In Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 movie Redbeard, Toshiro Mifune plays the eccentric Dr. Niide ( Redbeard) who runs a charity hospital for the poor in nineteenth century Japan. At the beginning of the movie, Noburu Yasumoto , a newly minted medical graduate reluctantly joins the hospital as an intern. A bookish, arrogant sort, he would rather have waited for an appointment as a doctor at the royal court by virtue of his connections. However, his family feels that working with Red Beard will benefit him and help him forget the sting of having been jilted; his fiancée broke off their engagement and married another man. At Red Beard’s hospital, young Yasumoto is transformed as he helps tend to a horde of poor patients; he realizes that medicine means interacting with the sick, that it is not just a career path. Towards the end of the movie, his ex-fiancée comes to seek his forgiveness but , as she kneels down before him, he sees not the girl who jilted him but the mother of a sick child; he at once enquires how her child is doing. Without being told, the viewer understands that Yasumoto’s transformation is complete; he now understands what being a doctor really means.
That, to me, is an example of the film-maker’s art.
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is now regarded as a masterpiece but it is a miracle, first that it got made and, then, that it was recognized as a masterwork. Before he made Pather Panchali, Ray had never directed a film, his cameraman had never used a video camera and there was great difficulty financing the film. Somehow, Pather Panchali wound up as India’s entry at the Cannes film festival of 1956. Because of the low quality of Indian films, only the French member of the judging committee attended the screening. So impressed was he that he insisted on it being rescreened and that his fellow committee members watch it. The rest is history; Pather Panchali won the Palme D’Or and went on to garner awards at Edinburgh, Vancouver and San Francisco.
What is its appeal? on the face of it, this story about a poor Bengali villager, Harihar, and his family ( wife Sarbajaya, daughter Durga and son Apu) should not appeal to audiences worldwide. The poverty it depicts is heart-wrenching, the events almost uniformly depressing. In the film’s climactic sequence, Harihar returns to the village after having earned some money in the big city but is puzzled by his wife’s strange behavior. Unbeknownst to him, while he was away, his daughter Durga, the apple of his eye, has died of a fever that she caught when she was drenched in a sudden thunderstorm. He calls out to his children as he opens his metal trunk and pulls out a sari which he has bought as a present for Durga. At this, his wife who has been wondering how to break the news of Durga’s death bursts into sobs and falls to the floor. Harihar ,when he understands what has happened, lets out a wordless howl and collapses beside her. Watching this scene is like a punch in the gut. The film also has moments of great beauty as the camera follows Durga and Apu around the village. In one memorable sequence, the two children follow a sweet seller, irresistibly attracted to his wares which they cannot afford and are trailed by a stray dog. The whole procession is reflected in a roadside pond. In another, the children run through a field of waving grasses to catch a glimpse of a railway train, a symbol for the mysterious world beyond their limited everyday lives. And at the end, when Harihar packs his family and meagre belongings into an oxcart and departs the village, the last we see of them is a swaying lantern in the back of the cart, perhaps a harbinger of their hope for the future. In its lyricism and universal appeal , Pather Panchali transcends the barriers of geography, culture and time to tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers worldwide.
This, to me, is the film-maker’s art.
I started thinking about this topic after I saw Hitchcock’s ” Vertigo” last week. It too was a groundbreaker in its time and Hitchcock introduced many innovative techniques in filming it. However, one thing about it that turned me off is its heavy use of symbols and hidden meanings, many of them obscure. For instance , ” Tunnels and corridors repeatedly represent the passage to death. The first tunnel image appears when the camera reveals Scottie’s perspective as he clings to the rooftop gutter. The camera pans straight down the side of the building, creating a tunnel effect. While visiting the sequoia forest, Madeleine shares a recurring dream in which she walks down a long corridor. Nothing but darkness and death await her there. She also dreams of a corridor like open grave. When Midge walks away from Scottie for the last time, it is down a long corridor that darkens around her. The passage marks a kind of death for Midge as she loses all hope of re-kindling her romance with Scottie.” This may be fascinating stuff for movie buffs but for ordinary viewers like me it is a big yawn. It is too clever by far and seems as if the director is saying ” Let’s see if you get this, you dummies”.
Art, whether it is cinema or painting or something else, should immediately strike a chord with viewers. Real art, in my opinion, doesn’t need multiple viewings or a critic to explain it. Real art does not make things complicated or obscure. It makes things appear natural and simple and audiences connect with it effortlessly. Or so I feel…