Between Reviews: Lost Innocents

Posted on April 3, 2010


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A documentary and a recently released fictional feature explore, through different means, the same disturbing issue – children whose childhood is snatched away all too early.

APR 4, 2010 – ARMED WITH A CLUTCH OF NATIONAL and international awards (and under the auspices of Billroth Hospitals and Dr. V Jeganathan Foundation’s CANSWER outreach programme), Rajesh S. Jala – a documentarian, but whose card says, simply, “filmmaker” – came down to Chennai to present Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley (which I missed) and Children of the Pyre. The latter is set in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, where children face endless reminders of the other end of the continuum of life. This is their job. They keep the kitchen fires burning by keeping cremation pyres burning on the biggest crematorium on the planet. An early shot – a close-up of the face of a corpse being consumed by flames – rivals anything dreamed up by Dante in his Inferno, and the sensitive viewer may find himself asking that oldest of thin-skinned questions: “Is this really necessary? Wouldn’t a long shot convey a similar sense of innocence sacrificed at the altar of social apathy?” But that’s a little like asking if, in a scene of carnal combustion, an engorged nipple is absolutely needed. Yes, the image of a couple lighting up cigarettes, faces flushed and crumpled sheets across perspiring chests, is enough to convey the same idea, that they had sex – but the glimpse of the forbidden transforms the audience from passive gawker to active participant.

You could be secretly turned on or you might be embarrassed or you could be inflamed with fury about private cohabitations being made public – but you react. That’s what Jala wants. He wants us to react in ways we wouldn’t while watching the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a veritable holocaust is unleashed when the titular treasure is desecrated. The villains poke their noses where they don’t belong and they pay by losing their faces, which melt in hideous rivulets of flesh and blood. And we laugh at the grotesquerie. Here, the effect of fire on the face of the corpse is extraordinarily similar, but because the cinematography isn’t high-gloss Hollywood but low-budget verité, we flinch, we turn away – and we truly know what these children are up against. If we can’t bear to even look, imagine the plight of these eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds, who bear blisters from the heat and whose skin is perennially streaked with sweat and soot.

This isn’t to say Children of the Pyre is a noble chore, the kind of penance you subject yourself through simply to atone for having it so easy. Jala resists the easy temptation to make his subjects martyrs – he doesn’t employ them as electric prods to jolt our dormant conscience into guilty action. These children are allowed to be children. Clearly aware that they’re speaking to a camera, they sometimes assume the amusingly blasé air of grownups who’ve been everywhere and have seen everything. They speak of being haunted by visions of dead girlfriends, and they sing a version of the National Anthem that somehow incorporates the province of Simla, along with a salutation to Ganesha. They may doing jobs that even adults shouldn’t have to submit to, but in the face of it all, they demand if we’re going to help them out. If we aren’t, they sneer, we can save the sympathy. Jala takes a cue from this attitude. He wants us to be shocked and sensitised, sure, but above all, he wants us to observe this little ecosystem that thrives on the banks of our holiest river, whose cool waters do little to alleviate the fiery fate of these little boys.

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At least these children are alive, unlike Susie (Saoirse Ronan), the heartbreakingly young heroine of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, which is everything that Children of the Pyre isn’t – a fictional, big-budget production from a big-name director. And yet the themes are the same – innocence lost, a life barely lived before having to grapple with the gruesome spectre of death. Susie makes a chilling pronouncement at the beginning, foreshadowing her fate. “There’s something about the way the earth swallows things up whole.” And that’s what happens, as she’s lured into an underground trap and murdered by a molester. These early portions are wonderfully evocative of time (the early seventies) and tradition (the rituals of family, the rites of girlhood). Jackson doesn’t force our faces into his film, with sharp cuts and manipulative Hollywood music. The narrative, instead, is allowed to drift in our direction, with a hypnotic pace and tirelessly inventive perspective-angle photography.

And then Susie dies, and the story begins to choke as well. She ends up in a candyland limbo between heaven and earth, and this sort of treacly conceit – always better on page (of which I’m certain, though I haven’t read Alice Sebold’s bestseller which forms this film’s foundations) – is best treated lightly. A second limbo-drifter, here, calls herself Holly Golightly, and I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in Always. She played an angel who guides Richard Dreyfuss through the afterlife, and she begins by giving him a haircut in a wide open meadow. This, you sigh, is what heaven should be – just like earth but enhanced, the kind of place where Givenchy’s muse is at hand to offer ministrations. Jackson, on the other hand, still thinks in spectacle mode. After The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, he continues to conjure up vistas to dazzle the eye (rather, bludgeon the eye into benumbed submission) – and there’s only so much you can take of floating topiaries and bottle-sculpture ships being tossed atop angry waves.

The visuals, eventually, strangle the story in an inadvertent echo of Susie’s demise – and in the melee, the smaller beats, the human touches, are irrevocably lost. Early on, Jackson is still attuned to the gentle humour of how we change with age. A young woman’s bookshelf is littered with Hesse and Camus; twelve years later, she’s holding a dog-eared copy of Baby and Child Care. But once the special effects crew takes over, life is replaced by larger-than-life. We no longer care about the little girl at the beginning who worried that her penguin was all alone in his snow globe (though Ronan’s incredibly open, if understandably one-note, performance is the one great triumph of the film). Even the parallelisms between protagonist and antagonist – both creatures of meticulousness; one constructs dollhouses, the other crafts ships inside bottles – aren’t furthered in any significant fashion. And frankly, if pretty pictures of heaven are what we’re after, What Dreams May Come offered far greater splendours – all without the distressing dramatic device of a child in peril.

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