The Symphony No 5 was inside Beethovan’s brain, when he first conceived it. A group of musicians invoke that experience, aurally, from the atmosphere every time they meet to perform. And a sound, non-existent before, suddenly acquires tones of flesh and blood. The cinema, like music, is an art of time, film makers have said. Rabindranath Tagore called it an experience similar to music. But the films as we experience now is a sort of storytelling which has blah as its alpha and omega. Tagore laid bare this trait of cinema when he referred to it as “Chattubrithi kore sahither” (a sycophant to literature).
In 2012, the National Book Trust of India brought out a calendar to mark the 100 years of cinema. It had as theme Indian language movies spawned by literature and was complete with photographs of the writer and the film maker, movie stills and a synopsis. To search for Aravindan’s ‘Thampu’ (The Tent), which I consider as one of the greatest films ever made in Malayalam, in that souvenir would have been futile. Because ‘Thampu’ is a movie wrung straight out of life and does not bear allegiance to literature. What NBT did was no error. A film like ‘Thampu’ will not figure in a list in which literature and cinema are yoked together. One is not insinuating here that films inspired by literature are second rate. We were celebrating 100 years of cinema and it gave rise to a serious theme – literature and films. A writer seeks his energy and material from life. Malayalam has given birth to films based on literature which went beyond the realms of the written word. Thespian P.J. Antony’s ‘Oru gramathinte aatmavu’ (Soul of a village), a run-of-the-mill novel, turned into a stunning movie called ‘Kolangal’, at the hands of K G George. The movie was in tune with the NBT’s theme, but the text on which it is based could not be counted as serious literature. That means, it’s not just the ‘end product’ that need to be unique, the literary source of that film should also be singular. I am attempting imagine here what Tagore’s response would have been if he had seen ‘Thampu’.
When Tagore released his ‘Natir pujo’ it resulted in several chaotic situations. The film was brutally rejected by the audience and some of them asked for a refund of the ticket money. Tagore, who needed funds for his Visvabharati canned a play using a camera so that he could send it abroad. The Nobel Prize laureate is also credited with a complete script not bound by technicalities of cinema. ‘The Child’ was written by Tagore in the confines of a Munich hotel room, after accepting an invite by the UFA studio, during a European tour in the year 1920. Written in a style that betrays an affinity to poetry and free from techniques of all established literary forms, ‘The Child’ is yet to be made into a film. The script has been anthologised in a selection of Tagore’s writings in English. I dare to imagine what Tagore’s response would have been, based on the film that he directed, script that he wrote and his thoughts on cinema. To do so, one needs to delve deep into the mind of Tagore and the age of which he was a product. A private conversation I had with Shamik Bandopadhyay, a Bengali critic equips me to undertake that exercise.
The First World War deeply impacted Tagore. The perspectives of writers and artists who lived during the war were shaped by it. All the wars which preceded it were local and the history often marked them the name of the place in which they were fought: Kurukshetra, Panipat and Plassey. For the first time in the history of mankind a single war was being fought on many fronts. Films and broadcasting were used to document and showcase the war. Prior to the First World War parties in conflict shared a common arena. But here, they could not even see each other. Aerial bombing and long distance shelling were the hallmarks of the new war. Fought machine to machine and weapon to weapon, the war was now dehumanised. That familiar image of bombs being dropped from a fighter plane further alienated people from the doom happening deep below. Trenches acquired a new prominence in war strategy. In the film ‘Great Dictator’ you find Charlie Chaplin in one of these trenches. According to Shamikda, trenches represent a going back of our civilisation. In the history of evolution, man became man when he started walking erect. In one of its phases he became Homo Erectus – the one who could stand erect, with a stooping neck. When the man crawls on all fours in a trench he is traversing a path back to his trajectory of evolution. Kovilan, a Malayalam writer has written a short story called ‘The Trench’. A soldier lying in wait for the enemy in a trench experiences the smell of freshly dug earth – a smell that awakens the farmer in him. The wind starts to ruffle his memories and emotions and he ceases to be a soldier, but continues to await the enemy with a gun. Unlike Kovilan, who joined the army for survival, most writers and artists were thrown into the cauldron of war. Serving the army was mandatory in all the nations which were part of the axis of war, if their health condition was satisfactory. To kill or not to kill was no more a decision of the individual; it became a privilege of the State. The war shattered the belief of writers and artists that democracy is the most humane and just of all systems. One reason was that they were not anymore sitting on comfy chairs or behind the writer’s desks, but were active on the war front. Several German expressionist artists were killed in action, some of them lost their mind. The writings and works of art of those who survived the war bear these disturbing images. One hoped that such brutalities would not repeat. The First World War ended in 1918, but a year later fascism reared its head in Mussolini’s Italy. After being elected PM in 1922 he declares war on other European countries. In the year 1933 the Nazi’s are voted to power in Germany. In 1936 the world witnessed the Spanish civil war. An elected republican government in that country gets destroyed at the hands of fascist forces. A poet sang about the times, wars are no more declared, they just continue to be staged.
This is the historic background. There is another incident involving poet Wilfred Owen, which personally shattered Tagore. After the end of the world war, in 1920, Tagore visited Britain, where he received a letter from Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen. She wrote: “It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said Goodbye to me – we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea – looking towards France with breaking hearts – when he, my poet son, said these wonderful words of yours . “When I go from here, let this be my parting words, that what I have seen is unsurpassable”.
The lines quoted by Wilfred Owen were written by Tagore in 1912. In 1913 it saw the light of the world through the English version of Gitanjali, which won him the Nobel Prize. Gitanjali is poetry of farewell – a message from someone who is leaving this world. What my eyes have seen in life cannot be compared. In Bengali it read: ‘ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’. The farewell poem became part of life and later, of death of another poet in another country. Wilfred Owen joined the army in 1915. On the warfront in 1917, when heavy shelling was on for a period of four months, he was posted in forward position. Owen couldn’t return to his tent; the roads were all blown up. Owen who spent four months with body parts of his colleagues, blown to smithereens, lost his mind. He was admitted to a hospital in England and returned to France on September 18, 1918 after a year of home duty. Owen recited the lines from Gitanjali to his mother while saying adieu to her. He lost his life to bullets from a machine gun on November 4, 1918, at the age of 25. Church bells tolled non-stop at Shrewsbury, the hometown of Owen at noon-time on November 11. The bells were proclaiming the end of war and return of peace. A telegram bearing news of Owen’s death reached his home almost at the same time. It was the poet’s mother who posed the question to Tagore: “Would I be asking too much of you, to tell me what book I should find the whole poem in?” When Owen’s pocket book came back to her she had found lines from the poem written in his dear writing – with Tagore’s name beneath.
When those lines written in 1912, rained back on the person who wrote them, in 1920, one could find the sounds of machine gun, shells and church bells sticking on to the contours of ‘ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’, the lines first written in Bengali. There is poetry in that moment when words once uttered comes back to you and renders you speechless.
But why is it that the lines that I learned by heart fails me, even when I am seeing off my beloved? One can only mouth inanities like ‘Oh! this Indian railway, take care, the paint on window bars has peeled off’, ‘guard the key, when you are in toilet’ or ‘it might rain today’. A weighty one line from poet Vyloppilly or a shred of film song sung by Yesudas would not reveal itself despite the resolve. I think that poetry lies in the frozen moment of evocative silence.
Joshy Joseph is a filmmaker and writer