The poetry of cinema can teach one to care deeply.
As part of my continuing small personal tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, I look back here on some of those Indian films which best spoke to me of those eternal themes of enduring art: love, loss, loneliness and longing.
It is more than 30 years since I first watched Aparna Sen’s sensitive and observant 36 Chowringhee Lane, but I still feel a twinge of grief at the thoughtless betrayal of the lonely, ageing Anglo-Indian school teacher, played to perfection by Jennifer Kendal. Unmarried, her brother is senile and confined to a nursing home, and her friends are slowly dying around her. Her secluded life lights up after a chance encounter with her old student and her boyfriend. They visit her often and fill her home with youth and laughter, and she believes they are her friends. But their only interest in the old teacher is to use her flat for lovemaking when she is away at work. Her eventual discovery of how they used her, her heartbreak and dignity long haunt the viewer.
One of the most aesthetically accomplished Hindi films of all times is Abrar Alvi’s Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Wife and Servant). Set at the turn of the last century, it maps the hopeless and ultimately tragic rebellion of a woman, memorably played by Meena Kumari, married into a decadent feudal household. Unwilling to accept the traditional station of a landlord’s wife, she feels humiliated by her husband’s drunken nights spent in the company of courtesans. She demands respect. In a desperate bid to attract him, she even takes to drinking alcohol like the dancing girls. But he scorns and spurns her, and she ultimately slips into a melancholy alcoholism. As the years pass, and the fortunes of the decaying feudal household crumble, she cannot shed her craving for liquor, and the family ultimately has her killed. In her tortured discontent, we observe the incipient stirrings of feminism, even though her revolt is not against men’s domination as much as their disrespect; and her defeat in achieving a measure of dignity in her marriage destroys her.
A similar lingering melancholy pervades Ritwick Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (A Star Covered by a Cloud). Sombre and poetic, it describes the fortunes of a young woman in a refugee family in Kolkata from East Pakistan impoverished by the Partition. She supports her family in their penury and hardship, but is cynically used by each of them, unmindful even as she sacrifices her own happiness and dreams. The protagonist’s aching longing is denied by her own goodness and her exploitation by those she most loved. In the haunting final sequence, as she lies dying of tuberculosis, she cries out to her brother: “I want to live”, words that became embedded in the hearts of a whole generation in Bengal to symbolise our doomed yearning for all that we have lost.
There are also a number of memorable films of love and wistful craving behind prison walls. Among Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s richly textured cinema, my favourite is Mathilukal (The Wall). Writer Vaikom Basheer is jailed for seditious writing against the British rulers. The film sensitively portrays the relationship he builds with a woman prisoner who he never sees, but whose voice he hears from behind the wall which separates the male and female prisoners. Eventually they plot to meet in the jail hospital, by pretending to fall ill at the same time. But before they can execute their plan, Basheer is released from jail. He no longer wants his freedom, as it tears him away from his unseen lover.
A similar aching yearning haunts Bimal Roy’s lyrical last film Bandini (Imprisoned), also set during India’s freedom struggle. A woman prisoner — Nutan’s finest performance — serving a life sentence for murder recalls her spirited but hopeless love for a man who abandons her to join the battle for freedom. Years later she discovers him unhappily married to a cruel woman, whom she ultimately murders to release her lover from his suffering. After her release from jail, she finds the man critically ailing with tuberculosis, but she is united with him to nurse him in his last days.
A much lesser known film, but one close to my heart, is Jahnu Barua’s Konikar Ramdhenu (Ride on The Rainbow). It depicts stolen childhoods in a juvenile home for children in conflict with law. A young boy escapes the violence of his alcoholic stepfather to work in a garage in Guwahati. But the garage owner tries to sexually assault him, and the boy hits him with a rod on his head which kills him instantly. The cold, loveless abuse of the juvenile home in which he is incarcerated is powerfully recreated, relieved only by the kindness of the superintendent.
These themes of loss and loneliness are most exquisitely evoked in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (Apu’s World).
Apu, an unemployed graduate living alone in a tiny tenement in Kolkata accompanies a friend to his village for the wedding of his sister. But the bridegroom turns out to be mentally ill, and her mother turns away the bridegroom. Custom decrees that if the young woman did not marry someone in the same auspicious hour, she would remain unmarried all her life. His friend persuades Apu to marry her to save her future. Back in his humble tenement, the two strangers fall tenderly in love. But the woman dies in childbirth, and Apu abandons his son, holding him responsible for his mother’s death. The film tracks the separate lonely pathways of the father and son, until their eventual reunion at the end.
The wistful longing, the pain and humanity of many of these films became part of my own growing years. I learned from them the poetry of cinema; I suffered with their protagonists; but maybe they also taught me to care more deeply.