes” aesthetic. That in a nutshell is the difference between Ray’s depiction of poverty and Boyle’s—it’s not the depiction of extreme poverty that makes Slumdog ordinary but the way Boyles chooses to do so that is.
Much of the assessment of Ray and people’s judgment of him is based on the Apu trilogy, or perhaps just “Pather Panchali” as for many that is possibly all the Ray they have seen. Isn’t the Apu trilogy about poverty you ask, maybe visually artistic but about poverty none the less? Seeing nothing but poverty in “Pather Panchali” is like seeing nothing but graffiti on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. I have reviewed briefly the Apu trilogy in a series of three posts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) and I would request the interested reader to look through them if you are interested to know more.
Here let me just say that the appeal of the Trilogy lies primarily in the universality of the themes it explores, themes that transcend barriers of time and social context. Apu can be taken out of the context of a poor village in rural Bengal and transplanted to graduate school in the US in 2009, a young Indian male adjusting to a new world with wide-eyed wonder in the process turning his back to his roots. Sarbajoya then can become his mother, dying inside, waiting for her son to call, running to the phone to realize she has imagined it to be ringing and sitting at the verandah of her third storey floor looking wistfully down at the road, expecting her son to come walking down the front street like he used to many years ago. And even then, if the camera was in the hands of a skilled director (no Mr. Bhansali I do not mean you) the story and the visuals would lose none of their poignancy even though the poverty and rural angle has been totally taken away.
In conclusion, it is this timelessness and universal relevance that makes Ray’s movies such exquisite works of art, rather than his “realism” or his “depiction of poverty”.
Now if only some people would get this.