Monday, July 07, 2014

Dadasaheb Phalke, Benaras and a fading past - on Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi

I won’t pretend I enjoyed or liked Kamal Swaroop’s cerebral new film Rangbhoomi – if those words imply feeling engaged during the actual viewing process. My attention wandered, the seats in the Siri Fort auditorium seemed much more uncomfortable than they had been when I was watching Fandry a couple of days earlier, and for a 10-12-second stretch around the middle of the film I felt this intense need, apropos of nothing, to plunge a very sharp, pointed instrument repeatedly into the cranium of the man sitting next to me, all the while screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind! I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!”

The moment passed (and besides I only had a Reynolds ball-point pen), but perhaps this was part of the director’s intention: to bore you first and make you think afterwards, as images spool through your mind long after the screening is over. Rangbhoomi is an abstract, structurally intricate film about a phase in Dadasaheb Phalke’s life when the pioneer turned his back on cinema, went to live in Benaras and wrote a play titled “Rangbhoomi” – but it is equally about Swaroop’s own efforts to understand those years in Phalke’s  career. It is a film about its own making, as well as a comment on the relationship between theatre and cinema, and between a creator and his creation. At one point we hear a voiceover about Phalke having intended his play “for progressive people, not for the common man”, and the images accompanying these words are blurred or upside down (or possibly both), with long, held shots of an oar cutting through water. It is as if Swaroop is saying that his film, like Phalke’s play, is meant for persevering, intellectually “uncommon” viewers.

Though it often meanders, Rangbhoomi does notable things with form. It begins with Swaroop on a set, telling someone there is more magic in theatre than in cinema. “As youngsters in Ajmer, when we read the great Russian writers like Dostoevsky and they spoke of a bridge in Moscow or a canal in St Petersburg, we pictured the little canals and pulls we were familiar with. In theatre too, we are free to imagine. But in a film you have to show the actual thing, otherwise it won’t work.” And yet, in Swaroop's own film, there are a number of scenes whose meaning is open to interpretation. Early on, there is a shot of him sitting in front of a blown-up black-and-white photograph of Phalke and his unit, and it is almost as if he is part of the frame himself. Such juxtapositions will run through the film – shots of the director and his young team, for instance, reading from the text of Phalke’s play, with the camera placing them against different backdrops in Benaras (perhaps the very places where Phalke wrote and envisioned his drama) and one image dissolving into the next.

Much of what follows – as Swaroop begins his investigations – is about how the old intersects with the new. Shots of sadhus giving counsel to their followers on cellphones while sitting on the ghat are set against grainy, jerky black and white images from mythological films made a hundred years ago. Phalke’s 1919 Kaliya Mardan is projected from a glossy new Mac laptop. The film’s baby Krishna – played by Phalke’s own daughter Mandakini – frolics amidst the coils of the giant snake Kaliya while seemingly dressed in a striped kurta-pyjama; elsewhere Vishnu sits on Shesha, chatting merrily with Lakshmi, a makeshift sudarshan chakra whirring on his finger, and occasionally slipping off. Here is evidence of primitive motion-picture technology as magic, bringing ancient stories alive. Back in the present, old women speak vaguely of there being someone in a nearby house who is a hundred years old – as old as these films Swaroop is showing them – but we never meet this person.

In a sense, Benaras – so often the setting for exotic photo-shoots about India – is the perfect city for such ruminations. Past and present are in constant communion with each other here… and yet, for Swaroop and his team, getting information about things that happened just 90 years ago is a difficult matter, full of dead ends. Rangbhoomi is a constant reminder of time's ravages. An old man says he used to have magazines that published stories by Narayan Hari Apte (one of Phalke’s associates) but a flood washed everything away. (“Kuch varsh poorva” says the man, when he really means more than 20 years ago, and one senses that he has lost track of the passage of time.) At a rundown archive, young people are discouraged from going through ancient files containing newspapers and journals because “research karne waale log files ko phaad dete hain”. In a dimly lit store-room, a chance discovery or two is made (and there is a nice shot of impossibly old, barely preserved parchments being flipped, each looking like the craggy surface of a just-discovered planet), but mostly this is a needle-in-a-haystack situation; and a reminder that this country, which is so proud of its (real and imagined) past, is so bad at documenting its history.

In another scene they visit an old, disused building that may once have been a theatre in which Phalke’s plays were staged (they even liken it to a beautiful European theatre, but this is an optimistic comparison). A peacock sighted on the roof of an old naach ghar is considered an auspicious sign, but again the building itself is like a ghost house. No one remembers anything about Phalke here, another old man says, because the generations of people who might have had firsthand memory of such things have all disappeared. Here is an irony: the development of moving pictures and screens has reached a point where little boys, playing near the Benaras ghats, might watch bits of a cricket match on a cellphone – and yet there is little reliable information about the life of the father of Indian cinema.

Which is what makes Swaroop’s Phalke obsession ultimately so worthy of praise. I don’t think I could be dragged back to see Rangbhoomi a second time, but I’m glad for its existence – and for the existence of Swaroop’s book Tracing Phalke (more about which here). He is apparently planning a biographical film about Phalke now – one that is likely to be relatively linear – and I think Rangbhoomi might be more satisfying when seen as an accompaniment to that film (perhaps a DVD supplement) than it is as a stand-alone.

[A post here about Harishchandrachi Factory, a much more accessible – and often fantasist – film about Dadasaheb Phalke]


  1. I liked it a fair bit when I saw it in a packed screening in JU - sitting on the floor just next to the hall door, opening and closing every 5 minutes - but the film stayed on for a long time in my mind. I watched it again a few weeks back and fell in love - this is glorious documentary cinema for this digital age (with its ingrained transience and dispersive tendencies). Swaroop starts out wanting to unearth as much information as possible about Phalke's life in Benaras but realises along the way that the real deal with memory is not so much to unearth it but to (re-)construct it in the present. Hence the 'invocations' from Phalke's play running into warmly humourous banter surrounding the research process, all of it staged in the same spaces where the actual events happened. By physically visiting/recreating the conditions as they were, trying to connect to the past (which is what period films do too in a less experimental vein).

    Above everything, it's nice to see Swaroop get back to business so long after Om - I hope he completes his many imagined projects.

    1. Sudipto: good point about the reconstruction of memory - that puts me in mind (in a way) of Marker's Sans Soleil. And I envy your ability to fully engage with the film and to love it. Possibly I am reaching an age where the old patience levels aren't what they used to be. Or maybe I just needed to see it in a more comfortable, less noisy setting.

  2. I'd done an interview with Swaroop about his Phalke book (incidentally, the last story I wrote for Crest) and is he had told me that realism leaves him cold. He truly has a surreal mind. I had added him to Facebook after our meeting, and his posts gave me a good insight into the way his mind jumps from thought to thought, because most of his posts were simply incoherent.

    The thing with surrealism is it has to be articulated to the viewer at *some level*, right? I felt Swaroop was too impatient to do that.