The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 22, 2003

Captivating images of China
Bhavana Pankaj

Dreams of the Dragonís Children
by Navroze Contractor. Penguin Books, India. Pages 254. Rs 250.

Dreams of the Dragonís ChildrenHE is an ace shutterbug who rubs shoulders with camera greats such as Ryszard Horowitz Ė one of the youngest known survivors of Auschwitz. Federico Fellini fascinates him and Kurosawa is God. Given half a chance, he will begin to tell you how Andre Wajda and Roman Polanski stole issues of Life Magazine from the local American library in Krakow.


He has an admirable clutch of path-breakers and award-winners under his belt. Balad of Pabu by George Luneau, Something Like a War by Deepa Dhanraj, Famine 87 by Sanjiv Shah, Duvidha by Mani Kaul, Percy by Pervez Merwanji`85 to name a few. People reckon he is one of the biggest contributors to the documentary scene worldwide.

No one grudges him that either.


Huckleberry Finn and The Ugly Duckling havenít still faded out from his mindís eye and he adores kids or so we gather. He digs his beer and like all diehard lovers of the tobacco stick, he lights up at the very sight of it. He is crazy about cars, bikes, anything that has a wheel. Memories are sacred to him ó be they of a little Amul dairy in India or of shooting drummer Max Roach at a jazz concert years ago. He is among the first Montessori children of the country and it shows.

Now the bad news. Mr Contractor, people wouldnít have demurred had you gone out there and collected all the awards you wanted to from Michael Angelo Antonioni and the rest for making the best film on China in the eighties ó which you did anyway! But if you thought you would write a book on the making of Dreams of the Dragonís Children after two decades, write it the way you have and go scot-free, you thought wrong.

Donít you know it is a sacrilege to write so beautifully, so simply and so captivatingly and then to confess, "I am hardly a writer"!

Who else but a writer, blessed with a poetic sensibility and cameramanís eye, can say, "In the backdrop of people bidding farewell a clear Stauss Waltz can bring a lump to your throat and make your eyes water`85 In the fading light, the mountains of western China turned into paintings, forever etched in our memory."

Thatís the magic of Navroze Contractor. He tells a story because he has a story to tell. For then, he dispenses with the special effects. He takes you by the hand, gets you to sit down like you did when your granny regaled you with stories of fairies and faraway trees.

Cut to life and love in China before SARS. He begins by telling you that he was warned that Chinese jails had rats in them. And then says, "I wondered whether Indian jails had cute bunny rabbits." Even though, this modern-day bearded fairy humbly believes he isnít much of a storyteller, you can already feel the yarn gently netting around you. But if he does lose out on the erudite, cultivated style of writing, he amply makes up for it with his sheer joie de vivre, vivid descriptions and amusing accounts.

With a near reverential excitement of a child, he sets aside the warning ĎChina will eat you upí, and joins an international film crew to put on tape the hopes and aspirations of its young people`85an ardent Sinophile who manfully eats snakes and washes down such stomach-turning memories with gallons of Tsing Tao beer. He meets shepherds that would have been musicians, waitresses who could have been doctors and cabbies whose idea of realistic films is the American Zorro.

Chubby cherubs from China kick him in the backside, "children spoilt all out of shape`85 adored, cajoled, cuddled and loved like they were going out fashion". Guards see his beard and ask him if he is the one who bumped off Mrs Gandhi. Village elders in remote Inner Mongolia hug him like he were a long-lost friend. Workers, watchmakers, peasants, teachers, students, lovers and businessmen...young dragons all, wring their hearts out and give him more than a byte for the film. Some of them spit fire, and some reel under the bite of the American bug. There are others whose dreams have soured and still others whose most pertinent desire is not Levis jeans or foreign condoms but to have a pair of big eyes! But all of them in Redland are trying to "philosophically accept that destiny was the task each one was meant to do." He listens carefully and with compassion.

And in the process, this bearded gentle man, with Zen-like insight, comes dangerously close to the Big Brotherliness of China aspiring for a shade paler than red!

To see this book as "part travelogue, part cultural study and part film history" as the back cover says, is to miss the point. Dreams of the Dragonís Children is all this. Yet it is not only about China making its transition from Chiang Kai-Sheik to Deng Xiao Ping, or switching slowly from hardbound communism to kitschy capitalism.

Woven into the larger matrix of Dreams`85is a huge amount of clip art ó stories of Life Magazine and its founder Henry Luce who was inflicted by the China Syndrome, the Chinese Deng Feng and Dong Hai, Che Guevera, the motorcycle freak, the ice between Russia and China, the tale of an old house in Yenan where Mao camped after the Long March`85the love songs of young Chinese girls, the old women for whom feeding wan-tans to their brood is really the only dream, Professor ET and the Cultural Revolution, the legends of Judo and Kurosawa, The Art of War and Sun Tzu, of petty crime and ruthless systems of punishment centuries later`85

Dreams`85is about a man who allows you a peep into his own life as he recounts his mutinous days in Gujarat, his awe of the Fathers of Communism and his ability to also take a dig at them, his spirit of the adventurer and traveller for whom "thoughtful items of clothing given by loved ones`85 donít just keep you warm and comfortable but the thought of well-being and luck come with them. I believe in this firmly as did people like Thor Heyardahl, Heinrich Herrerr and Edmund Hillary."

It is also about little histories that are perhaps doomed to die a hundred deaths if someone with the compassion of Contractor doesnít recount them occasionally. He does that with a childlike innocence that nature seems to have granted to him and he has honed by travelling so much that one suspects even his shoes would have sprouted tongues!

`85And all these he strings together using the thread of his photographic memory, as they slow-dissolve one into the other, leaving you with colours and scents, impressions and images, not so much the dreary black and white of words. Now if only someone would do a film on the book!

It would be as perfect as the morning he describes in the village in Inner Mongolia. "When children wake up, the sounds everywhere in the world are the same." It seems, though, when a cinematographer wakes up to writing, the sounds donít get any sweeter than the Dreams of the Dragonís Children.