As Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear
prepares for its Indian release, Shoma A. Chatterji
explores the world of self-reflexive films
With the impending Indian release of The Last Lear, the question of filmmakers taking a look at the industry and the people within it offers an insight into cinema as an art form, cinema as a mirror to the society, cinema that reflects social concern and cinema as a tool of expression for the filmmaker. Most filmmakers, deliberately or unwittingly, tend to make at least one self-reflexive film-within-a-film at some time or another. Such films are often the filmmaker’s critique of himself.
Rituparno Ghosh, who directs The Last Lear, seems to be preoccupied with the cinema as a smaller world within the larger parameters of the social matrix. The Last Lear is a celluloid statement on the confrontation between the artifices of theatre and the artifices of cinema as seen through the eyes of a retired Shakespearean theatre actor who is brought out of retirement to act in his first and perhaps, last film.
A filmmaker himself, Ghosh uses this self-reflexive style to explore the psyche of people involved in films. This self-exploration, self-questioning, self-critique runs in varied manifestations, like a strong under-current in six films, including The Last Lear — Asookh, Utsab, Bariwali, Shubhomuhurat and Titlee. This is sometimes done as a sub-plot while the main story of the film may run on a completely different track. Yet, unlike Kieslowski’s Camera Buff, or Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool, for most filmmakers, the genre of a film-within-a-film is not autobiographical.
In Asookh, Ghosh explored the loneliness and the isolation of a film star whose emotional insecurity makes her suspect the moral fibre of her own father. The influence of cinema far overrides the influence of Tagore on her mind and intellect. There is a certain degree of scathing critique that goes to the point of ridicule, in the way that Ghosh, in Bariwali, takes the so-called art film director Dipankar, twists him, tries to perfect him, inflates and deflates him, mercilessly peels off the mask of the ‘creative, committed artist’ that he wears, to drop him by the wayside like yesterday’s newspaper. The ‘creative genius’, escapes open exposure as a ruthless exploiter of the loneliness of two women to gain his ‘creative’ ends. Dipankar, the director, turns out to be an actor far more gifted in the art of subtle histrionics and subtler seduction than in directing a Tagore classic like Chokher Bali.
These films produce a self-consciousness of both films and filmmaking, a kind of commentary not only on films per se, but also on filmmaking/film-acting, as choreographed on film, through carefully choreographed mise-en-scene, through imaginatively lit production design where the entire backdrop, plus the music and the sound motifs form a part of the cast and, through metaphorical music, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense dialogue with elaborately designed pauses, and eloquent silences.
Mrinal Sen’s Akaaler Sandhaaney and Shyam Benegal’s Samar are two scathing critiques on filmmaking. In Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine – 1980), Sen deals with a film-within-a-film to point an accusing finger at the film fraternity, which includes himself. It opens and closes with a voice-over mouthing lines without tone or pitch. The story is about a group of film unit travelling in a bus towards a village to shoot a film based on the Bengal famine of 1943. Smita Patil who is the leading lady of the famine film, plays herself. As the shooting is about to begin, with a local theatre actor of sorts pitching in as errand-boy-cum-guide, two things happen. One, we discover that the man-made famine of 1943 is still very much present in the village. Two, the arrival of a film team from Kolkata that orders sumptuous food for the meals, sends the prices of vegetables, poultry, eggs and fish shooting up, further escalating the near-famine situation. There is a blurring between the past and the present with the narrative zeroing in on Durga, a local girl roped in to do a role that is almost identical with her real life situation. The initially awe-struck villagers turn their wrath and anger towards the shooting team. They leave in a huff, the shooting incomplete.
"We will shoot the rest in the studio," says the director, leaving us with the question: Why then, did they come to the village in the first place? Was it a rural adventure trip for them thinly veiled as ‘shooting’? Or was it an ego trip?
Benegal’s Samar is a scathing attack on filmmaking showing it as a pretentious exercise even when it seemingly begins with a cause. It adopts a non-linear structure that telescopes back and forth between the real and the illusionary, the characters within the film and the real people outside the film who are now forced to become observers of the shoot. It offers interesting insights into the caste conflict that forms the base of the storyline. It unwittingly infiltrates and influences the cast and crew of the film unit that has come to make a film on the oppression of Dalits in the village. The crew arrives at the precise location where the incidents took place seven years ago. But the caste-schisms have widened rather than narrowed down.
Without even trying to, Benegal shows how the film unit is as prejudiced about caste as the rural people they have come to project. The casteist element that seemed to be non-existent among the members of the film unit when they were back in the city, surface when they come face to face with caste prejudices in the raw and we discover to our shock, that we are hardly as caste-neutral as we think ourselves to be.
Benegal makes a very perceptive statement in the film through a line of dialogue by a member of the film unit. "Nobody will see the film anyway, except for some highbrow critics. It will win a few prizes at film festivals abroad. That’s all." And that is precisely what happened to Samar, Benegal’s film. It won some prestigious awards but the film did not reach the mass audience.
Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) is perhaps the most telling among all self-reflexive films made in India. It is a fine and subtle tribute to the glorious days of the studio era, using its history from about the 1930s to the 1940s as its backdrop. An early shot in the film reveals Suresh leaning from the balcony of a cinema hall where Vidyapati (1937), an unforgettable musical romance, is playing to a full house. The films that Suresh is shown are films that actually exist in the archives of Indian cinema.
Kaagaz Ke Phool is an introspective and retrospective journey for Suresh, a once-celebrated film director who is currently going through a bad patch both professionally and personally. He is estranged from his wife and daughter, while Shanti, the leading lady who he had groomed to fame and glory, and had subsequently fallen in love with, has drifted away. He discovers that the studio floors are his last recourse, and seeks refuge there, tracing back his journey. He comes to terms with the reality that fame and success are as ephemeral as life itself. But by then, it is too late. Kaagaz Ke Phool has strong autobiographical elements. It is almost like a celluloid elegy Dutt wrote for himself. — TWF