Readers Write In #247: How do Bergman and Babu Sivan think alike?

Posted on August 19, 2020


(by G Waugh)

Can man lead his life without believing in anything? The inability of man’s spirit to live and flourish without believing in anything could have been one of the reasons behind the invention of religion. In Bergman’s 1963 classic Winter Light, a fisherman Jonas is brought to the village priest Tomas Ericsson by his wife complaining that her husband is steadily losing interest in his religion and implores to restore him to normalcy. After the scene where Tomas requests Jonas to come back to him later for counselling, we are in for a shock to see that the priest himself has been suffering from a similar crisis of faith. Bergman’s 81-minute masterpiece revolves around the supposed ‘Silence’ of the God theme which alludes to the passivity or reluctance of Him to set the straying world straight.

In Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford Stern, the character portrayed by Woody Allen follows happily a ‘philosophy for living’ propounded by a well-known intellectual, Professor Levy. He plans to make a documentary on the professor as he considers his philosophy so vital for everyone to lead a happy life. Soon it is revealed that the Professor himself has committed suicide on account of a personal tragedy leaving Allen totally stunned and confused.

The reason why I refer to both these films is purely personal. It is usual for all of us to start and live our lives based on trust on some personal ‘ideal’ and by the time we reach our adulthood, our experiences, sometimes may lead to a painful erosion of our faith in that ideal and reconciling ourselves to that ‘loss’ is a terrible, terrible process. A similar theme can also be observed in Tamil movies such as the Vijay-starrer Vettaikaran (directed by Babu Sivan) and Vishal’s Satyam (directed by Rajasekhar).

Both movies are centered on a young protagonist who follows the steps of an iconic achiever whom they believe are perfect role models for their ability and success in mastering their destinies. But soon at the half-way mark, they are stunned to see their role models having been reduced to only a shadow of themselves, broken and weighed down by the corruption of the insuperable ‘system’.

Both these Tamil movies are masala entertainers which try to use the ‘loss of faith’ concept as a trope to redeem the protagonist who ends up inventing new and original ways to cleanse the system and succeed in bettering their role models.

All this is a way of reminding the reader that men, even if they are separated from one other by decades of time and miles of distance, regardless of different dispositions that distinguish one from the other,are often tormented by the same questions and obsessions and pursue ideally, the very same quest in their respective lives differing from the other only in the ways and means of carrying it out. Hence one need not be surprised to find totally unrelated people such as Woody Allen and Babu Sivan picking the same theme for their films.


I am reminded of a fabulous conversation that comes up in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life between its leads Jesse and Celine. Jesse tells Celine that leaps in science and art occur almost simultaneously across the world as though all of us are wired to each other telepathically. This discussion follows from Celine’s idea of a ‘collective memory’ which posits that every time a member of a species is born, it draws its primal instincts from a billion year-old library of memories accumulated and preserved by its ancestors.

This curious way by which men rooted in totally diverse environments come together to share a single idea or obsession forms the thrilling core of art. This is why some movies or art works transcend their time and cultural barriers and go on to influence societies in unimaginably baffling ways. In the 2015 Oscar nominee Room, a kidnapped/raped woman and her little kid are shown confined inside a crammed house impenetrable to both sunshine and society for years together. The kid right from his birth is shown to have not seen anything apart from his mother and the things in the Room as he invents ways and methods to keep himself entertained to overcome the deadening monotony of the confinement.

The mother and the kid are released finally after close to a decade into the society which however receives them into its fold only reluctantly. Towards the end of the film, one fine day the kid is allowed to revisit his birthplace which is nothing but the highly-secluded Room where he spent almost all of his childhood. Herein comes the film’s best scene where we are shocked to learn about the kid’s secret fondness for the Room where he was born and brought up in. He longs to go back to the old life where he lived his early years in confinement, completely unmindful of the material and spiritual deficiencies he had suffered there.

This great irony formed the core of the film that ended up making the film an instant classic. But what surprised me the most was the way my own father responded to the story given the fact that he is not much of a foreign movie-watcher. The film must have resonated with him intensely because of the fact that he still preserves a curious fondness for his childhood which actually was, in every practical aspect a virtual curse – a barely provided-for life with almost no parental support. He lost a portion of his left leg even before he went to school and was witness to extreme poverty and economic uncertainty for most part of his early life. He later grew up to be a bureaucrat working for the Indian Audit & Accounts Service to the extent of even earning himself a name in the Indian Gazette that empowered him to provide official attestations to documents and certificates. But the man barely took pride on all of that and loved to sing odes and paeans to a ‘carefree’ childhood he alone was reportedly blessed with.

When you examine the phenomena a bit more keenly, there is nothing really curious about it. We all have had good and bad days in our lives but most of us, regardless of how productive and successful our adult lives have been, have a tendency to rate our childhood a bit higher. The Room by appealing to our in-built capacity for nostalgia was able to demonstrate once again the presence of loose, invisible chains that bind all of humanity together cutting across continents and time with masterfully woven cinematic artistry.