“The Vermilion Smear’d”

09/11/2011

Still from 'Griha Pravesh'

A Look at Basu Bhattacharya’s 70s Work

Maya, sometimes incompletely translated into English as “illusion”, is often explained as a way of looking at the world, rather than as a single concept or a thing with attributes. It is illusion in the most profound sense of the word, where not only everything we know concretely, but also ephemerality itself, as well as ideas and the intangible flow of time, are all but an appearance obscuring an ultimate reality that lies underneath. Many Indian experimental films, especially those that draw from, or have some lineage in, literature, such as Mani Kaul’s meta-ghost story Duvidha (1973) or Kumar Shahani’s hypnotically psychogeographic Mirror of Illusion (1972) use maya theory as a basis for how they visualize what happens onscreen, not simply underlining the imaginary nature of what we are seeing, but exploring bright and transient vibrations from the true, submerged world, as they influence and disrupt the world of experience. Three films that Basu Bhattacharya wrote and directed between 1971 and 1979, each focusing on tribulations of middle-class married life, turn this most basic of Hindu philosophies inward, looking at how this external universe of perception is incorporated into the way that we relate to others and, perhaps more intriguingly, how we forge our own identities from the deceptive fragments of reality.

Midway between neorealism and Bollywood, the films are free to contrast and play on both equally, occupying a sort of unclassifiable parallel of their own. But true to form they remain relatively unscathing commentary-wise; they are solidly middle-of-the-road Hindi cinema. In his ponderous excavations of some of the symptoms of monogamy, Bhattacharya fixates on screens, the inconstancy of light, and metaphorical notions of the self conceived through projection, both of the external and the personal worlds. These points of reference, which pertain to how the director sees the material, work their way into seemingly every mise-en-scene in these three films, as well as the actor’s bodies and the formulation of color schemes. They are manifested in literal ways, such as persistent and self-reflexive allusions to movies (most often ‘the movies’ rather than specific ones), which in this case do not represent separate lives to covet or imitate, but act as encapsulations of our own lives, almost a bottling of them, as we seek to locate ourselves in the image.

Still from 'Anubhav'

Anubhav (1971)

In Anubhav, the first of these three films, Meeta and Amar Sen live proximal but distantly-separate lives in the lofty reaches of a Mumbai highrise. Every waking hour that he is not wining and dining famous people Amar spends secluded with the work he has taken home from work, occasionally interrupted by Hari, his loyal servant, who has to remind him that sleep is a human necessity. Meeta sits in their apartment, bored with her situation and bewidered by the six years since marriage that seem to have tumbled over her all at once, before she knew what was happening. The couple lives a life similar to a male politician and his wife (he is a newspaper editor, so not too far off), where they each have a role keeping up their social and political ties.

We are introduced to the two characters at a crowded social event at their place, which looks like a mad, spotlit dream of a cocktail party. Bhattacharya begins with an opening sequence showing the blurred, decelerated movement of the seaside boulevard Marine Drive. In this mute introduction, a frozen snippet of a city symphony, he establishes the setting in an indistinct terrain made up of buildings that are literal ivory towers amid depressing blankness, the sea a gleaming line to the side. He inserts an insipid introduction to the two main characters buried in the everyday sounds through patches of conversations on the soundtrack between two coworkers and two illicit lovers talking about going to the party, overheard as in tapped phone exchanges. So here we are in the big city, a place of iniquity and corporate, cosmopolitan living.

The feel of the party sequence expresses an impish, unenthused affluence that contains nothing when not buttressed by a packed gathering. As though reflecting the inner confusion of the people there, a child gets lost, gets offered drinks, gets left behind. The unconstraint of the camerawork robs a few of the good frames (like one shot, split by a doorway, with the teeming party in one half and a lone Amar in the other) and the strong, desperate shadows (people tied to them, moving as Balinese puppets) of their potential impact. There is an amateurish wavering of the camera meant to reflect the disconnected atmosphere. After the to-do has ended the childless Meeta cares for the abandoned kid, who falls asleep in their bed. Unthinkable and slightly exaggerated, this event awakens, along with her maternal instinct, a feeling of discontent with her disengaged and unearned prosperity. When the child’s mother calls later in the night, Meeta offers to let him sleep over there but the woman insists on coming to fetch him that night – after all, the child’s dedicated nursemaid would not be able to sleep without him there.

Meeta emerges from the party night both hung over and freshly decimated, surveying things with a new confusion. The apartment is an indistinct latticework of grays, unrecognizable from the night before, when it was all darkened, hard effusiveness. The apartment produces a dry, plastic sound-coloring, very fitting for how it looks. Amar leaves for the office, driving through a silent blur. The place seems empty with the child no longer there and Meeta makes a hasty decision to let their four servants go for good, with two months’ pay. Hari is the only one who refuses to go, having been with Amar’s family since Amar was a child. Modernity has locked Meeta into a new sort of purdah and so she rebels against the modern. Meanwhile Hari is a vestige of the old days: an aging servant, overseer of the other three, one who conducts his morning prayers shirtless and knows his way around the kitchen. Meeta decides she wants to learn how to cook for Amar. She talks about having failed to properly take care of her father after her mother passed away many years ago, and she wants to transfer her potential for performing traditional wifely duties to her marriage.

Anubhav initiates this trilogy of films that each focus on a married couple attempting to reconstitute romance, and here they have a sad turn with dreadful tries at flirtatious double-talk; stilted, ghoulish union; prodding, sarcastic playacting – is she crying while sitting in the kitchen because she’s cutting onions or because she cannot contain her excitement for Amar to return home from the office? This theme, unlike in the later works Aavishkar and Griha Pravesh (where it informs the bulk of the narrative) starts salient in the beginning and then fades to the backdrop, the film being more about class and gender relations in general, albeit examined from a fixed position.

Still from 'Anubhav'

Anubhav (1971)

“When is work ever done?” Amar asks Hari. While Meeta has none to do, he has too much, which is just right for him. We see the intrusion of workaholism, with all its adjuncts, into Indian middle-class life. The events are intercut with dribs and drabs of exterior establishing shots. They feel like they have nothing to do with what goes on inside the apartment, which is really the only place we ever see Meeta. The shots rotate about the city background in a whorl of modern haze. Bhattacharya favors jump-cuts between inoffensive twos-shots and Casavettes-like facial expansion – a shifty-eyed camera feel. It’s like a surrealist’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about spectacularly vacuous people. In the midst of her campaign of self-improvement, her process of reconnecting with her husband and herself, Meeta gets a call from Shashi, a man from her distant past. Judging by her reaction it is a past she’s spent the past few years rising above. Her expression when Shashi (coming out of the sweaty, sometimes desperate, chaos from which she evidently also emerged) calls: like annoyed affection but she forces herself to curtly hang up on him. As if on cue, Amar calls to tell her he’ll be late coming home.

Throughout ensuing scenes Shashi’s phone calls keep disrupting the couple’s time together. We hear her off in another room saying “wrong number” to him. But she is only putting off an eventual encounter, which does happen while her husband is away at work. The notion of her wanting to be freed from the punishing weight of the life she and Amar have made is put on the backburner, as though taking it much further is beyond her realm of comfort.

Amar says he wants to welcome their European guest in the Indian way. They affect their perceived national style. Meeta posits: what if the guest comes wearing tight pants? Then he won’t be able to dine sitting on the floor. Amar seems awkward in a salwaar, as though his tired bulk were filling each of its unbalanced billows. In their precarious hybrid position as nouveau riche it is no wonder that they have so little connection with their own emotions and with one another, as seen in their unaccustomed reactions to interior and outer turmoil. His attempts to marry urbanity with tradition come out as strange as Meeta’s early bid to revisit past happiness. Her shortfall is reflected in his: she got married to him at such a young age (and about ten years younger than he) it is unclear whether that marital bliss was ever there – similarly one cannot say whether he ever knew his national culture intimately because he is stewed in a separate stock from it. Shashi walks through Meeta’s immaculate home, cooing as though it were precisely how he pictured it. One wonders why Hari does not pick up on the young man’s presence there. It turns out Shashi has come to her not to rekindle romance but to help him get a job with Amar’s newspaper. She rejects him, and he leaves surprisingly speedily. The feeling of threat of disruption to her improvement dissipates.

At their table during lunch she tries to feed Amar more and he quotes a public service announcement that encourages productivity and simplicity, citing traces of cultural normalizing of Western values. The film is surprisingly balanced in its biases, the people adrift on converging streams of traditional trappings and modern disconnection. Bhattacharya is suggesting that it is the confusion that makes them desolate. The overall tone of pseudo-bickering never really dies down, never goes into any sort of downward spiral, and never strays from its default centrist depiction of privileged life. The film only ever brushes up against the issues among which it situates itself; married Indian women are expected not only to be faithful to their husbands but also retroactively so, and Bhattacharya does little to problematize Amar’s angry reaction to having had a prior relationship, the details of which are never divulged.

The comic momentum is inadvertently kept aloft in Amar and Shashi’s bewildered tour of the printing room, where they both look equally uncomfortable and bemused amid the roaring machines, to an industrial jazz soundtrack. After a standard song-romp in the rain with Meeta, Amar ends up catching a flu and being stuck in bed for a week. The role of Newspaper Editor is a stock occupation for him – he is too large and relaxed; no frayed, always-critical explosion as per the cinematic image. He is strangely blasé about article content and deadlines, and his blowsy fawning over Shashi’s middling work demonstrates how out of touch he is. Amar talks to Shashi about all the work it takes to listen to a record, how that work kills the mood. It is a duty, and duty kills the mood of romance. His and Shashi’s talk is quite affecionate. He and Meeta share a tenderness toward him – Amar’s being new, Meeta’s being exhumed, as she starts to warm to his presence again. We are persistently underscoring the quick stagnation of marriage compared with other types of companionship: the boxed-in aspect of it, pointed to both visually and aurally in the apartment. But is it marriage or the way, in this case, it is used as a mode of self-isolation? The presence of Shashi suggests that there are further possible dynamics that they had not thought of, but Bhattacharya confines his character to a starched plot device, neither devilish troublemaker nor liberator of the stuck protagonists.

Still from 'Anubhav'

Anubhav (1971)

The director flaunts a fixation with lighter New Wave and Casavettes’ probing gaze, but he can fasten neither our attention nor his with a strength that follows any scene into solidified understanding, and so tries to animate the scenes with crude devices such as heightened or arbitrary focus. He uses repetitive noises on soundtrack: shrill, electronic tones that he deploys in subsequent films, the telephone’s grating peal, the omnipresent clock ticking. These sounds (or at least their absurd amplification) are meant to emanate from the characters’ burning consciousnesses, giving the dull apartment, where much of the film takes place, the sense of being endlessly pregnant with psychological bear traps, a box of a physical space and a figurative one that contains all of the couple’s shared dissonances. Everything there is menacing in its blandness, moreso than the bland and vaguely menacing, clean-cut young man who happily invades their life.

There is an incessant, low-level cruelty inflicted on Meeta’s point of view when it is expressed, starting with Hari’s distress at her attempt to fire him. At this early point the film is more class-concerned. Later, in the course of an argument, Amar yells at her about creativity. Afterward her sarcastic deflections of his rage render her as paper-thin as he sees her. All of her reactions become predictable, and she is reduced. Anubhav, while meant as a female-oriented film, nonetheless makes it a point to break its heroine down to a rather simplistic complainer.

After Amar gradually discerns (unevenly, through constipated blocks and selective detection) that his wife and his new protege have a past relationship, he lashes out at them. There proceeds a Doll’s House throwdown between him and Meeta. She connects his disproportionate response to his anemic sexual politics, laudably: he is the editor, the arbiter of hegemony. However her speech gets brushed off by both Amar and Bhattacharya. Amar recounts history, stressing again a professed devotion to the traditional but it is plain to all that this is a distortion – he is living the present but disengaged with modern ways of thought. Still they must have a heart-to-heart discussion and reach a conclusion, so she has backed away from her point. Meeta is the illusion of the wily female lead. It feels as though they’re both let off the hook with no crime.

The two men are like two sides of the flat world she has come to depend on; Shashi is a striver but meant to have the air of a politicized student, and Amar is the controlling face of things that the students want to subvert. Ultimately, though, both men end up sitting in the same office, the young man taken under the older man’s wing. Meeta calculates six years having been with Shashi, six with Amar. She has the same totaling instinct as Amar – earlier in the film he measures how many years of life are wasted sleeping, waiting for the bus, taking baths. He could add being married to that list. It’s difficult to expound on the notion that it is their proprietorial outlook on those around them, and even toward one another. So reductive is their world – even their surroundings, which Bhattacharya is at pains to depict as flat and conceited, say this – that it is no wonder that their responses to intrusions such as love, anguish or memory in ways that are thoroughly stark, reactive, and in the end, misheard by those for whom they are meant.

Still from 'Aavishkar'

Aavishkar (1973)

Bhattacharya’s subsequent work Aavishkar centers on a similar couple, aged a few more years, with an infant child. Much of the film occurs in the realm of the flashback, while the present is a single night of battles and remembrance. Or perhaps the arguments are also all part of the past – it is unclear. The musical montage sequence during the opening credits takes the names of the stars, Sharmila and Rajesh, and mixes them together, the letters mingling and dancing. It feels as though the idealness of the two actors’ coupling is being played up, not even a couple in real life so ideal are they. Their relationship is a monolith meant to be looked at rather than a tapestry with bumps and dips. The film follows how one so strong and lovely deteriorates when washed over by pride and the codification of appearances. Is the opening montage a projection of memories or fantasies? Amar and Mansi are a film couple running on the beach, an illusion emanating from projected light. Bhattacharya subverts this bucolic cliché almost immediately by adding their marital discord. Amar slaps her face, setting the tone for the film. His romantic pursuit of her through the trees becomes something sinister-looking.

In an early conversation with a female coworker, Amar pictures marriage and kids as a burial of one’s personal dreams. There is a parallel conversation between Mansi and their neighbor Sunil, who initially enters the apartment through a darkened living room and marvels at its mysterious beauty, before she turns on the light and disillusions him. Meanwhile Amar is also in a dark cinema with his coworker, who is stroking the hair on the back of his hand. We hear the very spare, crisp audio of Knife in the Water making the two of them seem all the more exposed in the theatre. Amar is blowing off his wedding anniversary with Mansi (a regular occurrence, as it turns out) for something at which he may never get another chance. Meanwhile she does almost no fretting about him not being there, instead having a pleasant time with Sunil and the baby. Significantly Amar leaves the film before it finishes. As he drives home we see a distorted city, jostled by severe shadows, pulsing with loud tones, and full of lamps that provide color but no light. Looking at the sad flowers he brought her, he decides to dump them at the doorstep and then go in feigning having forgotten the date, because he could not deliver on any count that matters. Sunil scolds him before leaving, and Amar heaves himself into bed early.

What follows is a recounting of fragments of their married life, not all big events, but important moments nonetheless, which are seen out of order. They follow a certain thematic logic, but the narrative resembles a raindrop that is traversing and rolling off of a tree’s branches on its way to the ground. There are points in it that do feel like total idyll and others that are so ugly as to completely shatter that. Perhaps the blurring of dream and reality is partly the point, done so in order to look at how the way that we idealize something like a marriage to the point where it becomes like a dream, a narrative that we don’t want reality to impinge upon. The image of them lying in bed is blurred into a painting of two dedicated lovers, keeping their surface form but also gelling together.

Still from 'Aavishkar'

Aavishkar (1973)

At first it seems as though in remembering happier (or at least better) times they are both trying to stave off desolation in marriage, to find some hidden essence that has escaped them. However another way to look at these flashbacks is that they are entirely being reimagined by Mansi, in an attempt to preserve her love for Amar. She is revising things as she goes, but the bad times keep intruding, virally. A scene of them having an argument is split in two in the middle by a romantic song, running counter to the notion of a song enhancing or complimenting the story. It is disruptive but shows how an idealized conception of the self can intrude when we are trying to connect with another person, which, in a strange way, is what the argument is. We see a dreamlike, cliched beach sequence while the couple’s overlaid voices recall past arguments.

In the park they become like Bollywood caricatures of hero and love interest. They hold a cinematic pose to the point of kitsch (a concept that, it should be added, doesn’t seem to exist in India). There is a flashback to before they were married, when they talk about themselves as Salim and Anarkali, two starcrossed lovers whose plight is the main premise of the over-loved Bollywood film Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Later in marriage, when reality seems more harsh and inescapable, as though they are now weighed down by material objects and regret, they rankle at not being able to make-believe themselves away anymore. Their fantasies get downgraded from mythic film characters to simply their younger, less jaded selves as they struggle to hold onto any semblance of identity. Dearth of sexual activity leads to bickering. She finds evidence of his flirtation (greater indiscretions probably would not pass the censors) and he banally puts the focus on her lack of faith, as though their relationship were a precious belief that he has to protect from her cynicism. When she accuses him alternately of indifference and brutality he gives her a lame explanation of why he respects all women, which has little to do with gender politics and everything to do with painting over his selfishness and inadequacies.

Salim and Anarkali were willing to die for love but these two are merely willing to relinquish their personalities, which may not be all that different. What’s interesting is that their respective anxieties are coming from two different directions. Worrying about the long-term effects of matrimony, Mansi posits: “what if ‘us’ becomes ‘I’?” Meanwhile Amar has a fear of losing individual freedom (or the will to pursue things that make him happy) and so squirms. She is afraid of complimentary synthesis separating out into selfishness, the underbelly of individuality. “Things like devotion don’t exist” – at least not in the sense of Salim and Anarkali, because that devotion is altogether too powerful for real individuals to express. It’s fine enough for symbols and myths to enunciate it. For people who fret over losing hold of who they are, they have so far neglected to situate themselves in any sort of mental or emotional reality, favoring an external world of images and rootless signifiers. Seeing oneself in the external becomes like a desperate act of self-construct.

Still from 'Aavishkar'

Aavishkar (1973)

Mansi recites that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. He asks her how to get to a woman’s heart and she says he should know that. The surface behavior of courtship gives way to the sophistry of marriage, wherein the only illusion is cohesion, everything else flayed open and bare. But gradually Bhattacharya starts ease up on the two, to look at their marriage as organic, fought-for, like a more standard movie relationship. In their premarital days, her father, a stuffy businessman, tries to come between them, forbidding her to commit to Amar. But the two stauchly stick together, and remain together for years as though solely to drive their point home.

The couple in this film, as well as the one in Anubhav, are defined by ritual, appearances, and overdetermined dialogue. It is only when they begin to feel dissatisfaction with these things that their equilibrium is shaken. More specifically Amar and Mansi’s relationship is defined by imitation, role-playing, trying to place themselves in the external. Children are more a concept of an extension of roles or preexisting personae. It should be noted, however, that the characters here also feel a good deal more real than the two in Anubhav because they seem to come from a defined cultural space. They don’t find their genesis as caricatures of the affluent or the apathetic, their shallowness being a tangible facet in itself, along with the masks they wear in various instances of conflict and ecstasy. Hindi films have a strong tendency toward being explicitly self-referential, partly because of their location in a teeming continuum of collective memory but mostly simply by virtue of being so integral to contemporary culture. Aavishkar focuses on people who are steeped in Bollywood references, which bloom on them spontaneously like forest mushrooms. They sing film songs to one another to dispel tension or when they don’t know what else to do, or even to provide a substitute for individual thoughts and dreams when they’ve lost the imagination to extempore. Even the song sequences in which they engage seem a metaphysical articulation of the role that songs play. In light of all this, not one aspect of the film can avoid the centrifugal pull of self-examination, which tenaciously draws every look and gesture away from the potentially artistic or nonreferential. There is at times a barely-audible, submerged soundtrack of popular songs, while lights breathe on and off (a motif that takes on a cloying importance in the later Griha Pravesh),  a dream-conception of a cinema idyll.

Their various arguments and shifting notions of self are constructed largely on the lake-surface of things, lacking without the analytical nuts and bolts to make them whole. Cinema follows like a pursuing, translucent shadow. Bhattacharya achieves an almost pointillist collaging of manhandled mainstream references. Characters are spun into a maudlin, whirling frame and then pause ponderously. Their world is built on urbane styling, boxy and severely-lit interiors, blank walls, phosphorescent colors. Early in their marriage, when they are still going on outings, they take a cab ride around the city for fun. The cabbie says that he no longer watches films because he has the cab. Mansi and Amar laugh at the nonverbal relationship the man has with his veiled wife. This is rather ironic because for all their expansive posturing they communicate even less with one another. Part of their failure to connect is that they don’t see any of themselves in one another – disembodied as in astral projection, they see only the married couple, unified and unbroken. Sunil compliments Mansi on her singing although “it’s a male song.” The gender trespassing of her song choice shows a kind of bodily transference, an escape route through which she can transcend stasis at home with her child, be as free to run and make mistakes as her fallible husband.

Still from 'Griha Pravesh'

Griha Pravesh (1979)

Aavishkar is the most psychologically complex of these three marital films. It is the most concerned with memory of any of them, as well as how the past, being a construct with real denotations, is informed by our views in the present. Bhattacharya plays with time in ways that transcend and transform the low budget and shallow production design of the film. He doubles back from seemingly conciliatory moments to jarring fights. Confusion between memory and fantasy make time both more disjointedly nonlinear and also more cyclical; in flashbacks they seem almost to be looking back at the present; meanwhile in the present they find exasperating time capsules of their former life together.

Since Bhattacharya’s death his wife Rinki, Bimal Roy’s daughter, has published a memoir in which she makes public the years of physical abuse she received from her husband, and reveals him as having been a neglectful father as well. This came as a shock to mainstream critics who considered him a relatively feminist filmmaker. And while it is easy and tempting to look for evidence of this aspect of his personality manifested in the movies he wrote and directed, it really is not useful simply to pinpoint elements of violence in a work. More significant than simply identifying it is to take a root approach, looking at how it originates, its background, causes and implications. For that one must look at the films themselves, and how they are consciously and unconsciously related to the wider world.

Done in the intervening years following Aavishkar, a more commercial venture entitled Tumhara Kalloo (1978) works with lighter themes, not about regret-filled older people but rather, a lovelorn young man. While the film mostly masquerades as a village comedy, there is unmistakable violence in the protagonist’s frustration at not being able to learn how to read, while being somewhat cheekily named after Kalidasa, a legendary creator of poetry. The sort of unsettled energy found in its dark undertones are similar to those of Bhattacharya’s marriage trilogy, wherein it is trapped by stultifying domestic life. The aggression of Tumhara Kalloo (ultimately class-based) is perpetually slippery, displaced, while in the three films being examined here, the parallel antipathy is nearly always directed toward the wife, mainly holding her responsible for the creation of such intractable situations. In the films men commit transgressions but they are never crimes that are beyond forgiveness. The woman’s crime is a more fundamental, more encompassing culpability for their unhappiness. And even when things are shown from the wife’s perspective they ultimately appear faulty and dangerously distorted versions of reality.

Still from 'Griha Pravesh'

Griha Pravesh (1979)

In 1979’s Griha Pravesh we return to this distracted couple once more, again slightly different people but with many similarities. Throughout the three films Bhattacharya has been examining different elements of marriage slowly, like turning a rock over in the hand to look at its speckle formations and lustre. This time he brings in Sharmila Tagore (she was Mansi in Aavishkar) and Sanjeev Kumar (he was Amar in Anubhav), two of his stock players. The film is, in some ways, even more fixated on looking and how it translates into a separate world of pure appearance, than even Aavishkar. What sets it apart is that it is concerned more with someone building a surrogate appearance of the self to act as a buffer between them and the judgment of the world. Once again marital infidelity is an important part of the narrative, but here it is kept in focus for long enough to start to feel the effects it can have, both before it is admitted and after.

At this point in their lives Amar and Mansi have a son who is in second grade. They live in a normal, faded, middle class home (the most humble of any of the three films) and are painstakingly budgeting themselves to save up for that nice house outside the city. Although they are meant to be different characters, they reflect the eight years’ gap since Anubhav, wearier and more middle aged than ever. For them, the daily ritual of each brewing a cup of Nescafe is their one luxury. Sanjeev reprises the role of vacant workaholic, for whom work is an act of self-absorbtion, not dutiful immersion.

At the beginning Bhattacharya cuts between them exchanging physical intimacies and, for contrast, a happier couple together (two friends of theirs) singing to one another. Bhattacharya films Mansi and Amar through the mosquito net, a dusting of lamp-blur, alternatingly through screens and through plain air as they make graceless skin contact, trade moisture. Besides the coffee and a volatile, possibly bullying, young son, they also have each other’s bodies. They make attempts at romantic platitudes. The films show this cinematic romantic chatter as fake the whole way through, but at the same time very seriously considering the function that it has in various aspects of life, both real and projected.

Amar is a petty accountant, but a senior one, and thus has his own office. A young woman named Sapna, newly arrived at the typing pool, has proved a distraction to her male coworkers because she is attractive, fair-skinned, and wears too-revealing Western clothing. So the boss decides to place her away from everyone else and has her share an office with Amar, who is the only one there who seems to have never noticed her. To say that he balks at the proposition is an understatement; he acts as if they’ve just told him they’re planning to remove the floor from under his desk. Sapna begins almost immediately to ply Amar with obnoxious come-ons and attempts to get his attention, all of which he tries hard to ignore. She is attracted by his disinterest, which she reads as genuineness, something she has not experienced form slobbering male coworkers and the politically correct higher-ups who would rather move her out of sight than institute a dress code. At the office she is treated like a pariah, but the film lacks both the whimsy to consider this ridiculous and the gravity to consider it horrible.

Still from 'Griha Pravesh'

Griha Pravesh (1979)

At home Mansi is hot on the trail of their dream house, trying to actualize it while Amar holds up the financial end of things. But she continually has to step over obstacles like idiotic contractors, ruthless salesmen, and a pious uncle figure who thinks that praying is the easy solution to her quest. An angry parent of a boy with whom their son fought chides Mansi for not disciplining him enough, but at home the boy obeys his parents quite carefully, barely acknowledging that their thriftiness has led them all to a rather bleak and monotonous home life. With things like that at the house, Amar starts to see the appeal of the outgoing young woman with whom he spends much of his day secluded. He even warms up to the tea that she orders for him in place of his usual coffee. Sapna dresses upwards to a traditional sari. In her we see the desire to see a reflection of yourself, identification, in the object of love. Half the film later they are meeting clandestinely for dates. She wants to talk about Mrinal Sen films but he likes neither the unreality of cinema nor the reality of it. The realism is bothersome, the fakeness too plainly close to how he envisioned life.

Amar feels guilty for his carrying on but meanwhile starts to neglect his family even more. He stammers when Mansi sees him drink tea as if it were a dead-giveaway of infidelity. He sees no such fumbles in her behavior, and assumes therefore she must be true. Oblivious, Mansi diligently looks for a house but only gets half-finished traps. She is the determined one, he seems melted and tired out from nervous collar-loosening. While she is also going through the torture of scrimping, his torture is twofold; he goes through life without joy (for the sake of a family he doesn’t love) and at the same time has to be a nervous wreck when he’s around his wife. Still the moments shared between the two of them remain so drearily tender, and more languid than the exaggeratedly mismatched scenes in which he meets up with Sapna.

Griha Pravesh has an undeniably male-oriented outlook, in relation to Anubhav and Aavishkar, which are more female fantasies. In the first film the wife initiates the activity of the film and it proceeds to revolve around her; in the second the film’s gaze is more or less based from her position, even when we are looking out at her. Amar, in Aavishkar is a participant but his viewpoint runs counter to her personal expression. The imbalance, the misogyny of it, is unfortunate, because it’s the most real, lived-in, interestingly craggy of the three. It serves as the best encapsulation of the middle-class during Indira Ghandi’s era and the pains of self-sufficiency when the country was arguably at its furthest from economic liberalization since colonial times. There is the constant suggestion of a threeway relationship that none of the characters can quite formulate, and that Anubhav seems to either have not imagined or had cut from its final permutation.

Sapna uses tea as a clouded metaphor: “don’t let the tea get cold” – it becomes the drink she and Amar share, as she forcibly distracts him from what he drinks with Mansi. Sapna is equating a tiny, bourgeois material choice with the choice between two women. What’s interesting is that the coffee is imported Europeanism, commercialism, and tea innate (but also imported, long ago) Indianness. Eventually, making coffee at home becomes like a death sentence for him, drudgery. Echoing Aavishkar they take a tonga ride around the city (a taxi would be too expensive), emerging from the shelter of parenthood and home. But whereas before he and his wife were equal partners in a dull lifestyle, he has now fallen behind her, unable to open up or communicate, his gears encrusted with reminders of the exciting, new experiences he is having without her.

Still from 'Griha Pravesh'

Griha Pravesh (1979)

Songs and commercials effect characters, and seem forever a part of the diegesis. These films are interesting because they show these things burrowing into the conciousnesses of unremarkable people, not just through the self-reference of cinematic fantasies. The songs and commercials suggestively relate to their lives, but vaguely. We are meant to pause over the lyrics and let them lead us to unspoken conclusions. It’s an unadventurous, vanilla way of expressing the subconscious, but perhaps unintentionally says loads about the non-conversing instinct of banality, as well as the shreds of comic strips and billboards that form the characters’ dreams.

As the couple ages throughout the three films they go down economically (newspaper editor to film editor to accountant) til they are a very midrange accretion of all three, accompanied by the strange, cinematic residue of depression and the defilement of having had and lost. Amar goes in the first film from oblivious (not the dissatisfied one), to equally dissatisfied as his wife is (but shown in a different way), to the prisoner trying to get out (turns out he and Mansi are equally imprisoned, both self-perpetuating). When finally he confesses to Mansi there is the distinct justification of philandering (the wife for domestic stuff, a girlfriend for excitement) that Aavishkar (where the affair is not the focus) avoids.

Mansi hits a sort of superficial overdrive when Sapna is due to come over; she treats herself to a makeover (which she probably would not have done under normal circumstances), repaints the walls, and cleans up the house to the point where Amar would no longer recognize it. And then when her husband comes home with the young lady for afternoon tea, Mansi is predictably catty toward her. This is in keeping with Mansi’s singleminded approach to everything. Throughout the film we see nothing of what she is like in ordinary, daily activities, free from her husband. Amar asks Sapna to sit alone like she’s at the movies. She gets up to go, the tea has gone cold. Seeing that his marriage has officially fallen apart, Amar decides to run outside after her. A wedding band marches through the road, between Amar and Sapna, positioning them on opposite sides of a marital divide.

Bhattacharya lingers on breeze-rippled curtains, swimming wall patterns, a tiny insect landing on Mansi’s nape while she sleeps. His dwelling on fleeting impressions manages to create a sense of both finely-ground sensitivity and an impressionistic tapestry of domestic life. As in the other two films, he overlays shrill electronic tones, syrupy picture distortion (lava lamp imagery superimposed) and other blocking, desultory audiovisual devices in moments of acute mental awareness or honest openness, where clarity would be the normal way to go about things.

That Bhattacharya can dwell, for so long, on the minutia of what is really one continually-revisited relationship without the ideas growing tepid shows at least the intensity, if not originality, of thought involved. He visualizes subjectivity itself in depicting the most difficult trappings of interpersonal baggage – both infatuation and rancor, fragile optimism and mutual foundering. Aavishkar demonstrates the most coherent manifestation of this strategy; the characters in it are only interesting because of their florid inner lives and the way that they sculpt past events in their minds in order to divine some understanding from them. In that film, a dissociative balancing act that treads both dream territory and popular culture with equal overexposure, there is no line drawn between visual fantasy and a constructed notion of the self. Its preoccupation with the senses and their derangement makes it about significantly more than marital discord, and lifts it up out of the bedroom and into the world of human connection, a denuded battlefield for intense desires.

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2 Responses to ““The Vermilion Smear’d””

  1. Medha said

    The visual and the nuances of the phrase “vermilion smear’d” do justice to my set of paintings that I had titled “Our Life/Our Story” and which just sold last week. It is amazing how I used that very vermilion on a pair of masks in six paintings to depict the woman in a man-woman relationship. Very well-written article.

  2. Anwesha Arya PhD SOAS, said

    Very finely crafted article on my father Basu Bhattacharya’s work. I truly appreciate the depth of analysis.

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