Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eisenstein 1

I hated Eisenstein while undergoing the Masters course in Film Studies. I had no interest in watching the age-old footage of the Odessa steps, or the metonymic mechanical Peacock in October.

After teaching cinema for five years, shooting a few feature-length documentaries and ad films and editing more than two hundred student exercises, I bow down before him. Sixty Six years after he passed away, Eisenstein is still the baap (ie, the godfather) of the mafia cult called  cinema.

But why so?

In this series of essays, I am trying to see how we grow up following the simple steps of feeding the mind with images - video and audio. We may say we are not influenced by anyone, these images are our own. But, we cannot forget we come out of the womb of an already established culture. The messages which shape our minds and our personalities are socially constructed. If we really want to break out of them we must know their sources, and who control them. For that, we have to go back to where it all began.

And Eisenstein holds an Emperor's position in that quest. He was the first filmmaker who consciously examined the psychological and political backdrop of his cinema and its appreciation. He saw patterns in influencing a group of spectators coming from a specific psycho-social background. Based on that pattern and his observations of culture and human psychology, he postulated further steps - almost like English grammar or stylistics, and applied them back to his next film.

He was the first filmmaker-theorist, the finest of teachers and the only guy in cinema history who attempted a poetics of cinema, almost like Aristotle's Poetics. Unfortunately he died young, aged fifty, in 1948. But, his observations and applications bring fresh air, till date, to modern filmmakers like Godard and Brian De Palma.

Enough of accolades. What did Eisenstein do actually?

Eisenstein is popularly known as the father of the montage theory. His contribution stuck there permanently for most film students and filmmakers. However, if we keep in mind that shots (in the sense of changes in point-of-view/subjectivity and a continuous power position) are all about cinema, and montage is merely an understanding of shots, then we can easily see Eisenstein's montage meant everything about cinema, from its conception in mind to its reception (again in minds).

In the early years of the 20th Century, when Pavlov carried out his classical experiements with mice, dogs, monkeys and other primates, the results were in accord with the prevailing world view in the communist Russia. Constructivism, as opposed to Romanticism and naturalism, was already in the air. Hormones were to be discovered soon. Pavlov's explanation of emotions and instincts through reflex arcs were just the thing many practitioners of performing arts needed to train themselves.

Eisenstein's guru,  Vsevolod Meyerhold, came out with a system of stage acting which put reflex and conditioning as the actor's preparation. He named the system bio-mechanics. During his first job at the Moscow Art Theatre, Meyerhold felt the need for a school of acting that would train one to express the inner self - emotions and instincts. He wanted to tap the source of reality, thus producing a reality on stage more powerful that cheap imitation of objective reality.  

He classified five elements - movement, gesture, rhythm, space and music. An actor was to undergo training in these. Meyerhold professed, a director's role was the creation of movements of patterns, lines, shapes and color - different arrangements set to a musical score and a rhythm. Human heartbeat was the basis of the rhythm. Lines, shapes, juxtapositions of geometries and colors were to generate the same mood in the audience which the dramatist has in mind.

In a nutshell, Meyerhold wanted a device to connect the audience directly through emotional elements, relegating the story and reality to just a pretext.

Since 1867, Impressionist painters were trying the same in painting. Mozart tried the same in music a hundred years ago. 

In a way, this has been the holy grail for creative expression since ages. If two, or more, minds can be connected at the elemental emotional level, the ecstasy they can sense would be more powerful than hundred sexual orgasms. That has been the goal for any artist anywhere in the world, through the human history.

You see, Meyerhold hit the crux of the matter. Apparently it was mechanical. He called it bio-mechanics. But, this mechanism was organic at another level. His actors trained totally with their body - movements and gestures in rhythm set to situations, set to musical scores. Each and every movement were so finely defined from static energy, recoil, stay and finish. They were exactly like an oriental martial artist's movements, or a Russian ballet dancer's movements. 

In the first days of practice, they were mechanical. But, with living through the movements they became the actor himself - they became spontaneous. It was exactly like learning to sing, or even better, learning to talk. They became natural!

This extremely rigorous practice was necessary to create the base. The actor changed through the process. She became an artist. She became a creator whose material was her own body.

A given character in a given mental and physical situation in the context of a story - the play - was no more of a challenge to the actor at the acting level. Just like life itself, the actor could focus on the philosophy of the performance.

And the newly found Soviet Russia was a lot about philosophy.

The artist was a creator in this society. But, his creation was not an individual accomplishment. It sprang up from the society, and the individual artist's dealings with his circle.

Eisenstein was trained in this school, this gharana.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak is our cinematic father. An overused sentence? A cliché? So what? Life itself is the biggest cliché.

Raoul Coutard once remarked, "François (Truffaut) makes films, but Godard makes cinema." That reminds me of Ritwik.

Cinema was never the end for Ritwik. It was the weapon, the tool for his quest. The pen for his expression. He would always say, "I don't love cinema. If there is something better, I'll kick cinema away to embrace the new medium."

Yet, Ritwik loved cinema. Just like me, like many of us, Ritwik feared to declare his love for cinema. 

He loved cinema. Yet, cinema was just a pretext. He loved human beings. He loved this civilization. In his later years, he moved away from the mainstream Marxist practice to find his own roots in the Indian civilization.

Yet, he was a loyal communist until his last breath. He lived and died a communist.

Ritwik was full of contradictions, and inconsistencies, just like this civilization. He had a clear goal, however. He searched for the answer until death. We do not know if he got the answer.

He tried to make the same film, whole life. He came closer with each attempt - Nagarik, Meghe Dhaka Tara to Jukti Takko aar Gappo. Probably, he never met success.

Yet, everybody in the Indian sub-continent owes something to him.

Everyone who has something to do with any visual art, not only cinema. 

And when I feel an inner urge to write about Ritwik finally, at the time of an extreme personal crisis and deep internal struggle, I want to know what I got from his works - how I can use them.

I first came to know about Ritwik from Meghe Dhaka Tara (1959). 

Conventionally reacting, I was bowled over the cheap sentimentality Ritwik had to use in this film for commercial reasons.

At the same time, even though I was in late teens, his powerful female protagonists, an almost obsession for the fertility cult and mother archetype and a quest for the purpose of civilization did not evade my notice.

In my teenage, Ritwik was a name associated with anti-Ray semi-intellectual polemism, communist party, partition and Bengal.

For me, the name had no other association besides Meghe Dhaka Tara.

By the time I was seventeen, I had seen almost all films by Ray multiple times, both on the screen and on TV. These included Ray's documentaries and short films too.

I liked two films most. Pather Panchali and The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha

I never enjoyed his most well-made film - Charulata - with the same passion. That film always felt too designed, lacking spontaneity somewhere. It was good as a text book. It was not magic.

Coming from a middle class family from Calcutta (lower middle class in the standards of any richer State in India), the goal of life was never clear to us. 

Making money was anathema. Serving people was impractical. Clerical job was same as a dog's life. Teaching was considered a noble profession. But, when we saw a teacher was neither respected nor well-off, it was another dog's life to us.

In a nutshell, life was already closed for us when we were in our teens. 

For the few milliion Bengalis of my cusp generation, life itself was a curse. And we learnt this from our parents, our teachers and every neighbor we would meet.

The only escape was flying abroad, or joining the Naxalites. Some of us took to the first; and a few the second. But, that is another story.

In such tumultuous growing years, Ritwik reappeared in my life. As part of the Film Studies subsidiary program, in JU, Kolkata, I watched his other films.

Watching films for free, or for a minimal cost, was never a big issue in Kolkata. 

I rediscovered Ritwik, like many of my peers, in Ajantrik, Komal Gandhar, Subarnarekha, Titas and Jukti Takko aar Gappo , his last release where he played his own apparition.

I watched Nagarik, his first complete film. 

I did not like it. It was stiff, full of theatricality. It was not free from the Cinematic tradition from Barua to Bimal Roy. Had it been released in time, it could not have influenced history the way Pather Panchali did.

Yet, this was the first film where Ritwik began his quest in Cinema. 

The associative sound space, the power position of camera. A break from the Hollywood and German imitations that Tollygunge studios practiced those days. A return to the Eisensteinian approach, coupled with Ritwik's language of theatre.

Ramananda Sengupta, the Cinematographer, still reminisces, Ritwik rarely placed the camera at eye level. It was always Low or high. Sometimes following the Shot-Reverse shot eyeline match, sometimes subverting that. A clear Eisensteinian legacy.

The experiment was half-baked, in Ritwik's own opinion.

Bari theke paliye was never enjoyable as a children's film the way Goopy Gayne was enjoyable. Yet, a different side of Ritwik's face could be seen in this film. A side that is hidden in his other works.

I lost focus in my late teens. I had no meaning in life. Ritwik Ghatak brought the meaning back.

How did that happen?

That is my story with Ritwik.

The story starts before my birth. 1948. A few months after the partition of India. Both my parents' families had to shift to this side. There was fear in the air. My grandfather was attacked.

The marginal! The converted. 

We kept them below the margin. We forced them to accept an Arab religion. It was inevitable. Rabindranath predicted this long back in Durbhaga Desh.

We lost something. Someone else gained. My childhood is inextricably linked to this. My lost focus, impaired education, anger, illusion resulted from this. History shaped me.

Ritwik began here too. At the same cross-points in history. Coming from the same élite North-Bengal brahmin lineage, he was from the same cultural and family tree.

He was much more adventurous than me, however. I only had wishful thinking. But, he ran away from home. Probably because there was an other city in his reality - Kolkata. For me, there was no such destination. I was already in Kolkata. 

He ran away further, to Kanpur. He joined a textile mill, as a child worker. The life of factory workers would not be an imagination for him, in the future. He was one of them.

Family influence brought him to the cultural circles of Kolkata, in his early youth. In the aftermath of army supply in the WWII, famine and blackmarket struck Bengal again.

How many famines were there since the Brits took over? Since the 1769 famine in which two-third population of Bengal died? In Wikipedia, I see the number moderated. But, even there it is clearly mentioned how the big gangetic plain, including the gangetic delta, was depopulated in stretches.

Famiciated population, and the survivors relegated to jungle. Long stretches of Birbhum were depopulated. Bengal did not mean today's Bengal. Much of Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha was included.

Bankim Chandra wrote a somewhat diluted report of this in Anandamath. And of the aftermath in Debi Choudhurani.

A series of famines followed. Famine would strike Bengal at least thrice in big ways (1873-74, 1896-97, 1899-1900) before the large-scale occurrence in 1943. There were many intermittent small-scale famines in between.

In spite of that, a Bengal renaissance shined in Calcutta, fifty years after the 1769-74 famine. From large-scale and pocket revolutions in other parts of Bengal, I can guess how myopic was the Calcutta based renaissance.

On the immediate background of this exploitation, economic imbalance, multiple histories in the same geographical territory, Ritwik Ghatak joined IPTA and began his search for the answer.

On going through his writings, cinema and theatrical perfomance (I could hear only the audio of Jwala, from an Akashvani program), I sense how his quest formed.

It began before partition. Ritwik was well-read, interested in history and how that affects human expression, when he joined the cultural front of the Marxist Party.

With time, I see, his quest change to an observation - Human civilization and progress are always the result of a series of evictions. Eviction of human property, eviction of tradition, eviction of values.

This is a common sociological approach, almost by putting Darwinian Natural Selection to the history of man.

But, Ritwik could never accept this. In his last two films, he seems to have accepted defeat to the natural Law. But, there is dissonance in that acceptance.

That was his tragedy.

That was my tragedy.

The tragedy in the win of positive economics. Over the normative.

Sometimes, in fact many a time, our obstinacy presents a real danger in the face of our experience (I am not really saying reason.)

From Eisenstein to Shaji S Karun, many filmmakers emphasized the universality of human expression. The debate is at large. All individuals belonging to the same species must react alike when presented the same stimulus. This is the theory.

However, that cannot be totally true. The environmental backdrop for each individual is different. No two human beings can share the same space-time. They are always two different observers.

That difference may not be nominal at times. Yet we communicate.

The differences in communication is popularized by the word ego, by psychologists. Indeed ego is a synonym for personality in Freudian psychology.

Ritwik wanted to see how ego interacts with the cultural memory which Jung located as the universal memory in all human beings. Jung's famous Collective Unconscious.

In personal life, Ritwik was like a Buddhist monk who wanted to know and to give. The few months he was the Vice Principal in FTII, he tried to spark off this wisdom in his students.

That initiated a new wave in Indian cinema which Satyajit Ray questioned. It was the IPTA legacy. Ritwik was never merely a filmmaker. He was a social worker who wanted to see how sociological forces work.

That legacy continued in John Abraham. It continues, in some way, through what is known as the Indian parallel cinema. It continues in the nexus between filmmakers, artists and social activists - people whom the corporates do not like.

But, to me Ritwik will always remain as the father, who showed how to dare outside the norm.

I remember him more today, on the day of Tagore's birth.

We cannot separate Ritwik from Tagore. It was a revelation, just like Tagore's revelation on the Sudder Street Verandah, to see Ritwik's approach to the same wonder.

I had never felt Tagore's songs were so power-packed.

I never felt the same wonder eversince.