Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Candle-lit memories: time and light in Shyam Benegal's Trikaal

“If the most important subjects of film are light and time,” wrote Peter von Bagh in this excellent essay about one of my favourite movies, “I can’t think of a more poignant work than A Canterbury Tale.” I was reminded of these words while watching Shyam Benegal’s 1985 film Trikaal, especially its first half-hour. Time and light can be said to be central motifs of Benegal’s film too (though perhaps not in the exact sense as von Bagh meant in that essay). One of its main themes is the continuing hold of the past on the present, even as an old and tradition-bound world makes way for a newer, brasher one: set in the Goa of 1960, on the verge of being “liberated” from the Portuguese, it is the story of a family trapped between a grand history and an uncertain future. And at a formal level, its most striking quality – one that consistently enhances the narrative – is Ashok Mehta’s camerawork and use of lighting, among the best I’ve seen in a Hindi movie. (Even on the standard-issue DVD I watched, this is a splendid-looking film; I can imagine how much more satisfying it would be in a restored Cinemas of India print.)

Mehta, who died just a few months ago, was a highly respected cinematographer, noted for his work on Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, Girish Karnad’s Utsav and Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (the last had a magnificently show-offish nightmare sequence shot in black-and-white and featuring three generations of the Kendal-Kapoor family). In Trikaal he composed some stunning interior shots using candlelight, which plays a big part in crafting the film’s dominant mood: that of an intimate chamber-drama in which groups of people play out their mini-tragedies and mini-comedies in an enclosed, isolated setting. The lighting brings a distinct character to an ancient house full of secrets, and creates a world that seems older than it actually is (offhand I can’t recall if there is a single scene in this film that even acknowledges the existence of electric lights).

In fact, the assuredness of Mehta’s camerawork – and its importance to the film – is obvious right from the opening sequence, in which we see a man journeying (
almost literally) into the past. The middle-aged Ruiz Pereira (Naseeruddin Shah in a small sutradhaar role) is revisiting his Goan village Lotli after 24 years, and the taxi – his time machine, so to speak – passes vistas that are new to him, including bland cement buildings and roads built for the recent Commonwealth conference. Music, photography, acting and writing combine to very good effect in this fine establishing sequence. As the cab moves from open, sun-lit roads to canopy-shaded ones, shadows play across Ruiz’s face and long tracking shots from inside the car give us his dreamy-eyed view of his “watan”. (Shah’s subtle performance in this short role allows us to see the years falling away from Ruiz’s face; as the cab draws into Lotli he looks rapt and boyish.) Vanraj Bhatia’s lilting score is a reminder that the Benegal-Bhatia artistic collaboration is among the most underappreciated in our cinema. And there is Shama Zaidi’s dialogue. “Mera gaon jaise Ming daur ka khubsoorat phooldaan hai,” Ruiz muses, “Uska itihaas, uspe naksh kahaani samajh mein na aaye toh keval ek sundar naazuk guldaan hi lagega. Usski poori sanskriti ahista ahista mitt jaayegi. Beetay dinon ki yaad ki tarah.” (“My village is like a Ming dynasty bouquet. If you don’t understand its history, the story inscribed on it, it will only look like a beautiful, delicate cluster of flowers. The culture associated with it will gradually fade away, like old memories.”)

Leaving behind the markers of a modernising world, Ruiz instructs the driver to take the old, rough road and soon arrives at a haveli now fallen to ruin. Well-travelled, clearly a man of the world, having lived in Bombay and worked in the Merchant Navy, he is nonetheless nostalgic about the world of his youth, and much of that youth was spent around this house, which belonged to the Souza-Soares clan. As he enters the darkened hallway, the light around him changes, becoming lush and warm, and the film elegantly glides into the old days.

In a long, amusing sequence we are introduced to the events and people of 24 years earlier (including Ruiz’s own younger self). We learn that the family patriarch Erasmo has just died and that his widow Dona Maria (Leela Naidu) refuses to face reality, continuing to listen to loud music in her room while her family and acquaintances bustle about in confusion. Dona Maria’s shrill daughter Sylvia (Anita Kanwar) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she realises that her daughter Anna’s engagement might fall through because of the long mourning period. And watching quietly from the sidelines is Melagrania (Neena Gupta in one of her best roles), the illegitimate child of the dead man, now working as a maid for Dona Maria.

Soon after the funeral, the callow, blandly beautiful Anna (Sushma Prakash) begins a clandestine relationship with a distant cousin of the family, a fugitive named Leon (Dalip Tahil), who is hiding in the cellar. If Anna is the face of the future, her grandmother has a tendency to cling obsessively to the past (while not completely making her peace with it: there is a bizarre subplot in which the old woman is confronted by ghosts from her family’s closets, victims of a tortured colonial history). But the divide between old and new ways of life also manifests itself in class tensions. Though on cordial terms with the family, young Ruiz and his uncle – the local doctor – are clearly outsiders; Ruiz is attracted to Anna, but there is no question of him being allowed to ask for her hand. (Melagrania, a sort of “half-breed” between the upper class and the servant class, is much more accessible to him.) I thought Ruiz’s relationship to the family was comparable to that of Eugene Morgan in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons – a man who is an outsider in terms of perceived status but who is destined to cope more efficiently with the coming modern world than this family can.

Trikaal doesn’t quite live up to the assuredness of its opening 20 minutes. There is a hurried, incomplete feel to it, as if a couple of key scenes were accidentally left on the cutting table; there are more subplots than the film’s narrative can accommodate, we don’t get enough time with all the characters, and perhaps because of this some of the acting seems uneven or not fully realised. It isn’t as tightly constructed an ensemble movie as Party, which was directed by Benegal’s friend and former cameraman Govind Nihalani a year earlier. But there are things to recommend it, even apart from its visual quality. The scenes involving Dona Maria’s ambivalent relationship with Melagrania are particularly effective (Benegal has always been a sensitive director of women) and there are many interesting people in the large cast, including the under-used Ila Arun, a melancholy-looking youngster named Maqsood Ali (who would go on to singing fame as Lucky Ali a decade or so later), Jayant Kripalani as the perpetually drunk suitor of another Souza-Soares girl, and the rugged Nikhil Bhagat (whose only other major role was in Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray) as the young Ruiz. Remo Fernandes and Alisha Chennai show up too as a couple of local musicians.

Though the film’s ending was a little abrupt for my liking, I liked how the bookending scenes featuring the older Ruiz were used – how they have the effect of summarily cutting the past off from the present. There is something poignant about the fact that he never encounters an older version of any major figure from the past (which is something one might have expected in a narrative like this). He makes enquiries, gets token information about what happened to this or that person, but he doesn’t actually meet anyone again – there is no closure in that sense. And this allows the viewer to leave with the feeling that the spirits of all those people are still bickering and mourning and making toasts and partying in that creaky old house. In the lovely, ghostly light of Ashok Mehta’s thick candles.


P.S. heavily made up in the role of Dona Maria’s mousy son-in-law Lucio is a difficult-to-recognise K K Raina – shuffling about in a hunched posture, with false teeth that have an embarrassing tendency to pop out during times of stress. I spent half my viewing of the film wondering which classical movie monster Lucio reminded me of – Nosferatu? No, not quite – and then at last I had it: Fredric March as Mr Hyde in the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(I’m not being facetious: it isn’t simply a matter of physical resemblance but of a certain nervous ferocity in both performances. No intention of offending people - or monsters - with false teeth or overbites, or taking anything away from the conceptualisation of the Lucio character, which I thought was quite effective.)


  1. Chandan Das Gupta in his famous book Seeing is Believing described Trikaal as Benegal's "One Hundered Years of Solitude". The film is so rich with details that I found it tough to believe that it was an original screenplay. (may be i am mistaken still). And very clever also. I also loved the opening sequence where Naseer in his beautiful voice narrates. But just when the scene was about to end, I thought isnt it shudh hindi which they definitely dont speak in Goa. But right then, Naseer says something which I have forgotten but I think it means that he is deliberately not telling the story in the language of people of Goa.

  2. The film is so rich with details that I found it tough to believe that it was an original screenplay. (may be i am mistaken still).

    Pessimist Fool: I agree. Also, one only gets fragmented glimpses of some of the supporting characters, their relationships and histories - which is more often the case when a film is adapted from a large, sprawling book than when it is an original screenplay.

    The scene you're talking about is a favourite of mine: we hear Sylvia talking to her mother in the local (Portuguese?) dialect and then Ruiz says "how long can I go on describing all this to you, let's make them speak a language we can understand", and then the film's first clear dialogue - in shudh Hindi - begins. It's the sort of self-aware, "meta" moment that one often sees in Benegal's work from the 80s onwards. (Somehow it also reminded me of that droll scene of Roshan Seth's Nehru gingerly picking his way through the detritus of war in the Mahabharata section of Bharat ek Khoj.)

  3. Wonderfully written..this is my favourite Benegal film..just so haunting, musical, interesting of a time..visually stunning

  4. Agree with Pessimist fool - this is one of the films on which you wish a book was written on.
    Nice article. The lighting does give an ethereal quality to the movie. I think the major theme of this movie is how culture and tradition stays with you, by osmosis. Most of the members of the family imagine themselves as Portuguese Christians,what with the confrontation with Sriram lagoo's character and how the family has been instrumental in killing the natives, but the events in the movie revolve around pagan rituals like seance and approval from a dead soul,along with the importance of caste, showing how they are still culturally clinging to the past.
    I did not have a problem with the multitude of characters, I think this is how one remembers the childhood spent close to a big joint family, you tend to remember some of them more lucidly while the others are a hazy memory.
    I wonder about Jayant Kripalani - he is always terrific but he seems to play more or less the same type of roles, that of a happy go lucky avuncular sort. Wonder if he ever did anything against type.
    Talking about scenes, I loved the one in which young Ruiz serenades Anna , and even while he sings his piece and leaves, the old violinist is still playing away wistfully.

    Talking of A Canterbury tale, I recently rented the criterion DVD that includes an audio commentary by Ian Christie.Have you listened to it? If yes, would you recommend it?

  5. thank you for this, now to go back and watch the movie again. wasn't her husband ernesto, who dona maria dolefully kept calling out to?

    also do you think phooldaan/guldaan be vase rather than bouquet? especially considering the use of the word 'naksh'. to me, the lines strongly harked back images of carved timelessness in Keats' Grecian Urn..

    do watch the sumitra bhave-sunil sukhtankar directed marathi movie Vastupurush for a similar theme beautifully rendered, in case you haven't already.

  6. Sup: you're right, Ming vase is probably more accurate. That monologue is so rich, it lost me at some point - and there was no point looking at the subtitles, which were mediocre.

    I did not have a problem with the multitude of characters, I think this is how one remembers the childhood spent close to a big joint family, you tend to remember some of them more lucidly while the others are a hazy memory.

    Rahul: good observation - yes, the film does have that hazy memory, with characters moving in and out of view, or just staying on the margins. Might watch it again at some point - this could be one of those cases where something I thought of as a flaw might on reflection seem a strength.

  7. I meant *the quality of a hazy memory*

  8. And no, I haven't had the fortune of seeing the Criterion version of Canterbury Tale - but it's high on my buying list.

  9. "sort of self-aware, "meta" moment that one often sees in Benegal's work from the 80s onwards"

    Jai: yeah, that intelligent reference. I was watching Sardari Begum sometime back. The story was on the lines of Benegal's earlier films. The magic was missing completely. It was so tough for me to point a finger on what was missing. But, I think it may be the presence of Naseer and his narration (howsoever small a part of film that was) which added such a touch to Trikaal. Or may be like Ashok Mehta and Govind Nihalani's camera work which made his earlier films work like anything.

  10. I have always felt that Trikal and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda are the two un-celebrated gems of Shyam Benegal; Trikal has its flaws-the myriad loose ends and jumpy pace. Yet it contains interesting cinematic flairs and storytelling devices which were missing in his earlier, hard-core social realism films like Mandi.

    I liked the way the camera lingered on side characters and unrelated details.

  11. I thought Ruiz’s relationship to the family was comparable to that of Eugene Morgan in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons – a man who is an outsider in terms of perceived status but who is destined to cope more efficiently with the coming modern world than this family can

    I actually don't think of Eugene Morgan as being a "modern" man. He is essentially a well grounded old fashioned American with a sturdy belief in hard work and a desire for upward mobility which characterized most of the early Puritan Americans.

    The "modern" man in that film is actually George Minafer - a youth spoilt by the decadence that wealth inevitably brings. A man who has lost faith in the old fashioned principles and ethics that made his grandfather rich in the first place. A man who believes that rich people like himself don't "need to" have a career! That's not in the least bit old fashioned. It's basically a decadent attitude of a race destined to go to doom.

    You see the attitudes of George Minafer in abundance in the Western world today. Especially in Europe where many believe that rich societies like France or Germany don't "need to" slog 55-60 hours a week the way Indian/Chinese professionals do!

  12. "sort of self-aware, "meta" moment that one often sees in Benegal's work from the 80s onwards"

    Jai & Pessimist Fool: something similar to this happens in the opening scene of the hilarious 1942 film To Be Or Not To Be. The principle characters, who are among a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, are frantically speaking in Polish. The scene is suddenly frozen and the narrator announces that for the sake of this film's audiences, the characters will speak in English for the rest of the movie.

  13. Deepti: yes, I remember that scene quite well (along with the hilarious, deadpan "Heil Myself", said by the actor who plays Hitler when he enters a room and is saluted by minions).

  14. What a lovely review! Trikal is one of my favorite films, particularly because I have a home in Goa and love the Luso-Indian culture.

    One minor point: you mention that the lighting in the film makes it seem like there is no electricity. This is probably deliberate - electricity did not exist outside 3-4 towns in Goa during Portuguese rule. Electrification came much later. Since the film is set in pre-Liberation Loutolim, then a village, it is likely that they did not have electricity.

  15. Thanks, Aniket. Do also have a look at my recent piece about Nikhil Bhagat, who played the young Ruiz in the film.

  16. I believe Donna Maria's husband's name is Ernesto and not Erasmo as quoted here.
    Erasmo is the name of Lucky Ali's character.

  17. Trikal was screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa yesterday. I was lucky enough to get a ticket. Gorgeous 35mm print, vastly better subtitles than on the DVD, perfect!