Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
The city in cinema
The writer is an independent film critic who divides his time between Mumbai and Pune. He was formerly Entertainment Editor, Gentleman magazine.
As is the case with the evolution of most artistic disciplines in India, Hindu mythology provided the ignition point for Indian cinema. Dadasaheb Phalke, that pioneer of camerawork, editing, set design, direction and production, set the ball rolling. Mythological cinema is the most demanding on set design and special effects. The most populist of audiences has to be convinced that Lord Krishna has appeared in human form, yet retains his celestial aura and can appear and disappear at will. In films like "Raja Harishchandra" (1914) and "Shri Krishna Janma" (1919), Phalke maintained his magic touch and can rightly be called the first architect of Indian cinema.
Phalke drew on the visual record of mythology for his images - illustrated texts of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, temple sculpture, engravings on walls and common structures, the emerging poster art of the time and, of course, theatrical productions from the period. But because it is all motion-picture photography, Phalke had to have a performer, an actor, to play Krishna. And it is at this point that architecture gives way to the human dimension - the movie star as God and, sometimes, as politician.
Set design in mythological cinema, so long as it remains an area manipulated by cinematic tools, is architecture. But the moment it crosses over to the performer wearing the designer mask, it moves into the second dimension, an area inhabited by mythological performers like N. T. Rama Rao and M. G. Ramachandran. You can no longer tell the man from the mask.
Architecture is expressionism. The Mayas, the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Mughals and the British in India left their vision of themselves in their architecture: where they came from, their perception of the universe and their place in it. The same thing applies to cinema and particularly to film with a strong ideological content.
In Bengal, Ritwik Ghatak made the cinema of cultural resistance; resistance to practically everything that was not indigenous to his society. He shows a fractured universe in his films, his uneven filmography truly graphic. Dismembered by the Bengal famine of 1943 and Partition in 1947, a culture cannot cope and starts to disintegrate. Ghatak expresses this dislocation through his stark landscapes and the barren architecture of whatever he places before the camera. This is particularly evident in a film like "Meghe Dhaka Tara" (1960). In "Subarnarekha" (1962), the sequence set on an abandoned World War II airstrip is surreal. It expresses the idea that the world outside the immediate one of the film is even more fractured.
At around the same time in Bombay, Raj Kapoor was collaborating with K. A. Abbas to produce a cinematic reflection of Nehruvian socialism in "Awara" (1951) and "Shree 420" (1956). The idea in the architecture of these films was to produce stark contrasts in urban landscapes in order to identify the "haves" and the "have nots", and to express a sentimental appreciation for the lives and the values of the poor, vis-a-vis the corruption of the city's wealthy. With his Charlie Chaplin dress sense accentuating the great divide, Kapoor clearly indicates where his heart is. Bombay city becomes the protagonist in some ways, the palatial homes of the oppressors beautifully shot by Radhu Karmakar, a Kapoor regular.
But a more interesting chronicler of city character was the great Guru Dutt. Those unforgettable lyrics in "C.I.D." (1956) - "ay dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, zara hatke, zara bachke, ye hai Bambai meri jaan" - shot variously on Marine Drive, on the stretch of road between the Taj Hotel and the Radio Club, and on Colaba Causeway: this is the signature tune of Bombay city. The tune may be lifted from "My Darling Clementine," but the statement is uniquely of the stress and the joy of living in Mumbai.
But Guru Dutt did not restrict himself to Bombay. A Calcutta man himself, he shot "Pyaasa" (1957) on sets, but the film clearly evokes Calcutta and the Bengali ambience of the bhadralok versus the common people. The parks of the city and the banks of the Hooghly river are also evoked in "Saheb, Bibi aur Ghulam" (1962). But Guru Dutt's most stunning architectural device must be the use of cranes to give the audience "high" and "low" perspectives.
In "Kagaz ke Phool" (1959), which is about Dutt as a film director and the illusionary nature of his profession, the last scene shows him on a movie set. It is an empty studio and the Dutt character dies sitting in the director's chair. The crane movements give you the sense of space within an architecture (the studio) which is itself an illusion created to entertain people.
The art director is the architect of cinema. Because of the auteur theory of the film director being the supreme creator of a film, we have lost sight of the contributions of the art director working in collaboration with the cameraman and the film director. That is why the history of Indian cinema will never forget Bansi Chandragupta, Satyajit Ray's art director in every film upto "Shatranj ke Khilari".
Chandragupta worked as an assistant art director in Jean Renoir's "The River," shot in Bengal in the early 1950s. He and Ray became founder members of the Calcutta Film Society and started working on "Pather Panchali" (completed in 1955) from around that time. Films were largely shot in studios in Bengal. Shooting on location, outdoor, was considered absurd. Chandragupta and Ray, together with cameraman Subrata Mitra, changed all that forever and created at least six classics of Indian cinema - "Pather Panchali", "Aparajito", "Apur Sansar", "Jalsaghar", "Devi" and "Charulata."
The idea was to shoot on location, use natural light as far as possible, and if a set were created, to age the set down and make it look lived-in and part of the environment. Not only was this in tune with the neo-realist film style of the period, but it allowed for camera movements that would not be hampered by the restrictions of a studio. Architecturally, it would be the equivalent of an open-air auditorium.
The contribution of architecture to Ray's films can be judged not by making an inventory of the films on which Bansi Chandragupta and Subrata Mitra worked with Ray, but by listing the Ray films from which they were absent: their absence makes his films grow poorer. Mitra's disagreements with Ray began in the mid 1960s and he had stopped working with him before the end of the decade. "Chandragupta" moved to Bombay and "Shatranj ke Khilari" (1977) was their last collaboration. It is an indisputable fact that Ray's films show a spectacular decline in terms of atmosphere, texture and general visual quality after the exit of what I would like to call his cinematic architects.
In recent Hindi cinema, just two films come to mind as works of architecture. One is J. P. Dutta's "Border" (1997), a film about the 1971 war with Pakistan. Shot on wide screen in a desert, the film displays the devastation of men by the technology of war. Battlefield after battlefield shows the supremacy of the machine. And yet the film is about the heroism of ordinary men in uniform.Dutta achieves this by shooting his film from ground level, from the perspective of the foot-soldier fighting against an entire brigade. Which is what the heroism of "Border" is all about.
The other outstanding film in terms of architecture is Ramgopal Verma's "Satya" (1998). This is a story of the Bombay mafia told from the lanes and bylanes of the seedy areas of the city - the environment in which this ruthless state of mind breeds. Crime is removed from its usual Bollywood trappings and taken to its locality of sudden power and sudden death. The gangsters live and die like sewer rats. The usual over-bright lighting is done away with and the fights take place in murky urban rat-holes.
In conclusion, a brief history of architecture in Indian cinema is useful because it tells us of how we, as a culture, visualise our mythology, how we present our ever-changing ideology on film and the perspective from which we look at our social divisions. No doubt we often deceive ourselves. But what is the architecture we use in the process of that deception?
Table of Contents
Copyrights © 2001, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.