Rediff Logo Movies McDowell Banner Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 18, 1999


Western Union Money Transfer

Send this story to a friend

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Rajeev Sreenivasan

Sergei Eisenstein
The Hyderabad iteration of the International Film Festival of India got underway on January 10th with fanfare and some controversy. It is worthwhile to take a look at what art cinema has wrought in the last century. Interestingly, cinema's century is bracketed by the births and deaths, respectively, of two of greatest filmmakers of all time: Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa.

The reason it is one hundred years of solitude is that great cinema is paradoxical: although it is by far the most complex of the arts, requiring a cast of literally hundreds of technical and creative personnel, it is the solitary vision of a single person that drives the entire thing. And this person, the director, has to be part general, part evangelist, part mendicant; in short, a holy madman (or woman).

The Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein was born in 1898; the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998. In these one hundred years, in my humble, biased and entirely personal opinion, these two, along with Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Luis Bunuel, Stanley Kubrick, and Ingmar Bergman, raised cinema to be quite simply the greatest art form of all time.

Satyajit Ray
The absence of the likes of Steven Spielberg or a Francis Ford Coppola in the above list is not accidental. For, most of these Hollywood directors are not artists, but great entertainers. Nothing wrong in that, but the difference between art cinema and good, clean entertainment is the same as the difference between the New Wave of a Satyajit Ray, an Aravindan, a Shyam Benegal, and the well-made hits of Bollywood titans.

As was said in an entirely different context, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" ("It is magnificent, but it isn't war") what Hollywood directors make is magnificent spectacle, but it ain't art. Even when they are most earnest (as in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"), their work is predicated on what will be popular. Market research dictates how a film might end, for example. Not too depressing an ending: bad for the box-office.

The American Film Institute recently published a list of their choice top 100 American films ever made, and predictably, Citizen Kane is number one. While I do like Citizen Kane, I think it is vastly over-rated; no doubt, Orson Welles was a very clever man and Citizen Kane is a tremendous film, but his work doesn't rise to the level of absolute genius, which, for instance Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin reaches. For my money, this is the greatest film ever made.

Akira Kurosawa
What I find as a common thread in the works of Eisenstein and Kurosawa (and indeed in the works of all the great directors I mentioned above) is the absolute refusal to make compromises. They had very complete visions of what they wished to accomplish; and they celebrated their unique native cultures in ways that made their work far more appealing than the homogenised pabulum churned out by the Hollywoods and Bollywoods. Vive la difference!

All the more fascinating is Eisenstein's work because he was a true-blue Communist and frequently a propagandist to boot. The Battleship Potemkin, in fact, is film as polemic, for it recounts the stirring, fictionalised story of how the Russian revolution got its start from a naval revolt on this battleship anchored off the port city of Odessa. It is accepted by all the best authorities that propagandists make poor artists, but apparently they forgot to tell Eisenstein.

A still from Battleship Potemkin
I remember cutting classes to sneak off to the Soviet consulate in Madras years ago with my erudite friend Rajeevan Kattil, and being absolutely entranced watching a retrospective of Eisenstein's masterworks: Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. It opened up whole new worlds to us -- and allowed us to gain vague glimmerings into the syntax and semantics of this great new art.

Eisenstein did more than make polemical film: he invented a whole new element in the semantics of cinema and in the arsenal of the filmmaker -- the theory of montage. Montage was revolutionary at the time of its introduction, roughly equivalent to the impact that Picasso's Guernica had on contemporary art.

Eisenstein had the idea that by rearranging time and space, as it were, through the technique of juxtaposing images via rapid editing, one could create entirely new meanings, or epiphanies, in the minds of the viewer -- these do not have to be explicitly shown in images. This may have some similarity to the concept of rasa in Sanskrit poetics.

A still from Citizen Kane
Anyway, at one stroke, Eisenstein had destroyed the notion that film was a poor cousin of the theatre -- here was something that could never be achieved on stage.

As viewers, we have become accustomed to montage now, both in film and on television; but Battleship Potemkin had the impact of a bombshell when it first appeared on the scene. Even today, watching the Odessa Ballet sequence, where a peaceful crowd is charged and massacred on the steps leading to the waterfront, it hits you with the impact of a sledge-hammer. It is, rightfully, considered the single most memorable sequence in all of cinema.

Conflicting images -- the jackbooted feet of the soldiers in unison, a pram with a baby in it speeding down the steps after the mother has been shot, a man dying with his cracked glasses slowly falling -- stun the viewer with shattering urgency, more than words can convey. Battleship Potemkin is a silent film, but it speaks very loudly, going straight for the heart.

A still from Kagemusha
Unfortunately for Eisenstein -- perhaps it was inevitable -- his relationship with the powers-that-be in Stalin's USSR were not comfortable. Several of his projects, potentially towering works of cinema, were cancelled on grounds of ideological incompatibility. Clearly, this genius was out of place in a totalitarian state.

Alexander Nevsky was allowed to be completed, and it has a grand battle scene on the ice, reminiscent of Kurosawa's later epic battles. But Ivan the Terrible Part III was destroyed: the mad emperor reminded Stalin too much of himself.

For reasons that are unclear to me, in 1998 Indian art cinema connoisseurs did not pay much attention to Eisenstein, with the single, notable and commendable exception of the International Film Festival of Kerala at Trivandrum, where they held what appears to have been a good seminar.

Toshiru Mifune
Incidentally, by all accounts the IFFK 98 had superb offerings; I am told it was perhaps the best film festival ever held in India -- kudos to the Kerala Film Directorate.

Akira Kurosawa had a different impact on me: the abstract and philosophical Zen of Rashomon and the manic yet austere majesty of Ran introduced me to the unique worldview and mindset of Japanese culture. I once saw a rather complete retrospective of Kurosawa's films: there can be no doubt even to the casual viewer that Kurosawa was a genius.

For me, personally, although I had been exposed to Japanese literature in translation in Malayalam (The Tale of Genji, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki), I had thought of Japanese culture as vaguely like other east Asian cultures.

A still from Kaliyattam
Kurosawa's work showed me that it is unique, different, and not derivative. In contrast to the stereotype of an aggressive colonialist during World War II, I found an intriguing people and stylised, but highly meaningful, ritual: kabuki and noh, for instance, reminding me of kathakali.

Kurosawa's images and his intense humanism remain with the viewer. The images are striking -- the climactic battle scenes in Ran and Kagemusha, the extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with the brilliant Toshiro Mifune, the closing shot in Kagemusha where the shadow warrior, dying, drifts past the fallen flags of the clan that he once headed as a proxy. The outstanding universality of his work, which is at the same time entirely Japanese, is his trademark.

A still from Seven Samurai
Kurosawa also reflects the painful quandaries of modern life -- after all, he experienced World War II and the subsequent American occupation; yet he felt no compunctions in using Western classics (King Lear for Ran, Macbeth for Throne of Blood) as the basis for his work. And the work was based exquisitely on real Japanese history, and on samurai traditions of valour and honour.

Kurosawa also mastered Eisenstein's montage and battle-scene techniques, but added his own flavour of unmistakable Japanese heritage. Because he was true to his traditions, his work resonates -- and the west returned the favour by adopting his classic "westerns" such as Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, to make famous English films too. For instance, George Lucas' Star Wars is based on Hidden Fortress.

A still from Rashomon
I wonder why Indian film-makers are unable to perform this sort of synthesis. The only successful attempt I have heard of is Jairaj's Kaliyattam in Malayalam, a retelling of Othello integrated with the mystical tradition of the theyyam in Malabar.

Normally, Indians seem to merely plagiarise, vulgarise, and trivialise. The only good cinema is perhaps that which the director makes true to his/her own tradition. This is what rises above the mundane -- there is no room for poseurs.

True to his Japanese roots, Kurosawa's medieval samurai epics are concerned with the nature of reality -- as seen most clearly in Rashomon, but also in Kagemusha, where a peasant is made the double of a great warlord, because of a strong physical similarity. It is important that the death of the warlord not become public, lest it demoralise the troops.

Rashomon and Kagemusha, my personal favourites among Kurosawa's works, are meditations on the nature of reality -- perception becomes reality; and there is no distinction between subjective and objective truth.

If it is true that great art requires great suffering, both Eisenstein and Kurosawa did suffer: the former under the whims of dictators; the latter, in his old age, unable to find funding for even his masterpiece Ran, and semi-blind. But what works emerged from the crucibles of these sufferings, in the solitude of these great auteur's minds.

The next hundred years of art cinema should be equally wonderful -- I hope the insidious influence of American culture does not overwhelm the native genius of various nations. I am sure Hollywood will not prevail -- after all, most nations are intensely proud of their traditions, singularly unlike India.

Rajeev Srinivasan

Tell us what you think of this feature