Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof centres on that word – tradition – and what it means to the inhabitants of a Jewish village in Ukraine circa 1910. Tevye (Chaim Topol) is a milkman whose chief aim is to settle his five daughters by finding them good (read: wealthy) husbands. The accepted way of doing this is to rely on the local matchmaker who visits each house at regular intervals with tips and suggestions. But unfortunately for the elders, the old ways are changing and the girls have ideas of their own. After the eldest timidly announces that she loves the penurious local tailor, the floodgates open: the next daughter brings a suitor of her own choice too, but doesn’t even ask for her father’s permission, merely his blessing; and most shockingly, the third elopes with a non-Jew, something even the large-hearted Tevye finds hard to countenance. At a wedding a young revolutionary urges men and women to dance together, a first for this village. Meanwhile, cultural upheavals are being supplemented by political stirrings in the outside world: around the country, vast pogroms are underway to drive Jews from their homes.
All this means that Fiddler on the Roof carries a necessary undercurrent of melancholy – the story is, after all, about a people coming to terms with the loss of their home, the dissolution of their identity and the younger generation’s disregard for the values they’ve always held dear. Some of the final scenes, such as the one of Tevye telling an old friend “we’ll be neighbours!” (because one family is moving to “Chicago, America” and the other to “New York, America”), are especially poignant. However, the dominant note almost throughout is that of exuberance. This is one of the most rousing musicals ever made; it derives most of its spirit from the screen personality of Topol, a bear of a man who never loses his warmth and vitality, even in times of great stress. Whether scratching his beard in perplexity at the ways of a changing world, crabbily questioning his God (“I know we are the Chosen People, but once in a while can’t you choose someone else?”) or exchanging banter with the local butcher, his performance is the beating heart of this film. (Hard to believe though it is, Topol was only 35 when he played the role.)
Naturally, he also features in some of its finest songs, including “If I were a Rich Man”, “Sunrise, Sunset” and “To Life”, as well as my personal favourite moments – the recurrent scenes where, on learning of a daughter being in love with an unsuitable man, he half-mutters, half-sings to himself (“Unheard of! Absurd!”), trying to balance practicality with his child’s happiness.
What kind of match would that be, with a poor tailor?I like the way the camera closes in on Tevye and his private thoughts in each of hese scenes, and follows it up with a shot of the daughter seen from his perspective – she seems to be in the far distance (though in fact, in realist terms, she’s standing quite close to him all along) and the image becomes a visual representation of the vast generational and cultural gap that has opened up between them.
On the other hand, he's an honest, hard worker.
On the other hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand,
Things could never get worse for him, they could only get better.
They gave each other a pledge – unheard of, absurd.
They gave each other a pledge – unthinkable.
But look at my daughter’s face – she loves him,
She wants him – and look at my daughter’s eyes, so hopeful.
There's a tendency among some Indian viewers who aren’t too familiar with musicals from other countries to label any song-and-dance film as “Hindi movie-ish” or “inspired by Bollywood”, as if we have a patent of some sort on musical tradition. They should be pointed to this three-hour-long film, which has more musical interludes than Hum Aapke Hain Kaun but is firmly rooted in a very Jewish tradition of song and dance. Watching the events it depicts, one can’t help but think that despite (or perhaps because of) the large-scale displacement of Jewish communities in the early years of the 20th century, they continue to exert a strong cultural influence on our lives; their tradition has been among the building blocks of American cinema, theatre and television over the last century. Fiddler on the Roof is a film that operates within that tradition and comments on it at the same time. For all of Tevye’s fears that his way of life was fading, maybe his people had the last laugh after all.
(For the New Sunday Express)