Confusion of Tongues, and a Film

tree of tongues

Human beings distinguish themselves from other animal species by, inter alia, their ability to communicate elaborately through multiple languages. Over time, the spoken languages have also been transformed into written languages, bringing a visuality and cognition to the language which also made possible recording of history and creation of literature, essentially extending the reach and precision of language over time, terrain and cultures.

The Tower of Babel is a biblical myth which suggests that the multiplicity of languages is a divine design to keep human ego and ambition in check. The legend has it that Noah’s people started living together in a land called Shinar. Nimrod, Noah’s grandson, became their leader and gradually became a tyrant, leading his people to appreciate the creation more than the Creator. He commanded them to build a tower that will reach the skies, and will become a symbol of human power no less than that of God. This defiance drew God to the city and He decided to scatter these people all over the world with different languages so they cannot understand each other. The Hebrew word for confusion is “Babel”. Hence the legend is known as the Tower of Babel.

The story is recorded in the Book of Genesis. As it appears in the King James version of the Bible:

“1. And the whole world had one language and one speech.

  1. And it happened that as they moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
  2. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
  3. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
  4. But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
  5. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
  6. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
  7. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
  8. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

— Genesis 11:4–9”

confusion of tongues

“Confusion of Tongues” by Gustave Dore

Of course, human beings, with their resilience, have kind of found a way around this divine device by building tools for translation and interpretation, and to an extent human beings can now “understand “ each other, with the help of language experts and tools. Yet, language remains one of the strongest cultural and ethnic barriers in society, which has played an immensely important role in the history and politics of human existence. In a country like India, the linguistic diversity is so huge that States had to be carved out on the basis of language. India has over 30 spoken languages, yet there is not one language, including English, that is understood by all Indians. The myth of Babel is palpably present in our country.

Visual language is an extension of language into a dimension beyond the specific symbols of the written script or the spoken words. Thousands of years of artistic practice has helped evolve the visual language, and lent it a sort of universality, overcoming the restrictions of semantics. Cinema uses a form of visual language that has transcended formal language barriers with unprecedented success. In a way, it is, in part, an undoing of the confusion that God created, an antithesis of the myth of Babel.

There is a fairly common tradition in cinema to use myths in its narrative. Hundreds of films have been made in India and abroad using myths from all regions of the world. Aanand Gandhi’s “Ship of Theseus” successfully used a Greek myth as its central idea in a film set in modern urban India. The myth of Babel was used quite effectively by Innarittu in the 2006 film aptly called “Babel”, located in the rural interiors of Morocco.

Myths, by their very nature, are easily woven into stories, and are almost always used in works of fiction, which are much more amenable to a mythically inspired construct than non-fiction. “The Tree of Tongues in Tripura”, a non-fiction film made by Joshy Joseph, therefore, surprises. Joshy has made a documentary, using available footage, to create a feature long experience of this ancient myth from the biblical Book of Genesis. The level of difficulty inherent in such an endeavour cannot be compared with the others. The etiology of the concept points to the Tower of Babel, according to Joshy. The title is an adaptation of the same. He uses a tree, a living entity, rather than the mythical tower made out of bricks and tar ( as against stone and mortar, the common practice at that time in history). Its not quite as ambitious or awe-inspiring, but is equally confounding, suggesting that the myth is not a “once upon a time” happening, but a continuing phenomenon in the human experience.

Its not easy to be surprised with a film when you closely watch a large number of films on a weekly basis, the way I do. Joshy Joseph’s documentary “The Tree of Tongues in Tripura” surprises. From the musically alliterative title, to rhythmic edit patterns, looping visuals, discordant juxtaposition of sublime imagery with ridiculously mundane subject matter – everything takes an unexpected turn, bordering on the absurd. The viewer, accustomed to a particular way of visual story-telling adopted by most films – even an astute viewer, who is fairly film literate – is teased in every sequence, and yet, the whole experience still manages to be a fun ride, akin to a roller coaster ride with blindfolds on.

The film has an intriguing multi-layered construct, and defies classification. It can be called a documentary only for the simple reason that the footage has no scripted fictional sequences, no professional actors performing in a set before a camera; in fact, there is no set at all. Nothing is enacted, or acted out. There are no retakes. The entire imagery on the screen consists of real things happening to real characters, without any direction or instruction on how to perform.

There is, on one hand, the utter simplicity of the core idea, and, on the other, the bewildering complexity of a non-linear narrative.

The form of the film, and the style of presentation are quite unlike documentaries. There are no apparent intellectual or emotional issues, nor any judgement on the conduct of any of the characters. There is not even a continuous thread of a story line. In the very beginning of the film, Joshy dedicates the film to “The Zone of Andrei Tarkovsky”. The film is somewhat of an ode to Tarkovsky – using the zone of Tarkovsky, that weird science fiction terrain of the film “Stalker”, where anything can happen, and the usual laws of nature do not apply. The film turns out to be not quiet as poetic as an ode ought to be, yet it is pretty poetic in its abstraction, in spite of being an “actuality” film.

The beginning of the film is definitely reminiscent of the cinematic style of Tarkovsky – black and white stills of landscapes which seem to be straight out of some of his films. Added to that is a very loopy, convoluted, “now-I-see-it-and-now-I-dont” kind of plot, with oft-repeated footage of a stagnant pond, time lapse of a stunning cloudscape and characters on a wild goose chase which kind of spirals on. And not to worry, there are no spoilers in this article, as the story is far too abstract to permit such mundane things as spoilers.

Envelope films now seem to be Joshy’s new signature – After “A Poet, A Footballer, A City”, this is another feature length documentary from him which is an envelope film. This film is created out of a week-long film-making workshop organised at Tripura by the Films Division of India, with Joshy Joseph, Sumit Ghosh, Namita Nayak Chopra and Manesh Madhavan as the resource persons. As part of the workshop, some films are made by the participants. The actual making of those films along with the different processes of the film making workshop are shot, and the envelope film is created by Joshy from that footage. The process of ideation, planning and execution of the films in the workshop has become fodder for Joshy.

The film does not have a singular narrative. The main story is of John Debbarma, one of the workshop participants, who along with Saslang Jamatia and other crew members, is making a film about his grandfather, Thanga Darlong, whom he has never met before, and who is an awarded celebrity, being the only living person who can play the Rosem flute. John appears to be a very sincere and keen film student, but has limited knowledge of English and Bengali, which is a link language for various tribes and clans of Tripura. The confusion of languages writes its own narrative here, as almost each member of the crew and the workshop speaks a different language. The consequent inability to fully express themselves or understand others, and the unique challenges thus created in the process of film making, forms the canvas (or in cinema parlance, the mis-en-scene) of Joshy’s film. The strange frustrations and travails of mentorship, the confusion and diffidence of the workshop participants, the enthusiasm of young film makers, and the unique trait of Joshy, of finding humour in desperate situations, constitute the palette (or, again in cinema parlance, the colour space) of the envelope film.

In the hands of a less talented and seasoned film maker, this could be a recipe for a vey dull film, if not a total disaster. However, Joshy, like a master-chef, spices up the film by adding brilliant cinematic layers of narration, sound, music, poetry and an edit pattern verging on the absurd. Particularly impressive is the use of another device “inspired’ from Tarkovsky – the use of recited poems as another layer in the already multilayered work. Alish Hopper’s poem “Problem”, is brilliantly used in a Malayalam version recreated by Poet M. S. Banesh, recited by Joshy, as an audio layer over visuals where the participants and mentors are struggling with ideation and scripting of the workshop films. “Granny” by K. Satchidanandan in his own voice, and a Malayalam version of Dunya Mikhail’s “Moon in the Oven”, again recreated by Banesh, are beautifully used to accentuate the visuals.The flute played by Thanga Darlong is another repetitive audio theme in the film.

The overall experience of the film is quite Kafkaesque – with a lot of things apparently happening without any obvious relationship, or even rhyme or reason. The viewer is left to fend for himself. There is no attempt from the auteur to explain anything or to help out the viewer which is typical in Indian films. On the contrary, Joshy tests the patience of the viewer in certain sequences, particularly the nearly half hour long conversation in Kokborok language between John and Saslang, where the duo seems to be moving in circles without reaching anywhere. John speaks with grandfather Thanga in the Darlang language, which no one else understands. Saslang can converse with the Grandpa only in Bengali, which he has limited felicity in. In this confusion of tongues, the use of subtitles is a relief, and at the same time a letdown, as the viewer has the benefit of the translation not available to other characters in the film.

There is a surface disconnect in almost every sequence which underscores the deeper connection with the Babylonian theme of the film. Joshy has been able to make the viewer synaesthetically “feel” the resultant frustration of the characters, by repeatedly pushing the viewer to the brink of impatience, only to pull him back just in time, and then immerse him in a gratifying, familiar comfort zone of a repeating visual, of a stagnant pond reflecting the morning sun, or the time lapse shot of a stunningly lovely cloudscape. This creates an experience of cinematic adventure, the equivalent of  new unexplored treks undertaken every day from a familiar base camp. Or the calm river flow interspersing the rapids in a white water expedition. The additional layers of music and poems and sounds take the viewer on flights of fantasy, letting go of the mundane activity in the frame, giving up on the hunt for meaning in languages unknown, understanding why Joshy, himself appearing in many frames, is suddenly amused, and sharing the fun.

Near the end, Joshy rounds up the experience nicely, with a parenthetic repetition of the stills’ sequence we saw in the beginning, and a dedication to “Mahasweta Devi and her Special Narrative Zone”. The film ends with a framed quotation of Abbas Kiarostami, marking the possibility of the impossible in films:

“Cinema gives you the opportunity to be both a grandparent and a grandchild, whereas in life you cannot be both at the same time”.

This is not an easy film to watch, or digest. Indeed, many viewers will find it difficult to sit through the whole film. After all, it is not for nothing that God created the confusion of tongues. But once one gets immersed in the crafted “special narrative”, or the lack of it, and lets oneself run with the flow, tremendous fun can be had. And it definitely is an experience one would not easily forget

V.S.Kundu is a photographer – traveller and a writer



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