Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A study in Scarlett”

Posted on December 12, 2014


Training an Indian-cinema lens on the still-awesome ‘Gone With the Wind’, which turns 75 on December 15.

Leonard Maltin, in his video guide, had this to say about Gone With the Wind: “If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of storytelling on film, maintaining interest for nearly four hours.” It’s hard to disagree, even if the film isn’t in fashion anymore – at least, it’s not “cool” to say you’re a fan of GWTW, the way it is to say you’re a fan of, say, Citizen Kane. To me, the fascination of the film is simply that it’s one of the greatest melodramas ever made, and it’s an amber-preserved artefact of the Old Hollywood style, which also informed how our movies were made once upon a time. Why, even today, this is how our masala movies are made. You have, for instance, the Face Reveal: When we first glimpse the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, she surrounded by two men she’s flirting with. These men are carefully positioned so that we don’t really see her face till the camera zooms in to the exact position. That’s when one of them moves. We see her face. We still have this in our films: the Hero (or Heroine) Introduction Shot.

Or consider the Echo Shot. When Scarlett’s father first tells her about the importance of land (their plantation is named Tara), the camera begins to pull back, and we see the characters as silhouettes, we see brown/orange clouds above and the gnarly branches of a tree behind and, at a distance, we see the homestead. This shot is recreated at interval point, when Scarlett is no longer rich, and she vows she will never be hungry again. We see the same brown/orange sky, and, to a side, another tree with crooked branches. We hear the same score. Echo Shots (or Echo Dialogues) like these are a key component of masala cinema. In the recent remake of Agneepath, for instance, we saw the entry of the hero, first as child and later as adult, in festive, gulal-smeared circumstances, and we saw the hanging of a good man avenged by the hanging of a bad man.

This Echo Shot in GWTW is also a demonstration of the Interval Block principle that we still use, the big sequence that leaves the audience hanging (and on a high). Scarlett says… nay, she declaims, “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill… as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” These big words, these big emotions are backed by a big score (which works very well with melodramas), and we are deposited at the edge of a cliff – we can’t wait to return for more. Then we have the comedy. Aunt Pittypat, always on the verge of fainting, has been reincarnated over and over in the routines of Tuntun and Leela Misra. But there’s more understated comedy as well. A lot of Rhett Butler’s interaction with Scarlett involves lines that are laced with humour. You can almost hear the directive to the writers: “Don’t make things too serious.” “And if things have to get too serious, then provide some comic relief in the next scene.” Add to this action and romance and drama, and you have a rock-solid template for a lot of our pre-multiplex-era cinema, a style that still survives in today’s masala melodramas.

Where GWTW begins to differ from our movies is in its scrupulous craft, which, even considering these anything-is-possible-with-special-effects times, is stunning. Colossal shots in the outdoors, painterly shadows when we get indoors (especially in scenes involving death) – you could say GWTW was a David Lean movie before David Lean started making David Lean movies. (I’ve seen it on the big screen – it’s breathtaking.) And then there’s all the accumulation of detail in the production design. When people are scrambling to flee from Atlanta before the siege, we see a harp in one of the carriages. A harp. And that shot of soldiers sprawled on the ground as Scarlett makes her way through is still astonishing. Whether due to budgetary constraints or something else, it’s hard to find this level of production in our cinema.

It’s harder still to find women like these in our cinema. It’s easy enough to cite instances of heroine-oriented cinema – Mother India comes instantly to mind – but those heroines were good, kind, pure. Scarlett is (in Rhett’s words) a bad lot, “selfish and shrewd, but able to look things in the eye and call them by name.” And yet, she’s so human, a mix of bad as well as good. At first, she cares only about herself, but then she stays with Melanie in Atlanta, despite the oncoming siege, to help deliver the latter’s child (all because of a promise she made Ashley, the man she thinks she loves and who is married to Melanie). Then Rhett helps for a while, but after he leaves, Scarlett has to drive her carriage back to Tara, where she discovers her mother is dead, her father has lost his mind. It’s very much a Mother India narrative – a woman has to draw upon her inner strength as she is visited by one misfortune after another.

But the difference is that Scarlett will do anything. She even offers to sleep with Rhett if he’ll give her $300 to pay the taxes on Tara. It’s a marvellous scene. Rhett asks her what collateral she has. She offers her earbobs. He’s not interested. She offers a mortgage on Tara. He asks what he’d do with a farm. “I’d pay you out of next year’s cotton,” she says. He replies, “Not good enough.” Then she says, “You once said you loved me. If you still love me…” He says, “You haven’t forgotten, I’m not a marrying man.” Fully aware of what he means, she says, “No, I haven’t forgotten.” He then spurns her. “You’re not worth $300.” But she’s not licked. When she finds out that the man her sister is meant to marry is now running a profitable business, she lies that her sister is carrying on with someone else and marries him. The most fascinating thing is that she’s not doing this for some noble cause. She’s doing it for herself, for Tara, which is probably the only thing she loves. Can you imagine Nargis in this part, throwing herself at the moneylender in order to survive?

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Scarlett is too proud to admit she loves Rhett. She can’t stop loving Ashley. She dismisses Melanie as a “pale-faced mealy-mouthed ninny” and later forges something of a strong sisterhood with her. She dismisses the notion of loving land, and yet, by the end, that’s the only thing she seems to care about. What fascinating arcs for this character, and so many of them. At least in the first half (yes, it’s possible to talk about this film in halves, just like we do with ours), Scarlett earns our sympathy – she’s the poor little rich girl who must now learn what it’s like to be without money. In the second half, after she’s married Rhett and has all the money she wants, she’s still mooning over the unattainable Ashley. The film (and Margaret Mitchell’s novel) doesn’t “soften” her. We are invited to find her unlikeable and shift our sympathies to Rhett, who has to suffer her whims, like sleeping separately because she doesn’t want to have more babies. (And why? Because her waist, post the birth of her girl, is 20 inches, and she wants the 18.5-inch waist she had earlier.) How many mainstream movies, before or since, have featured such an intriguingly complex character? You have to agree with Rhett when he says, “What a woman!”

Why doesn’t this film have the stature, today, of some of its contemporaries? One reason could be that its melodramatic style has fallen out of favour. Outside of Indian films, you have to try really hard to find something similar – though Steven Spielberg gave it a halfway-decent try in War Horse. A Citizen Kane, on the other hand, still seems relevant – its techniques are still in use. Another reason is probably the perceived racism, with its troubling images of black children fanning white women taking a nap. But if this is what those times were like, can you fault a film for showing those times? Furthermore, GWTW isn’t a realistic film – it’s a melodrama that just happens to use the real-life backdrop of the Civil War. Anyway, that’s how I look at it, and when Scarlett gives her dad’s gold watch to a black servant, or when she argues with her Mammy, she reminds me of Indian housewives of a certain generation who formed close, almost familial bonds with their servants. This doesn’t excuse slavery. But it does justify the presence of such characters in a movie. In any case, apart from Rhett, the only person who really knows Scarlett is Mammy, who gets away with saying things Scarlett wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. “Miss Scarlett, where are you going without your shawl and the night air coming?” And “You can’t show your bosom before 3 o’clock.” And “You ain’t got no more manners than a field hand.” As in our films, a little comedy always helps to cover bitter truths.

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. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.