'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

'The People's Jungle'

This is on some details of 'Jana Aranya', a Satyajit Ray film dating back to mid 1970's.

The official English translation of the movie's name is 'The Middleman'. But the literal meaning of the title is 'a jungle of people'; I suspect it is a parody of phrases like 'janatantra' or 'ganatantra' (meaning democracy, as in 'people's republic' or 'popular government') - reflecting a deep disillusionment with a system which claims to be democratic (or republican) but where actually jungle-law prevails.

The movie has been variously described by reviewers as 'unknown masterpiece','underrated classic' and so forth...

This is indeed an exceptionally tautly narrated story and there are some passages where Ray equals his best work. Unlike other Ray films I have seen, this is a 'morality play' (an 'immorality play', to be precise) so most characters are actually types and personifications; but despite the resulting - necessary - 2-dimensionalization, almost all of them are exceptionally well-realized. In his patented style, Ray uses music sparingly and tellingly (the absolute highlight: a montage showing a mountain of job-applications piling up at a post office, the background score progresses gradually from a sumptuously orchestrated movement to the 'dhup dhup' of the envelopes being stamped). However, in spite of all these virtues, I feel the film could have been an even better piece of work.

For instance, the episode where an elderly examiner fails to read Somnath's small hand-writing and gives him a low grade. This marks a digression from a 'third person limited' style of narration (ideally suited to a story of this type) to 'third person omniscient'. The result: we are prevented from sharing fully the sheer disbelief of Somnath's father when the results are out. Imho, a wisecrack by the cynical elder brother to the effect: "As usual Kokon (Somnath's 'daak-nam') would have written in that cute little style of his.... you can't expect the examiner to be carrying a microscope around!" would have been sufficient.

Further downstream, Somnath is not witness to Bishuda's brief but interesting 'exchange' with a fruit-seller - and Ray could easily have (and to me, he should have) constructed the scene so that he is.

A jarring note, to me, was the rather stagey depiction of the protagonist's angst-ridden father. His suffering is real; but something about either the acting or the dialog or ... grates.

And the nitpicker in me also spotted a miniscule continuity problem: When Mitter and Somnath discuss 'strategy' over chicken omelettes, the camera repeatedly cuts between their faces and the latter is shown with specs and without them alternately in a brief sequence of shots - a bit earlier, he has been shown taking them off and hence should have been without them for the entire duration of the switching shots.

This movie, like quite a few others of Ray, features some intimate Devar-Bhabhi (younger brother - elder brother's wife) cameraderie ('Charulata' is easily more famous on that count and Shakha-Proshakha too such an episode). Maybe there are no 'darker' undercurrents to the relationship between Somnath and his 'Baudi' but somewhere, I sensed a lurking doubt, a shadow of a certain 'physical tension'. Indeed I am reminded of Dutta and Robinson's biography dissecting Tagore's relationship with his sister-in-law, where it is mentioned the word 'Devar' (husband's younger brother)literally means 'second husband'.

Remarkably, Calcutta streets of 2010 look almost exactly the same as in this thirty five year old b/w film. I have heard millions of times of the timelessness of Indian villages but this is the first time I have encountered such an 'urban time warp'.

'Jana Aranya' was the first Ray movie I saw (nearly 20 years back) and over the last week, I have seen it about half a dozen times. And I have liked it so much its few flaws disturb me. A personal reason for this special affinity could be that I see parallels between this story and my own 'The Loop', which, if things go well, will be out in book form later this year.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Yellow Limestone"

I am into Satyajit Ray movies (and Feluda films by his son Sandip) in a big way. The primary intent is acquisition of Bengali language(*) so I watch each film repeatedly, trying to decipher the dialog better. The deep (and well-documented) aesthetic pleasure that practically every Ray movie provides is another incentive, although not the primary one.

Regrettably, I do not possess the evolved and nuanced sensitivity which could have yielded illuminating film reviews (the genre of writing I have sampled most extensively over the last few years). Ray has had enough reviewers anyways.

Let me record some impressions anyways:

- 'Abhijan' has some exciting action (indeed I never thought a relic of a car and a moving cattleshed of a steam train could feature in such a racy race!) and a gives deeply engaging sense of being on the move and being swept thru landscapes (in sculptured stasis as well as furious evolution). It seems to have been an inspiration for a slightly later (and rather atypically interesting) Hindi road-movie 'Teesri Kasam', a connection, perhaps, not adequately explored by existing reviews of the latter.

- 'Kanchenjunga' struck me as static and somewhat dull on first viewing (and reviewers have criticized it for its 'picture postcard'-ness); but if ever any movie is an acquired taste, this must be it. When the Darjeeling fog rolls in and the cling-clang of a loaded mule-train mingles with Ray's wonderfully understated background score, it is quite a cocktail of heady sensations.

- A sense of travel permeates the detective film 'Sonar Kella' (must be the only detective movie described by reviewers as 'lyrical'). Having grown up in the era of steam engines, simply watching those smoky, rickety trains was a deeply nostalgic ride. Some of the shots, - the Gangetic plain, the Rajasthan desert...- dripping with old-style color, looked straight out of a 1960s vintage National Geographic(**). The plot was less of an attraction. The pace of narration was a bit too leisurely for a thriller - but I did not mind at all. And, as has been documented elsewhere, Ray gets two little boys to act amazingly well.

And I found an error in Ray's typically meticulous detailing (as my readers would know, I am a compulsive nitpicker) - detective Feluda picks up a carved bowl from a curio shop and makes his decisive deduction: "yellow limestone ... Jaisalmer!". Hey, Jaisalmer has a fort made of golden-hued *sandstone*, not limestone! But I can't be sure about my finding yet since there are almost as many web-pages which say Jaisalmer fort is made of yellow limestone as there are those which say it is of sandstone. At any rate, there are also web-pages which say the two stones are indeed fundamentally different, so Ray and self cannot both be right.

With all respect to thespian Soumitra Chatterji (who played Feluda in 'Sonar Kella'), I liked Sabyasachi's much later interpretation of the character better.

And the Monday after I saw Kanchenjunga and Sonar Kella (saw both twice each over a weekend), when I pulled out a chalk-piece from a neatly packed case, I could not help go tap-tap with the chalk-tip on the case!

- 'Shakha Prashakha' is one of Ray's last movies. Critics in general have not rated this movie very high. Even many Ray fans find it too verbose and boring. My own first viewing, not surprisingly, was quite a drag, but repeats have actually been hugely enjoyable, for a rather non-cinematic reason - the dialog has, almost abruptly, become almost comprehensible. Beginning to get a grip on a new language is quite a high, even at this age ... it reminds me of the day when I discovered I could swim!

- 'Kapurush' is a neat little movie, one of the best explorations of the usual triangle of relationships. I could suggest one change: the final scene of "can I have those sleeping pills back?" had better be a dream (maybe it is, as it is!).

- 'Jana Aranya' is, in terms of pacing and the ability to draw the spectator into the action, one of Ray's finest efforts and I have already seen it 4-5 times. More on that later!

Note: While on the Feluda trail, I also checked the wiki article on 'faluda' (a soft drink I tried and did not take to long ago). From there, I was led to a couple of absolutely surprising articles on 'yakhchals' and 'wind towers', highly non-trivial civil engineering feats from the middle east which have not received the recognition they richly deserve. I had never before heard about such structures (they must have been built even in Mughal India). Even Robert Byron's remarkably detailed classic 'The Road to Oxiana' has but a single fleeting reference to them.
(*) As an example of the progress on the language front, I give the following exclamation, coined yesterday: "Feluda Govinda!". And here is another sample: "Some folks deem deem vegetarian."

(**)Coincidentally, the Indian Railways put up the famous National Geographic picture of a steam loco with the Taj Mahal as backdrop on its website, just a few days back.