Thursday, April 15, 2010

The River

Jean Renoir *1951 *99m *English

Renoir, son of the impressionist artist, creator of the extraordinary portrait of upper class French society on the eve of WW2, Rules of the Game, is also one of the important influences on Satyajit Ray, The two came in contact during the filming of The River, and this was the reason Ray turned from advertising to cinema, and that is a good enough reason for watching this film, apart from the fact that it is about India and by an acclaimed film-maker. But it was hard to believe that this is the director who made the masterly Rules of the Game, and whether Ray was actually influenced by him (friendship apart).

This is yet another example of a Western director’s impressions of the East, obviously targeted at a Western audience. Imagine Ray making a film based in LA or Chicago, pretending to knowledgeably expound the “mysteries’ thereof for the Indian audience.  For a “native” this is about as digestible as David Lean’s A Passage to India. It is the land of snake charmers and mendicants, of people immersed in mystical mumbo-jumbo, somehow immune to the problems and issues people face elsewhere, and offering solutions to life’s problems through esoteric secrets jealously preserved. What characterizes India is poverty and lack of education more than the profundities of religious and cultural differences. This is yet another condescending picture of the colonial period, sentimental and poorly informed, demeaning in it’s shades of mysticism, magic, and superstition.

The core story is of a British jute trader’s family of five daughters (including one from a deceased Indian wife), three of whom become romantically entangled with a visiting handsome one legged cousin from the US. Here, the director is in his element more than his Victorian tourist brochure picture of the country, and we have a touching, engrossing and rounded human tale.

This is not a film Ray could have liked or identified with, except perhaps out of politeness or obligation. Ray’s picture of India, while lyrical and exquisitely delicate, is robust, down-to-earth and authentic. The Chessplayers (Shatranj ke Khilari) is the finest portrayal of India in the nineteenth century, the cultural glory side by side with political naivete.
Roger Ebert review

8 comments:

Literary Dreamer said...

Sounds similar to Mark Twain writing about 15th century France in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and characterizing the children as if they were out of Tom Sawyer. Luckily, reputations are made by an artist's best work, not by his or her worst.

S. M. Rana said...

@LD
Interesting analogies. I never knew Mark Twain wrote that, but if Renoir had been making an honest comedy (which Twain's must have been) with Kolkotta kids with French mannerisms, it would have come off but Renoir is dead serious, and the result is grotesque, irritating and even offensive. But then human beings are contradictory, and the same person can do work of very different kinds and calibre.

Literary Dreamer said...

Actually, it was Twain's attempt at serious fiction, and his inspiration for Joan was more that of his deceased daughter, Suzy, than it was the historical Jeanne d'Arc.

Also, having read Ebert's review, I wonder if the same issues in The River are to be found in the book on which it's based. After all, since it was written by a colonialist, her view of India might be similar to the touristic view of many places--kind of like the geisha/kimono/temple view of Japan.

S. M. Rana said...

@LD
In fact, my first view of Japan long back came from war comics which naturally painted a very negative caricature....in contrast, I think Renoir's Regle de Jeu is a startlingly realistic picture of a particular section of a particular society at a particular time, as I am sure can be said for Twain's books about the Missisipi..

Ronak M Soni said...

Interesting that Ebert writes about it as a great movie. Just western ignorance, or something else, do you suppose?

I enjoyed The Darjeeling Ltd., a spiritual story set in a brilliantly cliched 'exotic' India.
I think you are wrong when you say that India is characterised by only poverty; the philosophy of India -- at least what I've encountered of it -- has a brilliance in its mysticism that I haven't found in what I've seen of the Semitic religions (the only thing I find interesting is the idea of a wrathful god, which we don't have in these parts, but that's hardly part of the mysticism).
While you might argue that most people don't know the real philosophy, I'd say that while they don't know the philosophies, they embody it; after all, philosophy is basically an explanation of our method of living.
This guy explains it really well: http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik.html

Important point (no offense that it sounds so stupid, always helps to make this clear): I haven't watched this movie, so I'm not challenging your point of view about it, I'm only discussing your essay.

S M Rana said...

Ignorant or imbalanced are the last things Ebert could be accused of being.

It's a film set in (not about) India , meant for a Western audience, who would not notice it's wrong notes. To Indian eyes and ears, it is unpalatable and unedifying.

India is ofcourse the source of a great philosophical tradition which gave rise to Buddhism. But Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan are two artist's who were able to mirror India as it is to near perfection without having to garnish it with kiplingesque mumbo-jumbo. Kiarostami has done the same for Iran, and I feel as much at home in his films as in India. Attenborough has done a good job in Gandhi. Perhaps the British are somewhat better qualified--after all, Slumdog is a British film.

Ronak M Soni said...

What I was trying to ask you last comment was: is the film exoticised because it is about a foreign view of India, or because it is itself a foreign view of India?
The Darjeeling Ltd. was enjoyable because it was very clear that it was more about how these Americans saw India than it was about India per se.

S. M. Rana said...

@Ronak
Clearly itself a foreign view. He painted as he saw and wasn't interested enough to probe beneath the surface. It is the entomological aspects of his observations that I find painful. Like seeing a cowboy in every American.