Daily Archives: January 2, 2010

Tulpan (Kazakh/Ger/Pol/Switz/Russia 2008)

Askat Kuchinchirekov is Asa the sailor turned herdsman in Tulpan.

This is an interesting and slightly startling film. I’m not sure that it is quite the the film suggested by Roger Ebert (“I swear to you that if you live in a place where this film is playing, it is the best film in town”) but it is certainly worth catching in the cinema or at least on a home cinema system with decent sound. (Various festivals around the world have agreed with Ebert and the film has won many prizes.)

‘Tulpan’ (‘Tulip’) is a young woman living on the desolate steppes of Southern Kazakhstan (the evocatively-named Betpak Dala or Hunger Steppe), 500 kilometres from anywhere. But we never see her – she exists only as the unattainable object of a young man’s dreams. Asa has been discharged from the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet and he is now back home on the steppe living uncomfortably with his sister and her family in a yurt and trying to work as a herdsman with his less than impressed brother-in-law Ondas. His only chance of advancement is to become a herdsman with his own flock, but this is impossible if he isn’t married. As the local sheep boss informs him “without a woman to wash and cook for you, you wouldn’t last a week”. Welcome to equal opportunities on the steppe!

This outline suggests a classic neo-realist narrative, but actually it’s rather different. The (co-)writer and director Sergei Dvortsevoy is an experienced documentarist born in Kazakhstan in 1962 (in the nearest city to the film’s location). He had access to a €2.15 million budget and was able to shoot over a period of 40 weeks in the harsh local conditions. The cast are not ‘non-professionals’ but seasoned Kazakh performers (according to the very useful article on the film on the World Socialist Website) and unlike most neo-realist films, the simple premise doesn’t led us into an engaging social narrative. To be frank, not a lot happens out on the steppe but the minutaie of daily life certainly holds your attention and some of it contains real humour. The WSW seems to think that €2.15 million isn’t much of a budget, but it’s more than the budget of many UK films. It means that the Polish cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska (on this evidence one of the foremost women in cinematography and incidentally a professor at Lodz Film School), the (American? or Brit?) production designer Roger Martin and the (French?) sound designer Williams Schmit could fashion a very good looking and good sounding film. The sound is extraordinary from the dust storms of terrifying intensity through the very strange noises emanating from distressed camels and the singing from a young girl with a mighty pair of lungs.

Dvortsevoy is clearly a highly-skilled observational documentarist and he creates a fiction from ‘real’ experiences. When you watch the film, there are various riveting scenes that you might think use special effects but the Press Kit suggests that they were all performed for real. We looked despairingly in the credits for “no animals were harmed during the making of this film”. I don’t think any animals suffered actual harm but there were some risks. The worry is that the film simply comes across as ‘exotic’ rather than a careful presentation of what is a real human story. I think it is the latter and I’m grateful for the WSW review which points to a couple of subtle asides which remind us that Kazakhstan is an ex-Soviet Republic awash in oil money but with a significant minority of the population who haven’t yet benefited from the new wealth. On the other hand, the US distributor describes the film like this: “Tulpan is a gorgeous mix of tender comedy, ethnographic drama and wildlife extravaganza set on the steppes of Kazakhstan”. It’s better than that.

Like the earlier (and very different) Kazakh film we reviewed, Tulpan is a co-production with Swiss and German TV money and Polish and Russian facilities. Kazakhstan has a relationship with the European Audio-Visual agencies and this helps funding.

Here is the film’s trailer:

Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, India 1969)

The four young men from Calcutta (from the left: Hari, Ashim, Sanjoy and Shekhar)

In any reappraisal of Satyajit Ray, this should be a crucial film. It is one of the best-known of Ray’s films in the West and often quoted as his ‘masterpiece’. I’m not sure that this is the case in India. Its Western success isn’t difficult to understand as it mirrors similar European and American films which place a small group of middle-class city dwellers in an alien landscape, exploring their interaction with ‘local’ people and, of course, falling out with each other. The film most often quoted is Renoir’s blissful Une partie de campagne (1936), partly because of Ray’s relationship with Renoir during the shooting of The River in 1950. However, there are other similar films and the fact that the four young men share a common background also links to the structure of Hollywood films that came later such as the Big Chill (1983) and Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Either way, the film clearly distinguishes itself from much of Indian Cinema in terms of its narrative strategies.

In the West the film is usually seen as a comedy – one in which some of the young men have their ideas challenged and learn something about themselves. Though I do find several scenes amusing, much of the time I also find myself getting angry at the behaviour of the young men and I think I prefer the readings that place the film in relation to Ray’s changing perspective at this time. It seems to me quite a critical film, preparing the way for the early 1970s films.

The outline is straightforward. The four young men drive out from Calcutta over the West Bengal border into Bihar state, heading for the forests of the Palamau region. The area is now in Jharkhand the state created out of part of Southern Bihar in 2000. The group get lost and decide on a whim to look for somewhere to stay. They reach a village and learn that there is a forest bungalow nearby. These bungalows are owned by the Forestry Service and can be booked in advance through the local ‘Conservator’ – as a sign clearly says. They are not for casual use. The men ignore this and bribe the caretaker to accommodate them. Over the next few days they visit the village to drink and also meet another middle-class family group who own a summer house nearby. This family comprises an older man with his unmarried daughter, his widowed daughter-in-law and her small boy.

The four men are identified by various characteristcs. Ashim is the wealthiest and most confident, Sanjoy is the most studious and reserved, Hari is a rather stupid sportsman and Shekhar is the butt of the other’s jokes. He is short and round and eager to impress – he also has to borrow money and razors etc. The men misbehave in several ways, abusing the caretaker, whose wife is sick, and a local man they hire as a servant. They get drunk and fail to turn up for a breakfast invitation.

The local people whom they offend and treat badly are Santals – a so-called tribal people who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different. These people do not have a caste system, but they are treated as ‘low caste’ by the young Brahmins and the young Santal women in particular attract the men. The attitude of the Calcutta men is similar to the attitude of the British during the Raj – something flagged up by the references towards Western culture made by the young men.

The men also ‘fail’ in their attempts to build relationships with the young widow and her sister-in-law. In both cases, the women prove more mature and socially adept. Ironically, of the four young men, Shekhar who is the most ‘vulgar’ of the four is also in some ways the most honest of them. He is most open about what he does and although he treats the local women as creatures who can be ‘bought’, he does at least attempt to pay them and treat them fairly. There is  clear class commentary here as Ashim and Sanjoy effect a superiority of status and intellect over Shekhar. I found Hari to be without any redeeming features and Ashim and Sanjoy to be both weak and indecisive. (I realise that I’m probably applying my general aversion to boorish behaviour by rich kids in a UK or US context to a different setting.) Perhaps I’m being too harsh but the genius of Ray is in presenting these characters in ways that expose their attitudes but then seduce us back into following the narrative in an almost seamless fashion.

In the introduction to the film when it was shown on Channel 4, Sharmila Tagore who plays Aparna, the unmarried young woman who attracts Ashim, comments on what she felt was the strong characterisation of the women in the film:

“In Ray’s films the women are of superior moral sensibilities and the men are like helpless children. The women understand the men better and the men are still trying to find themselves.”

This certainly seems to be the case in this film. There are actually four young women in the film and they all to some extent have the upper hand in one way or another. (The fourth is the tiny role offered to Aparna Sen who appears in a flashback as the young woman who ditches Hari in Calcutta and thus perhaps sets up his behaviour on the trip.) My slight concern here is that Ray’s concern might be simply to use the women in order to explore the alienation and unease felt by the men in the changing cultural and political climate of Calcutta. As Sharmila Tagore points out, Ray is the urban Calcutta man using this trip to the country to explore issues in Calcutta. The most famous scene in the film is a picnic during which the the six young middle class Calcutta urbanites play a high culture party game requiring both memory skills and a play on literary and political/cultural knowledge. Aparna lets Ashim win the game almost to underline the narrative’s gender strategies.

It will be interesting to compare how I feel about these scenes in comparison with Ray’s other narrative about Calcutta types on holiday in Kanchenjunga (thanks to Omar’s discovery of the film on YouTube), but I’m already struck by the differences in the forest bungalow scene depicted in Aparna Sen’s own film, Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001). Here the Bengali man is well-adjusted and in control and ‘Mrs Iyer’ is the character who must learn to adapt to her situation.

The other interesting aspect of Days and Nights In the Forest is its relationship to Bengali literary culture. The film is based on a novel by Sunil Ganguly (aka Gangopadhyay) the celebrated novelist and poet who also provided the source novel for Satyajit Ray’s next film The Adversary (1970). According to Andrew Robinson in his biography of Ray, Satyajit Ray: the inner eye (new edition 2003), the major literary reference in the film is to an account of Palamau written by Sanjiv Chatterjee in the late 19th century and described by Robinson as an important cultural document for Bengalis – representing a cultural experience akin to that of East Coast Americans in the 19th century and the romantic lure of the ‘Wild West’. Sanjoy reads aloud from this account as the car heads for Palamau at the beginning of the film, focusing on the attraction of the Santhal women. Robinson goes on to point out that Ray adapted Ganguly’s novel but retained only the outline narrative structure and importantly changed the four Calcutta men from unemployed youths making a train trip to the alienated urban middle class. The Palamau references don’t appear in Ganguly’s novel. Robinson suggests that some of the actors involved in the film (Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashim) and in The Adversary (Dhritiman Chatterjee who plays the lead) were uncomfortable with the middle class characters created by Ray and thought that Ganguly’s characters, though cruder were more complex. Though admiring of Ray’s skill in creating his narrative, the actors perhaps thought the characters were ‘letting down’ the true Bengali culture. Here then is Robinson’s exploration of the Bengali/Western divide over how the film works. I’m intrigued now by Ganguly’s work and I am tempted to see this as an example of Ray’s skill in taking a narrative outline that works and using it for his own purposes. There is a suggestion that Ray is mostly interested in characters and not narrative as such and that he succeeds when someone else provides the outline.

I’m going to save discussion of the camera style of the film until later, only remarking here that it serves the narrative’s purpose very well and effectively represents the environment. I was also struck by the number of low angle medium long shots of characters entering the frame.

I think my conclusion is that the praise by Western critics for this seeming comedy of middle class mores rather misses the point (all those references to Renoir and Chekhov). Ray thought that this was “the most contemporary of my films in feeling” (Seton, revised ed. 2003: 283) and it strikes me that the film is indeed primarily about Bengali society in 1969. I enjoyed the film and I confess to a frisson of nostalgia in the scene when Ashim leafs through the LP covers in Aparna’s room and the Beatles LP ‘Rubber Soul’ pops up between Mozart and Segovia, ‘Indo-Jazz’ and traditional Bengali music. I was mentally calculating the time-lag from changing UK middle class musical choices to those in Calcutta in 1969 – contemporary indeed.

Satyajit Ray: A re-appraisal, some interim thoughts

I’ve been reading criticism and biography of Ray and his early career and re-watching some of the films from 1966-75 and I think it would be useful to summarise some of my thinking at this stage.

First off I was surprised at just how much interest there still seems to be in Satyajit Ray. I must apologise for not noticing how much has been written recently and over the last couple of years by Omar and Shubhajit amongst others. They’ve provided lots of useful material and links to explore. I’m going to offer a list of observations and then possibly some responses to specific films.

1. Ray as ‘world cinema/art cinema auteur’. Ray’s emergence on the international scene from 1956 onwards was at a very auspicious time. He was recognised as one of the leading figures of what was a generally ‘humanist’ cinema encompassing great figures such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Bergman, Fellini and Andrzej Wajda. This status enabled him to get wide distribution in Europe and North America in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, this same status also had some disadvantages in the way that it placed Ray’s films in relation to other forms of cinema.

2. It’s very difficult to ‘read’ Ray’s films without reference to the triangular relationship Bengali Cinema – ‘World Cinema’ – Indian Cinema. Most of the early work on Ray in the West dismissed ‘Indian Cinema’ out of hand and to some extent, the commercial industries across India ignored Ray until the later 1960s. To some extent, this problem still exists, though Ray’s reputation within West Bengal seems secured. The various attempts to analyse Ray’s output in terms of the ‘New Cinema’ that emerged in the 1970s in India are interesting markers of how the triangular relationship has developed. What has happened since parallel production has almost disappeared is an interesting point. When diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair make known their debt to Ray and Ritwik Ghatak does this help to establish the credentials of the younger directors? Does it help in re-casting ideas about Ray’s work alongside Ghatak’s and Mrinal Sen’s?

3. Following these two institutional ‘placings’ of Ray, how do we tackle the question of his ‘influences’ – the cinematic models he may be following? I’m struck again by the Kurosawa connection here. There are several parallels between what happened to Kurosawa and what happened to Ray when they began their careers (and equally there are big differences). Both men had family backgrounds and education that gave them access to both their own cultural traditions and those of the West/’international’ culture. Both had a form of aesthetic education, Kurosawa in painting, Ray in graphics. Both steeped themselves in foreign cinema and as a consequence when their films began to be recognised at Venice and other international festivals, they began to be seen as ‘Westernised’ – and by extension ‘less Japanese’ or ‘less Indian’. Interestingly, Marie Seton in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director (1971), makes several extended references to the similarities and differences between Indian and Japanese film culture, starting with the emergence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951. Identifying both countries as major film producers – numerically ahead of Hollywood – she sees both as producing formulaic films with only occasional notable titles, but she notes that Japan has an homogenous culture compared to the multi-lingual and multi-cultural Indian film industries. I would contest the easy dismissal of both industries as merely formulaic. While I would accept the difference created by the array of Indian languages, I would also emphasise that Indian and Japanese Cinema both draw upon a mixture of influences from native forms of music, dance, theatre and art often mixed with ideas from European and American art forms, especially Hollywood Cinema. It’s worth querying whether it might not be a good idea to study Ray in terms of Japanese and Chinese auteur directors of the 1940s-60s rather than European and American directors? There are two reasons why such a comparative study might be useful. Firstly, although India is a country of different language traditions, it does share certain social structures and cultural mores across both the sub-continent and other East and South-East Asian societies (e.g. family structures, the importance of arranged or ‘commercial’ marriages, strict social hierarchies, the importance of religious rituals etc.). Secondly – and especially re Bengal – so called ‘quality pictures’ in Japan and China have often been adapted from literary novels. Both Ray and Kurosawa have adapted well-known novels and short stories from their own literary compatriots as well as work from European or American sources.

4. How should we assess the development of Ray’s film aesthetics? I think it is fairly clear that too much weight was put by critics on the ‘look’ and sound of Ray’s first feature Pather Panchali (India 1955).  Unlike any of the Japanese masters of the 1950s (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kurosawa – who all served apprenticeships in the studio system) Ray began work as a novice in filmmaking practice (although of course already a serious student of film). The early style was unique partly because of the influence of Ray’s viewing of neo-realist films, but also partly because of budget restrictions and simple lack of expertise and the need to ‘learn by doing’ (allied to very intelligent decisions about breaking conventions). Clearly, as Ray’s career progressed, he developed a range of styles suited to different types of material and different production contexts. I suspect that changes in style were either accepted or rejected by critics partly in response to their feelings towards the subject matter rather than a conscious appreciation of Ray’s development of his own aesthetic voice. (I’m thinking here of the way that the more modernist tropes in Ray’s films appear in some of the later 1960s films with their shift to contemporary urban issues.) I haven’t yet analysed any of his films in detail on a shot-by-shot basis, so this is something that I need to do. (One problem is that the DVDs of the later films that I’ve seen are not great quality.)

5. Finally we come to the knotty question of the ideological in Ray’s work. This is what has drawn me back to his films since I know that I turned away from them when I became interested in ideas about Third Cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t think that I’ve changed by political standpoint, but I do recognise now that I have more approaches available to consider different kinds of films and I hope to look at Ray’s work in different ways. Until I read Seton’s biography I wasn’t really aware of Ray’s early life or of his specific connections to aspects of Bengali culture and politics. I’m not surprised to discover his socially liberal-left politics but I am fearful of how much I need to find out about Bengali politics in the 1960s/70s in order to evaluate Ray’s response.