Towards the end of his book Our Films, Their Films Satyajit Ray dedicates an entire chapter to share a few thoughts with his reader on Silent Films and dynamics of film art. He remembers how powerful was the single scene of Chaplin eating a Shoe for Thanksgiving dinner in his film, The Gold Rush (1925). Deprived of human voice, Chaplin brought out the visual and aural rendition of classic comedy out of a rank absurd situation with Big Mac in ensemble.
Another instance of metaphorical indulgence in the power of silent film was Luis Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) which was adapted from Pierre Louys novel. Bunuel interspersed the confrontational sequences between Mathieu and Conchita with the parallel scenes from the silent version filmed four decades ago. The narrative possibilities of Conchita's playful but bordering on brutal denying of Mathieu's pleas to consummate his desire never troubled Bunuel. He was reminding the viewer that cinema is not an act of reading a book or listening to a narration on the radio - that words have replaced the real need to create cinema in a native language that was evolved during the silent film era.
Ray wrote about his epiphany when he watched Bicycle Thief, not just for its neorealist attributes of amateur actors, simplistic plot and the overarching humanist vision, but the manner in which De Sica treated the space, concept of time, actors, shot selection and angles and the process of building up of an experience that can be delivered only in the medium of cinema. In the penultimate scene in Bicycle Thief Antonio stood outside the soccer stadium, torn between his helplessness at the treachery of the thief and the partisan mob and the ethical battle inside his mind whether to steal a bicycle. His son who accompanied him through out the tragicomic chase could read his twitching mind while the noise from the stadium rose to a crescendo and finally the crowd disbursed into a thousand bicycle riders.
Similarly Satyajit Ray displayed equally accomplished skill and sleight of hand when he portrayed the meanderings of Apu and Durga to the outskirts of village and watch the train go by and Apu drowning the stolen necklace after Durga's death in Pather Panchali. The innumerable sketches Ray made while preparing for his first movie was in a sense his intrinsic affinity for the idiom and an understanding of the language of cinema. Any lesser gifted director's attempts would be to dramatize the poverty and displacement of Harihar's family instead of bringing the entire gamut of Apu's non-descript village and the lives around it. Ray's genius found its pinnacle in Aparajito when he portrayed the death of Harihar with superimposed images from the ghat's of the quiet flowing Ganga. Ray drew his inspiration from the visual challenges of silent film to unravel the layers that would have been otherwise lost in mere linear narrative schemes.
Malayalam director Aravindan made notable contributions to the creative process of movie making while breaking the common narrative patterns. His Pokkuveyil(Twilight, 1981) was a major experiment to manifest music into visual experience and open the possibilities of unraveling deeper visions to the audience. The story of a sensitive artist's (poet) view of the world and his mental disintegration were composed in music (Rajeev Taranath and Hariprasad Chaurasia), without a script.
Aravindan further experimented on his craft in another film Marattam (Changing acts) which has a distant resemblance of Kurosava's Rashomon. Marattam stands for rendering multiple acts by an actor. Based on Kavalam Narayanapanickar's2
play the film features the murder of the lead actor towards the end of the play. Three different versions of the same event would be played and the mystery relating to the death remains unresolved, even though we seem to gain better understanding of the people and their environment. Each version adopted different classical art forms in Kerala which has distinct and interesting insights to share with us. Another level the film engages us in a deeper and frank discussion of Indian aesthetics (Rasa, Aharya, Aangika, Vachika etc) and the identification of actors with their roles and the relationship with the audience, patron of art and the regenerative aspects and angst of community living in general.
The movie was a tour de force and unprecedented act of experimenting Indian classical art forms within the ambit of cinema. It was done without ever being didactic or following a formal script. That we don't find anymore Godards amongst us is hopefully a passing phase and there will soon be more original thinkers of the moving image...
1 Gilles Deleuze: French Philosopher and thinker of Cinema. Quote taken from here
2 Kavalam Narayanapanicker: Noted malayalam playright and poet. Known for his pathbreaking adaptation of native art forms into theatre.