The first of these was Aparna Sen's "36, Chowringhee Lane" (1981), a film about an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher in Calcutta (at Pratt Memorial School -- for the sake of Pratt people reading this I will refrain from using the unfortunate acronym :)). The script was originally a short story which Sen asked Satyajit Ray to take a look at. Ray read it and told her she should make a film from it, and a remarkable film it turned out to be. Throughout, Sen impresses with her sensitive and intelligent handling of her three protagonists: the schoolteacher Ms Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal) with a deep love of Shakespeare and an eccentric invalid of a brother (a delightful ham by, appropriately enough, "Shakespearewallah" Geoffrey Kendal); and a young Bengali couple (Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee) whose main object is to make out chez Stoneham. The three are mutually dependent, the couple needing the old lady's apartment for sweaty workouts and the lady depending on the couple for friendship and a break from her daily monotony and loneliness. I won't tell you how this symbiosis resolves itself (watch the film!), but I was very impressed by the excellent acting, sober photography and strong script.
So much for technical appreciation. More personal stuff: I studied in a school in Calcutta run by Belgian Jesuits, where I was taught by many Ms Stonehams (well, Guzmans, Misquittas, Browns, Millars and Viannas at least!). My school is on Park Street, in an area of Calcutta that is home to many Anglo-Indian (we used the term rather vaguely to include just about anybody with some European blood :)) families, and the most common surname in school was Gomes. I spent twelve wonderful years there with many good friends from this community. I remember the Jesuit priests, men who had left their native lands to spend their lives in our country, working for the poor and working to educate us, men who had taught my father, old men in white cassocks who lived for God -- and for once that doesn't sound corny (though one of those men thought God's benevolence was frequently best dispersed through the business end of a cane :) -- he was, believe it or not, extremely popular). I was entirely comfortable reciting the Lord's Prayer at the start and end of each day's classes (one teacher of Bengali made us say it in the vernacular!) without any feeling of religious imposition (I am not Christian). In short, we were a product of an intermingling of cultures -- not the outlandish Stephanian/Doonish Raj hangover but something which I like to believe was more understated, social, intertwined and humane, representing innumerable diasporas, large and small. And for me, Ms Stoneham exists here, although she is a genetic relict of the Raj. Visit New Market and you will see many like her, as Calcuttan as me or anyone else yet not a part of the Bangalikhana that we like to pretend defines our city. A change of name (to "Kolkata", to satisfy our insecure Bengali egos) cannot rob Calcutta of its complex identity.
I'm sure cleverer people can construct complex theories of identity for Ms Stoneham. I'm not sure how effectively her story allegorizes the larger cultural picture. I'm not even sure whether the film's main focus is on such issues (rather than on the ones of human relationships and exploitation). But the context struck a chord and reminded me of something which I formally left behind many years ago but which remains implicit in me.
And on a not entirely unrelated note (?), the film has these brilliantly-placed lines from, appropriately enough, "King Lear":
Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Have you seen Kurosawa's "Ran"? A brilliant Lear.
The second film was Sudhir Mishra's "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" ("A Thousand Dreams Such As These", 2003), a story about three young people from Delhi during the Naxalite movement and the Emergency, technically nowhere near as good as the Sen film but remarkably genuine. Mishra provokes thought and skilfully avoids making political statements in a highly political film. Shiney Ahuja's character is brilliantly conceived -- a clever twist on the cliched supportive-friend-who-hides-his-love theme. And some scenes cut me so deep that even the memory touches something down there. If "36, Chowringhee Lane" reminded me of school, "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" brought back things from college -- dreams and ideologies and action that is spiritually satisfying and eventually futile. And the 70s -- a decade we yearned to reach through enough classic rock and kishore/rafi and daydreams and late night bulla, the decade of India's political dark ages while the flower generation urged us to make love not war. And the many faces of freedom, from exhileration to self-destruction. And cities and friends from far away corners of the country and the immense heartland of India that trains rumble through under cloudy skies in swirling rain, or in blazing, parching heat, or in pitchdark broken by the occasional pinflicker of light -- a land we know yet never know. Indian Railways ensured that the train would occasionally stop in the middle of nowhere, and I would get down and walk around, for a minute or so, on a little patch of grass in Bihar or UP, somehow content that I had made contact with this expanse of lonely countryside, although I knew that it and its people would, in all likelihood, remain forever alien to me.
And I discovered connections at a more personal level that will remain personal.
Rivers mountains rain
Rain against a torrid hillscape
Her body wrapped itself around me
Like a summer without end.
I have bought three rolls of black-and-white film today and am happy.