Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #3
Judging by his looks, he could have easily been mistaken for a Hollywood film star instead of a professor of film. A warm smile on his face, hestrode across the lobby of the Radio/ Television/ Film building and shook my hand.
“Welcome, welcome, Satya. Good to see you. I hope you have settled in?”
“Yes, Dr Mackie,” I blurted out.
“Call me, Bill,” he said in a very unassuming and casual way.
“Are you kidding?” I thought. That casual attitude he expressed was nowhere in my genes. Dr. William Mackie was the head of the film division and my graduate studies advisor. How could I call him by his first name? Could my father even dream of calling his teacher at the Science College in Calcutta, ‘Meghnad’? I kept my doubts to myself and smiled back. I knew right then and there, I was in for a bumpy ride.
The University of Texas at Austin in the mid-seventies was a case in point of the meltdown that was Middle America. People in leisure suits or bell-bottoms meandered around; no one seemed to be in charge. The fallout from the unimaginable loss in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal had shaken up the entire country to its core. There were officially 20,000 students enrolled at the university. Another 10,000 young men and women just hung around the campus and no one knew why they were there. There were rallies everyday on campus, celebrating anything from the Bugle Call of the New Confederacy to Latino Lesbians. UT was an integral part of Texas history. A sizable portion of the alumni had risen to positions of note, leaving UT millions of dollars in endowment. We, the motley crowd that did not belong with any group were happy knowing Farah Fawcett had studied at UT and in fact had lived in my dorm when she was there.
The first few days of classes confirmed my doubts about ‘film studies’. I had at least some experience in media by having been a college newspaper photographer. Almost to the last student in my class, nobody had any experience in film or a related field of study. Melanie had been an English major at Rice; Jeff had studied history and anthropology at Columbia. Steve was on sabbatical from the State Department and had served in Latin America. Monty started his day smoking cannabis and we left him alone to float in the stratosphere. There were very few books on ‘film studies’. The few books that were available to us were written by European film theoreticians. They addressed finely perceived issues on aesthetics that I could not discern or decipher.
The saving grace came in the form of a huge film collection at the RTF department. There were 16 mm prints of classic movies from around the globe. We were free to check them out and watch them. In fact, almost every day we saw two to three films. I wrote to my friends in Calcutta of the feast that was now available to me. We did not have to ‘cut’ classes to go and see a film!
There was another benefit that slowly crept up on me. Marshall McLuhan had written a book called ‘The Media is the Message’ and it was the rage across the intellectual landscape. Media was in vogue. The undergraduate film students, and there were many pretty girls among them, had the misplaced impression that we, the graduate student assistants were some kind of an informed source regarding films. Finding myself cornered by groups of young and attractive undergraduate girls, I frequently held court in the lobby and suitably impressed them.
The depth of our ignorance and major disconnect surfaced when we went to our favorite haunt, ‘Les Amis’. For a dollar a glass, we consumed Cabernet and Pinot Grigio that I am sure the French refused to touch and dumped on unsuspecting Americans. No different from the Coffee House ‘adda’ (get-together) on College Street in Calcutta, the discussions here ranged from instruments of medieval torture and the design of the garden at the Versailles to US foreign policy and the color of Hamlet’s cape. Everybody was an instant expert! I finally threw up my hands one day and cried, “Basta! (enough).”
My colleagues were shocked. I did not care. Next time we went to class, I asked Dr. Mackie, “Could we shoot a film?”
“Hell yea,” he responded and marched us down to the film lab.
I could not believe my eyes! Under a thin layer of East Texas dust, neatly arranged in rows on a shelf were the best of professional film equipment, begging for a user. There were 16 mm Éclair cameras that I had only read of and dreamed about. There were rows of Nagra 4 sound recorders and Sennheiser microphones that I saw in photographs in film magazines. I felt certain I had finally come to the right place.
The following weekend, I checked out a Éclair camera and drove around the Hill Country. I knew enough about photography to make beautiful, panoramic shots in the late afternoon sunlight. This is known in Bangla as ‘Konay Dekhar Alo’. There is magic in that twilight hour and every object comes alive! I was ready for my grand entrance into the world of film.
I projected the 3-minute film in class. When the lights were turned back on, I expected to get a respectable applause. Instead, the class was quiet and the room was filled with a chill.
Melanie broke the ice and put in her two bits. “It’s gorgeous, Satya. There are some wonderful visual phrases. But you know, I feel your film lacks rhythm and cohesiveness to be considered ‘poetry’. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Monty asked if my film could be forwarded to the Audubon society as it may carry a message of ecology. “Did you see any bald headed Eagles when you went out to the boonies?” he wanted to know.
Steven wondered if I was considering a political angle, as the landscapes I captured in my short film had historically been Cherokee country.
What started as a whimper snowballed to become a loud discussion on the implications of my film. Finally Dr. Mackie cut in towards the end of the class and asked me to paraphrase what was in my script.
I was left speechless. I did not have a script. I had just checked out a camera and went around the countryside, shooting off a few frames here and there. The class was taken aback by my explanation.
It occurred to me presently that filmmaking was much more than shooting film through a Éclair camera. I had been a still photographer for a college paper and photographed whatever was placed or occurred in front of my camera. True, I had to make decisions of how best to capture the image and there was a learnt art involved in that process. In making a film, one had to re-create an event in a studio with sets, lights, costumes, make-up and actors. It is only then that the event can be photographed. I had yet to learn the ropes in that kind of creation. I was crushed.
From a corner seat at Les Amis, I looked back and recalled that my exposure to art of filmmaking was quite minimal and understood I had a long way to go. There had been very few Bangla children’s films available in the Calcutta of my childhood. I was lucky that I saw some Laurel and Hardy films at Elite, Metro and Minerva Theaters during the Sunday morning shows. I was too young to be enamored by the Uttam/ Suchitra romances. Stepping into my teens, I saw Soumitra charm Madhobi as Charulata, singing and playing the piano. I too decided to take up the piano. In a year or so, Moushomi as the Balika Bodhu overtook the piano. I asked my mother if I could get married. She promptly agreed and told me she had already picked a pretty bride. (Looking back in 20/20 hindsight, I realize that my mother, in anticipation of an empty nest syndrome, had hoped to keep me with her by bringing in a bride.) My friend, William DaSilva and I finally saw our first Uttam Kumar hit and made the firm resolve to forget marriage and learn to sing like Antony Firingi.
Jeff leaned over conspiratorially. “Let’s go to my dorm after class. I have a script for you.”
We picked our way through a quick salad, skirted around a football pep rally, sat through a monotonous lecture and headed back to his room. Jeff pulled out an old copy of a Life magazine with a black and white portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, weaving at a spinning wheel.
“Here is your script. This photograph was shot by a still photographer like you. Her name is Margaret Burke-White. This photo triggered a movement that ended 300 years of Western Colonial rule.”
I was outraged. Does Jeff really think Gandhi was the sole mover behind Indian independence? My Bengali pride came to the surface. I instantly remembered seeing a film about Khudiram Bose and the ultimate sacrifice he had made. What about Dada Thakur who started a printing press and spread the word of independence? And what about Netaji? He shook the British Empire till they trembled in London. I was not sure if Jeff was making fun of me or was plain misinformed.
“Really, Jeff? I’ll think about it.”
When I went to class the following Monday morning, the lobby of the RTF building was decorated with potted plants and bright film posters. Beautiful young women, dressed in sultry athletic outfits, were passing out wine and cheese on crackers. The studios in Hollywood had arranged for a preview of a film and they were test marketing it on us. They wanted to study our reaction to their film.
The film was called Rocky and starred an unknown actor called Sylvester Stallone. He had written the script too. It was a fairly low budget, gritty, action film, set in the world of professional boxing. As we watched the film, I noticed that the audience was swept up by the story. No, it was not the blood pumping music that carried us forward. Something else caught the audience attention and they hung on to the very last frame. Unimaginable to the audience of those times, Rocky loses the title fight in the film. He walks away from the limelight with a plain, shy, middle-class girl called Adrian who is his romantic interest.
As the audience applauded, Jeff leaned over to me. “Ah,” he whispered. “This guy Rocky is a genius and very sly. He has created a large canvas to allow America to face our defeat in Vietnam and still hold our heads up high. True, Rocky lost the bout in the ring but he is a man of honor. He is true to his love. In his strong arms and tender heart, Adrian rises in her own self-esteem. Rocky has re-affirmed our small town, American values.”
The success of the screening brought in larger supplies of savory dishes from Les Amis to the lobby; the Cabernet and Pinot Grigio flowed like water. Everybody was high on the film. The studio executives smiled appreciatively. Back slapping and bonhomie jokes followed.
Jeff took me aside. “You see Satya, the media IS the message. What we are celebrating here is only an image that was created on celluloid. We feel vindicated by it. The truth is, America has not changed a bit. We are still the same SOBs we were before Nam. In this film, Rocky loses to a black man in the ring, but goes home with the girl he made a promise to love. In Rocky 2, he will knock down the black man and celebrate his racial superiority. Mark my words, Satya, in ten years time America will go to war again.”
I looked at Jeff, flabbergasted by his analysis. He smiled, patted me on the back and asked, “Would you like some more Pinot?”
‘Film’ was beginning to make sense. Perhaps it was relevant to appreciate the color of Hamlet’s cape. I started to watch films with a renewed sense of urgency and a critical eye.
Three films impressed me from that period of my life. Ed Murrow from CBS presented a documentary called ‘The Harvest of Shame’. The film was initially broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960, showing the hunger that was faced by migrant agricultural workers across the land while millions of Americans gorged themselves at over-flowing tables. The film triggered the movement for better wages and working conditions of migrant workers in the US.
Having been a still photographer, I was moved by the enormity of Paul Strands’ ‘The River’. A documentary of a flood, it brought in classic realism into filmmaking. Grierson, a documentarian from Canada, touched the soft Bangali (of Bengal) nature in me with the lyricism of, ‘I Remember, I Remember.’ The film reminded me of the mellow songs of Tagore with their lilting melodies.
I became keenly aware I did not have a story as yet. I had to find one if I had to make a film. I snuck into the library, planning to take a second look at the Life magazine photographs of Margaret Burke-White. Unfortunately, Jeff was there too and I was caught red handed. Jeff knew a lot more about Indian history than I anticipated.
“I agree with your feelings about all the patriots who fought the British in India. But you know what? The British cared a damn about them. They just put them in jail, tortured them and hanged them if they could. Look what happened at Jallianwala Bagh.
My interest was piqued.
“General Dyer shot and killed 379 people and that was only the official record. Do you know what Whitehall did? They gave Dyer a nice retirement package and he went off to live comfortably in Good Ole England.
“But a Sikh patriot got to his boss, Governor Michael O’Dwyer and put a bullet through his head,” I added quickly.
“True. But that event did not bring about any change in British policy. What changed British policy was the media. All across the world, people saw a picture of a saintly man in a loincloth, determined in his way of seeking the truth for his people. He was a man of peace and was not afraid of violence.”
I looked at the pictures of Gandhi in the Life magazine again.
“The world saw News Reels of millions of Indians following Gandhi to pick up a handful of salt at the beach. The police could not hold them back with their swinging batons and fierce dogs. The British Government could no longer keep up their pretense of bringing civilization to the natives. The native called Mahatma Gandhi WAS the civilized man! The British Government dared not hold its head up in front of the world body. They could not afford to be called rogues. They left India.”
Barely four months of graduate school and I was a mess. I was not sure where I was going with my studies. I confronted Dr. Mackie in his office. “What does it take to make a film?” I asked him directly.
He thought for a while and looked up at me … and the words just flowed out of him, effortlessly. “You have to be a poet with a vision and a general in battle with an army to make a film. It is almost impossible to find those two opposite attributes in the same man.”
When all seems to be lost, a ray of hope sometimes beacons out of nowhere. In the spring semester that followed, a professor from the Department of South Asian Studies offered a course and I jumped at it. The course was titled, ‘Films of Satyajit Ray’. Dr. Herman van Olfen had lived in India and spoke Bangla. He had spent a year, interviewing and recording Satyajit Ray, talking about his films.
I was making up for lost time. Yes, I had missed the earlier screening of Pather Panchali in my childhood. A couple of decades later, the film was being projected in class for us. I could check out the print for my personal viewing any time I wanted to.
The first projection of Pather Panchali was enough for me. It sent a shiver down my spine. Ray had succeeded in capturing the essence of the people and land he filmed. The form was authentic and exquisite. Ravi Shankar’s score from a Bhatiali melody was haunting. ‘This is Bengal’, I surmised. ‘This is the story of Bangali people in all its beauty and pain’. I fired off a letter to my father in Calcutta, sharing my excitement and discovery.
Baba (father) wrote back a very personal note. He said, like Harihar, (Opu’s father) he too had left home with a begging bowl to make a better life for himself and his family. Instead of the ‘ghat’ (bank of the Ganga) at Kashi where Harihar read from the Gita to lonely widows, he had travelled to Stanford University in Palo Alto and read papers in Physical Chemistry. He had considered it fortunate to find his family intact when he returned home. Seeing Pather Panchali had been a pivotal moment in his life too. He had felt a father’s numbing loss watching Harihar come home to find his daughter, Durga, no longer with them.
Baba never left his family behind in Calcutta for extended trips abroad after seeing Pather Panchali. Within his limited budget he took my mother with him to Europe and in time, over subsequent trips, my brothers and sisters joined him on his sojourns.
The semester raced by. From Pather Panchali we moved to Apur Sansar and Aporajito. Late into the evenings, I check out the prints and saw them over and over. I had found a story than was mine but I did not know it well. Mahanagar rang a bell. Set within the milieu of middle class life in Calcutta. Madhobi had stood up against the injustice doled out to an Anglo woman in the office. As a result of her action, she lost her position. I had grown up in Park Circus and studied at Calcutta Boys’ School. Anglo Indians were real to me. This could have been my friend, William DaSilva’s story.
The semester came to a blissful end. I felt some relief from the pressure of academics. East Texas was the home of laid back country music and outdoor barbeques. Willie Nelson’s 4th of July concert brought in thousands of young people. At Barton Springs, young women swam in the cool waters and frolicked ‘topless’ in the park. Asserting their personal rights over sexual prejudice, the women had fought a legal battle and won the right to do so.
It was an unsettling time of my life for personal indulgence. Sitting at Barton Springs, I saw past the young nymphs and remembered a young girl called Durga from a village called Nischindipur. She had played in the rain and caught a chill. Barely surviving on a meager diet of rice, dal (lentils) and perhaps a few vegetables, her fragile body did not have the strength to fight the fever that followed. Her father did come home with a wedding sari for her but by that time, the bride-to-be had left home, forever.
When I got back to my dorm, I felt that the intense excitement that had surrounded me for the last nine months seeping away. The silence of my room was un-nerving. Quite late in the evening, I called Tapan-da in Lubbock. “Hallo,” he answered in his middle class Bangali tone.
“Tapan-da, I am calling from Austin. Could I come over for a visit?”
“You want to come for a visit?” he asked. He seemed perplexed.
I had second thoughts. Perhaps I should not have called him and placed him in an awkward position to accommodate me.
“Let me talk to your Boudi (sister-in-law),” he trailed off.
The Sens were the most unlikely people one could possibly meet in America. Tapan-da had taught mathematics at St Paul’s College on Amherst Street. Boudi taught at a local Girl’s School in Howrah. They were well settled in their way of life. They had come to the US, hoping to get medical treatment for their only son. Badshah was autistic and the Sens had hoped to find a cure for him in America.
The wait on the phone seemed like an eternity. I wanted to but could not hang up on them. That would be rude by any standard.
Boudi picked up the phone. “You want to come for a visit. Why?” She did not stop long enough for me to answer. “Why should you come for a visit? This is your home. Come whenever you like. What kind of dhong (pretense) is this that you have to ask? Come right now.”
There was no leeway with Boudi. Then she hung up.
It did not take me long to pack up. A couple of cardboard boxes were enough to hold my personal toiletries, clothes, and my film theory books that I had not studied too diligently. Film theory was still hazy and unreal. As I drove past the Austin city limits, I tried to recollect my experience in graduate school and put it into perspective. If there was a gain at all, it was in my unexpected meeting with Opu.
From splitting hairs with fellow students at Les Amis on finely tuned theoretical issues of film aesthetics, I was headed to the unlabored warmth of a middle class Bangali home. In meeting Opu in Austin, Texas I had found a story. It was a real story and it was my story. I did not have to look afar for that story, because Opu had always been within me.
Jeff went off to Medical School at Rice and practices in Colorado. While we were debating the merits of the Mahatma at Les Amis, Richard Attenborough was working on the pre-production for his epic, Gandhi.
The film was an international sensation. Ben Kingsley portrayed the politically astute Mahatma with depth and conviction. The contributions of the photographer, Margaret Burke-White were portrayed subtly by Candice Bergen. The film rendered their relationship with appropriate distance and reverence.
In my opinion, the heroine of the film, Gandhi, was only shown in passing. It was Kasturba, a Jain woman of unflinching spiritual conviction who influenced her husband Mohandas and led him to the path of Satyagraha. It is the practice of peace and the path of truth, Satyagraha, that brought three hundred years of European colonial rule to its end.
I have to tell that side of the story to Jeff, someday. SJ
(Posted January 28, 2014)
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