A liberal helping

Bollywood’s use of Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is more rip-off than homage

Published - September 16, 2017 04:22 pm IST

A fresh viewing of Sashadhar Mukherjee’s 1960 hit, Love in Simla , reveals something unexpected. Not the ‘Sensational New Stars’ advertised in the very first frame, nor indeed the trademark Sadhana fringe. Instead, what is intriguing is the liberal use of musical motifs from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the film’s background score. It is more rip-off than homage — the interludes are not set-pieces in their own right, but blended into a conventionally melodramatic arrangement, as if it were all one composition to begin with. The classic ballet is well-known in India. Bimal Roy’s daughter wrote of having accompanied her parents to the Bolshoi Ballet version in the 1950s, and this week, Delhi will witness yet another revival by the Royal Russian Ballet.

Spell bound

The music’s familiar pathos aside, the film also owed a small debt to the ballet’s themes. The primary female persona is the princess Odette, or the White Swan, cursed to live out her days as a swan under a spell that can only be broken by eternal love. Her counterpoint is Odile, the Black Swan, a witch who attempts to wean away Odette’s lover by taking on her guise through sorcery. Since time immemorial, the same ballerina has often played both parts, which inserts a meta-narrative as gloriously conflicted as the plot. This in turn lends itself to tales of feminine transformation, and the duelling between a woman’s own contrasting alter egos.

In Love in Simla , a gauche Sadhana is the foundling brought up in a grim foster home.Yet she’s no long-suffering paragon but an impetuous upstart who speaks her mind, and openly states that she would win over the paramour her pampered adoptive sister has set her sights upon. A Cinderella-style transformation follows. Mission accomplished, the girls face off in the shadowy interiors of their family home, with an expressionist painting of a cello in the backdrop, and of course, the borrowed cadences from Tchaikovsky. Now wracked with guilt, Sadhana recedes into the well of despair and self-sacrifice, a tormented heroine in the classic mould of Odette.

Resurfacing episodes

A decade later, it is in Sharmeelee , the 1971 film produced by Mukherjee’s brother, Subodh, that Swan Lake resurfaces spectacularly, sans the musical larceny. A luminous Rakhee takes on “good twin, bad twin” personas that are not alter-egos at the outset but wholly disparate personalities that must co-exist in the same frame if only to show off the magic of film trickery. The common paramour in question is smitten by Kamini, the gamine extrovert, while the shy and withdrawing Kanchan pines away with unrequited passion. A twist of events sees Kamini literally fall by the wayside, and in an attempt to rescue the trophy boyfriend, whose wounded heart leaves him prone to fits of hysteria, Kanchan assumes her sister’s wanton personality. Her conservatism wrestles with Kamini’s total abandon, in ways more complex than the implied Indian-versus-western binary. The parallels with Swan Lake could fill an academic’s essay, but all that could also be put down to an inheriting of classic tropes over time (94 years, precisely).

Of course, the definitive Swan Lake in cinema can be found in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan , that is both a faithful upgrade and a subversive retelling, set in the environs of a ballet repertory company, whose artistic director is looking to stage the classic ballet for its upcoming season.

The film is one of those high-camp confections that are immediately iconic. The starched-white primness of a dance studio is shown not to be impervious to a cloak-and-daggers narrative, in which the look in a ballerina’s eyes speaks volumes, at once sinister and melancholic. Like in Sharmeelee, the White Swan’s struggle to fit into the stays and trimmings of the Black Swan persona, is foregrounded wonderfully, and plays itself out as a morality tale, but without masala ingredients. It is a parable that lends itself not only to the existence of its protagonist, Nina (Natalie Portman), but to everyone who has had to embrace dichotomy in their own lives.

Even as a child, the writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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