Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Old Movies, New Eyes”

Posted on July 15, 2011

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Movies don’t actually change – and yet, the more you experience life, the more different they become.

We are not a great film-loving culture. We don’t preserve our films and we lose them to fire and chemical rot and indifference. We rarely subtitle them, and we miss out on films in languages we do not speak or understand. We are not especially good with history, and if Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt are endlessly venerated today it’s only because foreigners – film buffs – singled them out and celebrated them, and because they were singled out and celebrated by foreigners we accepted their greatness as a given. But there’s at least one thing that’s right, cinematically speaking, in our country, and that’s the easy (and inexpensive) availability of older films on DVD. Of course, this doesn’t prove that we’ve suddenly turned film-loving. If anything, it’s the opposite – antiques, elsewhere, are priceless; here, they are thrown away three at a time, on a single disc, for ninety-nine rupees. But perhaps we should just be grateful that we can see these older films at all and at will, especially when we do not have the tradition of revival theatres.

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These older films come attached with older memories. We see films at a young age when our thought processes are younger, and we are sometimes startled when we see these films when we are older, with older thought processes. The film in front of the eye is not the film inside the head. We remember comedies that left us gasping for breath, and we see them today with maybe a mere smile. We remember great feats of acting, and we see those actors today as hams with twitching cheeks and lurching eyebrows. Even the individual instances change at times. We remember a song that occurred by a waterfall descending from thousands of feet and kicking up a spray at least a hundred feet high, but the song, it turns out, actually unfolded beside a tranquil river. That was some other movie, some other song by the waterfall, and the mind, we discover, has shuffled these frames like a deck of cards at the hands of a Vegas croupier.

I saw 36 Chowringhee Lane as a teen who, for reasons unclear, liked watching movies that required of their audience more life experience than seven hours of school followed by three hours with friends, and in that chrysalis-cased phase of life, when I was all raw nerve endings, I was horribly moved by the protagonist’s plight – this poor old woman in her pitiful flat with only a dying brother and decaying memories for company. Aparna Sen – the director, whose stunning first film this was (and it still holds up very well) – fills her frames with sympathetic images of Miss Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal), the spinster schoolteacher whose love for Shakespeare is manifest not only in her arid readings of Twelfth Night to her pupils but also at home, in a black cat named Sir Toby. (The story of her dotage, inevitably, is that of King Lear.) Miss Stoneham’s long-gone romance is depicted as a surreal dream where her appearance as an old bride, putrefying face smeared with a ghoulish gash of lipstick, evokes in us Pip’s horror upon encountering Miss Havisham. “Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state.” In a stroke, Miss Stoneham’s solitariness is suffused with grotesquery, and we see her for what she really is – a mangled victim of love.

Like Lear, Miss Stoneham trusts the wrong people, and like Lear, her faith in them is betrayed, and like Lear, she is enfeebled by sorrow and self-pity. At the end, she recites, to no one in particular, and before shuffling off into the cavernous night, “Pray, do not mock me; I am a very foolish fond old man.” My teenaged self felt deeply for her, and my wrath was directed at the young couple who tell Miss Stoneham that they will use her apartment for the man’s literary efforts and then fall on her bed and make fevered love. Pinched by guilt at one point, the woman asks her lover if they are not taking advantage of Miss Stoneham’s kindness, and he replies that they are giving the old woman the company she so craves. When I saw the film a few days ago, I was mildly mortified to discover that I saw his point of view, and he didn’t seem selfish – as my younger self thought – but merely opportunistic. After all, he does, with his gregarious charm, flood Miss Stoneham’s sad world with sunlight. He does make her laugh and take her out for pani puri and choco-bar ice creams. He does bring over Chinese food and he does drink the sherry that Miss Stoneham excavates from within her ancient possessions. He does all these things when he’s unemployed, when he has the time.

And that’s why the great betrayal at the end – when he finds employment and they get married and move into a big house and tell Miss Stoneham they cannot have her over for Christmas because they will not be in town, when in reality they are hosting a party for young and busy social climbers like them – did not seem that great a betrayal at all. It is but a white lie, and I was annoyed that the director, in her quest to paint a great tragic figure, omitted to tell us whether this couple planned to make amends by having Miss Stoneham over the next day or the next month. Who, among us, is not guilty of wanting to do the good thing, the right thing, but winding up doing something else more expedient or more fun or more convenient to our careers? This is a perspective unknown to a boy, and it might not have been the perspective I harboured had I been born decades earlier and first seen 36 Chowringhee Lane as a disillusioned old man, a Mr. Stoneham, in a world filled with younger men and women with little time for themselves, leave alone others. But today, I saw the film from the point of view of the somewhat self-absorbed man, and I wanted to tell the director that she was cheating and that he was not really evil – just a busy man with somewhat misplaced priorities who cannot be held responsible for a lonely old woman’s belief that he will always be over at Christmas to tuck into her glorious cakes.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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