The Whole Sky

04/14/2014

India / 1969 / Hindi

Directed by Basu Chatterjee

With Rakesh Pandey, Madhu Chakravarty, Nandita Thakur

Still from 'The Whole Sky'The camera tracks quickly through the roads and galis of an old city, as brick and lettering, bulls and bicycles stream rapidly by. Things are compressed, almost to abstraction, in a long lens that seems about to abruptly halt and pull focus on one of the many lives contained in the narrow doorways. Intercut is a picture of the Taj Mahal, an ironic rectangle of tranquility that must be on another planet entirely. Once this bracing experience has subsided, we are at once flung violently into the harassed mind of Samar, a young college student who is entering into an arranged marriage. It is possibly the last thing on Earth that he would have chosen for himself.

His head is dense with family pressures. “Get me a daughter in law so that I could be freed,” his mother insists. Father plays the financial side, and Samar’s sister, Munni, extolls the virtues of his young bride, a woman with a high school education (an over-qualification, by most families’ standards) named Prabha. Any positive encouragement from the sister seems colored by the fact that she ran away from her marriage to an absent merchant. Without even an image of a happy marriage in sight, things look bleak. During the ceremony, flower petals falling about the young couple with pandits chanting at them, Samar looks less like a man sentenced to life than one plagued by a persistent doubt. Gradually things seep in; in his nightmares, he and his new wife appear in a lecture hall wearing their traditional wedding attire, and get mocked by his friends. All this terror is an underestimation of what will come.

A common, almost essential set-up – which could have been achieved in a dialogue-heavy scene or two – happens instead in a raucous ten minutes, with a zillion cuts, camera movements, interlacing voice-overs, and myriad trick camera methods. The protagonist’s trepidation, his family’s harshness, and so much evidence of the social structure to which they are tied, is conducted visually, or with sounds working parallel to (but not expressly within) the diegesis. This sense of linearity without alignment, of the externally detached snaking toward a contemplative specificity, mark the early scenes of the film, which are more fragments than neat chapters. Tension punctures rather than builds, and internal torment often finds a form in the visual flourishes of the camera and the expressive score by Salil Chowdhry.

The wedding party is maudlin, buoyant, as the women see them off to their new room, but this gives way to silence. On their first night together, he enters the room only to find Prabha standing near the window, unresponsive to him. The critical light that Samar casts on her swings back in his face, heating it to a white blot once again. Without saying a word, she causes him to run from the room fired with panic. “Once marriage has begun, one can’t study,” he worries out loud. His parents, sister, and sister-in-law don’t see what the big deal is, why he’s acting as though his life has ended. They’ve all been through marriage, as it’s a fact of life.

Still from 'The Whole Sky'Among his fellow students Samar is a fiery, wiry sort, standing up and exhorting them to be like Netaji. But on the home-front he marches in step as tradition dictates, unable to successfully unmoor himself from family and society enough to continue as an individual. So he’s out of the running; his runaway days of idealism furl back up with a few stubborn words from his father. Samar stands in the corner of the room, trying to put up an argument, but looks only sheepish, his worried face much too large for his starched and timid body. As the days (or is it weeks or months?) pass, his hesitance becomes misdirected certitude, and his revolt calcifies into hatred for Prabha.

Samar being still unable to make any sort of connection with his new wife, or even talk to her, Munni tries to awkwardly set the two of them up, like with a blind date. When the family poses for a photograph, the bride and groom sit angled away from one another, intently askance, pushed apart by opposing magnetism. Later, the women of the family watch, riveted, while Prabha serves Samar food, as though a sudden attraction between them will visibly take hold. One is reminded of disinterested pandas put in the same pen in order to mate, the whole world waiting for something to happen that is ultimately not that spectacular. He ruins the momentum by spitting out the daal and storming away.

Upon returning from a trip to her natal home, Prabha reveals to Samar’s bhabhi that it is the combined effect of his emotional insults and her not wanting to get in the way of his studies that is keeping her reticent. Samar overhears this, and it somehow makes him angrier. Even after having warmed up, to varying degrees, to the rest of the family, Prabha remains distant from her husband. Now he is the stubborn one, and appears to be running furiously in place in order to accomplish nothing.

Members of the family who trumpeted Prabha’s education and refinement before the wedding now look down on her for not knowing how to do her proper, wifely duties. She commits numerous faux pas (letting the milk boil over, accidentally using a sand-based Ganesh to wash dishes) as her mother-in-law chips away at her with criticism. Either to prove that he knows how to be a husband, or because he can’t stand his family members reproaching Prabha, Samar steps in and violently reacts to her. This goes horribly, and the image of her cowering haunts him, a once-gentle leftist boy. Disgust with his own behavior only heightens his reticence, and he drifts further from communication. High-minded youth has come up not against hardened tradition directly, but with its visage as manifested in middle-class provincialism. Meanwhile we never hear Prabha’s interpretation of things, just see her blank, defeated stare and awkward attempts to do right by the family.

Still from 'The Whole Sky'Samar remembers a romantic song-sequence from a film he has watched, wherein a couple is sitting on the perennial row-boat in the middle of an idyllic lake. If it were real people, they would be out in the beautiful scenery to escape the real pressures that face them. Watching the movie characters’ single-minded piety towards one another, he glances over and sees the outwardly happy couple sitting next to him (a friend and his wife), probably wondering why marriage isn’t a relief from the problems that gnaw at him. Quite the opposite, it acts as a reinforcement of those problems, as four walls beyond the four walls that confine him. He returns home and doesn’t seem to notice that his wife has tidied up his room.

The film’s most affecting, blink-and-miss-it scene is of an abstract cross-hatch of lines that turns out to be the shell of a burning house. A new bride has self-immolated, and neighbors rush to put out the conflagration. The sound of someone yelling in panic gets played back over and over as the camera turns to a far window across the street, where Prabha (just married herself) is watching from above. Is this a memory scar from long ago, played back to her, or a horrible coincidence that it’s happening on her wedding night? It doesn’t matter; time is being abbreviated. And the time that she spends as a new member of the Thakur family is an absolute wash.

Many of the film’s more inspired scenes pass by with muddled effect, like when Samar’s internal monologue drowns out his friend’s immature soccer antics, or when the sound of a squawking bird replaces the voice of his professor. And to be sure, there are missed opportunities; Mani Kaul emits a brainy intensity a step beyond that of the effete Pandey, but in the role of Samar’s older brother, only issues a few tepid lines here and there. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) the film’s unevenness, its gradients and textures hit their mark, exemplifying a lost era of sequestered domesticity in a far more enduring way than James Ivory’s The Householder (1963), and its haphazardly accreted approach reflects the patchwork bricks of the layered house itself.

Still from 'The Whole Sky'The visual theme of floating, or propulsion as a substitute for deliberation, comes up repeatedly, but is often detached from the narrative. Thus it bleeds into the picture from beneath, or settles on the surface before we can make order of it. Samar glides on his bicycle, two lines of trees drift by above, like petals in a stream. The young man’s immature struggling and his revulsion at shaadi-waadi (“marriage-schmarriage”) are, together, inexplicably poignant. The melancholy whistle of a train, the idiosyncratic cry of a door-to-door salesman, are lovingly incorporated, as are the murky light on an Agra maidan (public park), the undulations of curtains, and the dusty crackle of kitchen ashes.

One is unavoidably reminded of the wonky, cobbled-together invention of Mrinal Sen’s Mr. Shome and even the formal reconstruction of Kaul’s Uski Roti, both released in the same year as Chatterjee’s film (and, put together, represented a triple-pronged ambush on the mainstream). Unlike in the other two films, the narrative is conventional, albeit regularly sidelined and disrupted by cut-aways treated as memory, and the recurrence of unhinged visual tangents. In fact, more so than in the work of avowed avant gard-ists of the time, The Whole Sky resembles an uncommonly internal slice of ‘middle cinema’ (a la Dev Anand or Hrishikesh Mukherjee), an anomaly on par with Sunil Dutt’s film Memories (1964). The blatant experimentation on the surface comes off as preset juvenilia, and takes a back-seat to the (admittedly muted) social satire.

More profound, extensively-used, and effective, is the re-ordering of the composition to reflect an exploratory reading of urban life. The film’s ability to convolve the hum-drum, to utilize the jungle gym of the North Indian family citadel as endless grounds for invention, is one of its more remarkable facets. Even things that are steadily decentering (whip pans in place of reverse-shot stacking) get abruptly re-centered beyond conventional order, like when the camera moves in front of A.K. Hangal (as Samar’s father), delivering a harangue to his son that becomes, midway through, a direct address to the audience.

Things take an abrupt turn in the film’s final third, when Munni’s estranged husband returns and she is sent away to live with him. Samar looks decimated as he leads her from the confines of the house, and steps into a tonga with her, possibly for the last time. The young woman who had seemed so care-free is now weeping uncontrollably, and with her last moments of independence, tells him to not be so hard on Prabha. He seems to take this to heart, his conflicts seeming petty in comparison to his sister’s abrupt plunge into lifelong unhappiness. With things contextualized, he seems resolved to look at his wife as an individual and not just a burden, an object that can only exist in relation to his own mindset.

Still from 'The Whole Sky'He weakly asks her if she’s all right, as though he hadn’t watched and participated in her suffering over the previous six months. This moment is subtly repeated once, as the camera zooms in for her mute response, which chastens him. Throughout The Whole Sky, such highly expressive interactions happen without, or at least in spite of, the simplifying dialogue. They occur in voice-overs or collaged sound-fragments, or in the silence between characters. The film leaves us, not with a happy ending, or even the beginnings of one. But when the couple’s eyes meet, and really meet for the first time, we see the glimmer of a rapport there. These are not two people who will, together, transcend the stultifying weight of society. But we sense that they will grow to act as supports for one another against it.

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