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RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001


The river runs through it...

Maithili Rao

"Sculpting in time..." That is the memorable phrase Andrei Tarkovsky used to describe the process of film making. True, most films are mindless fillers of available time. But the very process of making a film organises itself to fit a given time frame and this imposes a temporal flow. Film-makers have been conscious of this temporal flow and are driven to seek a visual metaphor to encapsulate this passage of time in a given space. The most lyrical metaphor of all is the timeless flow of a river to connote an unseen dimension besides the incantatory presence of this ceaseless movement of eddying water. By comparison, the use of juxtaposed shots of changing seasons or the flapping pages of a calendar are literal. Changing seasons imply the cyclic nature of time while the flowing river hints at a mysterious link with the past and forebodes an unknown future. Is it any wonder then that the most remarkable images from films that imply the churning chaos of immediacy and the certitude of eternity, of change and immutability, are linked to rivers?

Manoj Kumar Jain
"Water" . . . prohibited at the Benares ghats.

Not all such images have to invoke pastoral tranquillity and rural innocence. Jean Vigo's "L' Atlante" - consistently ranked among the greatest films of all time - is a tender love story set on a barge that goes past the small industrial towns flanking the Seine before it reaches Paris. The story of the newlyweds is interwoven with comment on the changing economy that is so dependent on river trade. Rivers have been the channels of not only trade and commerce but the very arteries that nurtured civilisations. Rivers are both the heart and the nerve endings of great cities and cultural centres, nourishing the heart, mind and souls of civilisations, of people who created these cities and are sustained by their creations, over centuries and generations.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the frenzy against Deepa Mehta's "Water" could be whipped up so easily by rabid neo-fundamentalists who see a conspiracy against Hinduism in anything remotely critical or even rational in its approach to the world's oldest living faith. Nothing else comes close to the symbiotic relationship between a river and a city, religious faith and its ardent devotees, than the mystical - and mystifying - bond that anchors Varanasi to the Ganga. The Ganga embodies the mystique of life and death, a flow of seemingly irreconcilable opposites, of sinful exploitation of blind faith and the pitiful hope of redemption. The exploiters of flesh and faith are the custodians of temporal power and religious faith in Varanasi. What Mehta sought to do in the third film of her ambitious quartet named for the elements was to examine the fervour and faith of the holy city by the holiest of rivers. Hyper-sensitive defenders of Hindutva unilaterally decided this was a calculated mockery of Hinduism, aimed at a largely irreligious West intellectually entertained by the irrational faith of a Third World society. These outraged Hindutvavadis see collaborators in all those who swear by secularism and freedom of artistic expression.

Sadly, a rational and distanced attitude to our holy cows leads to unconstitutional violence so that we are forever denied a chance to see if Deepa Mehta could translate a controversy-ridden theme into cinematic excellence. In contrast, a vulgar exploitation of our collective reverence for the Ganga touched the nadir of hypocrisy and unapologetic obscenity in Raj Kapoor's puerile purveyance of pieties he loftily called "Ram Teri Ganga Maili". Raj Kapoor's mammary obsession led him to douse a nubile, un-bloused Mandakini (a starlet specially named by him for his kitschy, clich‚-laden parable) under a waterfall to symbolise the purity of innocent love. From his early film "Barsaat", Kapoor has associated the unsullied mountain stream with the sanctity of redemptive romance that is sensual and also nurturing.

But Raj Kapoor is also guilty of sullying the spring of his romantic inspiration and nothing describes this artistic corruption more than the pious hypocrisies of "Satyam Shivam Sundaram" and "Ram Teri Ganga Maili". The story of a young engineer falling in love with the sweet unseen voice that actually comes out of a scarred face - and a voluptuous body flaunted with breathtaking brazenness - climaxes when a river rises in flood to inundate the hero with blinding insight. In "Ram Teri Ganga Maili", the corruption of a whole society is encapsulated in the course of the Ganga - from the crystalline pure snows down to the dirty, decadent plains. In a flourish of heavy handed irony, the heroine is ritually raped in the vast brothel that Varanasi had degenerated into, on a pleasure boat afloat on the Ganga. Subhash Ghai who takes his mantle of showmanship with an undisguised air of self-importance, updated the equation between the redemptive river and chaste Indian womanhood in "Pardes". His heroine Ganga's redemptive powers extend beyond desi shores. An NRI tycoon singing "I Love My India" comes home to find a pure-bred desi bride to rescue his Americanised son from the luxuriously cushioned hell of western materialism. The entire film which sings the praises of a heroine named Ganga (her mother is named Narmada) has one sequence - replete with silhouetted boats against flaming sunsets - to celebrate the actual river we venerate.

The image of the river - both in "Ram Teri..." and "Pardes" - is visually prosaic, completely innocent of any sublimity or intimations of immortality. It is amazing how another "masala" movie made in the mythological idiom captures the liquid grace of Ganga's fabled descent from heaven to earth. It was in Bapu's Telugu film "Sita Kalyanam" made in the late 1970s that a swirling white diaphanous cloth drew beautiful arabesques against a dark starry sky. The simplicity of the inventive image set to melody created an aura of lyrical dance. A much maligned genre - but one with strong theatrical roots in our modes of narration - like the derided mythological, can create a moment of sheer visual magic.

Like so much else in Indian cinema, it is Satyajit Ray's genius which created a memorable vignette of Varanasi in "Aparajito". The second, often neglected, film in the Apu Trilogy recreates a small slice of Bengal in Varanasi, subconsciously evoking the connection between the river from its most visible, visited and venerated city down to the broad, almost stagnant serenity of a mighty river as it splits into many estuaries and spills its waters into the Bay of Bengal. The boy Apu skips around with desultory curiosity and contained energy on the ghats of Varanasi where his father's weak feet falter and stumble before gasping out the last breath and the pigeons fly in a moment of surreal epiphany. The small temples clinging tenaciously to the ghats and the sprawling terrace of an old style mansion taken over by impudent monkeys, form a collage of an ancient city that is very much alive in the present. The river as a means of a journey is reinforced by the image of the train chugging over a bridge - it also connects "Aparajito" to "Pather Panchali" - but with a subtle alteration of meaning. Apu's journey back to his native Bengal frees him from the inherited calling of priesthood into the world of science and intellectual curiosity as he grows into an adolescent.

Ray may have imbibed the understated poetic use of the river as symbol and metaphor from observing Jean Renoir at work when the great French master generously gave his time to eager acolytes while shooting "The River" in India. The smoothly gliding river bordered by lush foliage and a majestically towering tree were as much a part of the narrative as the colonial family living in a sprawling sunny bungalow on the edge of the great river. Renoir juxtaposed the river's changing moods and the awakened sexuality of the adolescent girls with his signature seamless ease.

Carefree adolescence flowering into femininity is a theme Ray touches with warm humour in "Teen Kanya". Aparna Sen is the gamine tomboy frolicking by the river and climbing trees to chase her pet squirrel. She is wooed by the citified yet awkward scion of the village's wealthiest family. This unlikely romance unfolds to the rhythms of the river which takes the young man away to Calcutta and makes the tomboyish heart grow fonder. Ray's short film was stretched out to saccharine length in the Hindi remake "Uphaar". Jaya Bhaduri's impish charm gurgled with mirth to offset the majestic calm of the river.

Ashim Ghosh/Fotomedia

The French connection with the Ganga survived into the 1990s. Vijay Singh, the Paris based writer/film-maker saluted Ganga's abiding mystery in "Jaya Ganga". His picaresque narrative coursed along the river from its high Himalayan source down the undulating plains, drawing deliberate parallels between sophisticated Gallic surrealism and the illusory nature of all Maya at an existential plane. It is one man's search for a woman he finds in a book, which takes him to the Himalayas and ends in a Hindi filmi rescue of a dusky dancer from a kotha. The voyage along the Ganga may not have realised all the ambitious meanings the director intended but the journey is both picturesque and teasingly ambiguous.

From the surreal to the commercial is a steep but necessary descent. It is surprising that not many film-makers other than Shakti Samanta exploited the dramatic backdrop of the Howrah Bridge as more than a picture postcard image. This historic suspension bridge across the Hooghly is our equivalent to the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges which are used to such heightened cinematic effect by Hollywood. Samanta was given permission to shoot on the Howrah Bridge for a day and the boat traffic was stopped for a while. So well organised was this producer/director that he packed up the musical suspense thriller well within the allotted time and traffic - both road and river - resumed earlier than anticipated, to the disappointment of the crowd that had gathered to watch this Ashok Kumar starrer. Our newer film-makers with lavish budgets for picturising songs abroad opt for the Sydney Harbour and its landmark Opera House or the over familiar London landscape where the Thames is hardly seen while the lead pair cavort to instant costume changes.

Perhaps they associate river-scapes with the outmoded Radha-Krishna myth and the sedate - by comparison to the MTV-ised choreography - raasleela. These bucolic prancings are dated to the archaic 1950s and 1960s by mainstream Hindi cinema. It is the films in regional languages that are alive with local colour and celebratory ardour. Think of the many K.Vishwanath films - from "Sirisiri Muvva" to "Sankarabharanam" to "Swatimutyam" to "Swatikiranam" - where impossibly noble people resolve their personal and cultural conflicts by the seemingly serene yet ever threatening waters of the Godavari. Whatever be the particular village, the broad expanse of a river complete with wide steps decorated with rangoli, sandy beaches for the sprightly heroine to dance to alliteration-laden lyrics, are an essential part of the Vishwanath film-scape. An even earlier film "Moogamanasulu" (the director's name escapes memory) centred on the worshipful adoration of a simple boatman for the zamindar's charming daughter whom he ferries across the river to college everyday. The beguiling charm - even though farfetched - of the star-crossed lovers ensured it was remade in Hindi as "Milan".

Mani Ratnam introduces his eponymous heroine Roja as a water sprite gambolling in the river while the camera cuts to the rhythm of "Chinna Chinna Aasai". The marvellous collage works like an expanded Liril ad, selling the virtues of village belle innocence. Even river magic has to be bottled and sold for a consumer market.


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