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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Screening of Satyajit Ray's Devi, Sharmila Tagore, and Literature Panel: 'Celluloid Lives' at the Kennedy Center

My friend and I arrived at the Kennedy Center just as the title sequence began for Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Devi. I was completely mesmerized by the first few scenes of this timeless classic of Bengali Cinema, and I totally forgot that minutes prior, we had been in busy traffic on the beltway. An excellent summary and review of this film is available on the Distant Voices blog. This was my introduction to Sharmila Tagore's early career, as well as to director Satyajit Ray, and I was incredibly inspired by this film. Ray made such masterful use of lighting throughout the film. The subtle dialogue was broken up by poetic silence while the actors' expressions spoke volumes, and all of this was blended together by a magnificent Soundtrack by Ali Akbar Khan. The film, as i mentioned in my previous blog, caused quite a stir in India due to it's religious themes. I learned during the Q & A following the screening ( Sharmila Tagore and Satyajit Ray scholar Dilip Basu spoke afterwards) that the story takes place in 1860s rural Bengal during a pivotal time period known as the Indian Rennaisance. Various characters have deeper symbolic roles that show the different views that existed at that time.. some deeply entrenched in religious rites and beliefs, others becoming more "progressive", westernized (the British influence), and some even converting to Christianity. The tension between these belief systems is felt throughout this magnificent film. This is by no means a strictly intellectual drama -- these themes are submerged deep within the characters themselves. The beautiful haunting, dreamlike images of this movie lingered in my mind long after the film was over - particularly, Doyamoyee's facial expressions (Shamila Tagore).

Due to conflicts over distribution rights and... unbelievably, a "lack of public interest", according to Dilip Basu, to fund the pricey licensing demands of the owners of films like Satyajit Ray's Devi ( the Apu Trilogy is also currently out of print), these films are tragically unavailable to most of the world (except for badly printed bootlegs). That's why it was so incredible to see Devi played from the original film reel on a big screen.

Later in the day, I also attended a literature panel discussion called Celluloid Lives. The discussion, "moderated by Lalitha Gopalan, explores film biography and autobiography as a personalized account of the evolution of film in India with panelists Girish Karnad, Sharmila Tagore, and Sadanand Menon" (from the Kennedy Center schedule notes).

Mr Menon's description of the fans in Tamil Nadu and the incredible lengths they will go to establish real-life bonds with their actor/idols was fascinating. He spoke of people tatooing heroes faces on their arms, giving blood to afford the entry to the latest film, and setting up roadside shrines in their honor... all of these anecdotes seem ridiculous unless you understand how importantly symbolic these films have historically been to the people of South India. Menon stated that in Hollywood, people "collect things that the actors have signed, and touched".. whereas in South India they seek much deeper, more personal bonds with their heroes and heroines.

It was also wonderful to hear a description of Utsav (and the early Indian plays that it was based on) as told by the director himself, Girash Karnad. Utsav (featuring Rekha, as a seductive courtesan, and originally, Amitabh Bachchan in a starring role, though later replaced by Shashi Kapoor) was one of the excellent Bollywood (aka popular) films of the early 80s that brushed right up to the edge of the "parallel cinema" genre while still having a popular appeal (in this case, "popular" mostly because of the well known actors, though the film itself had a very unusual artistic style for the 80s and was daringly sensual for a "Bollywood" film). There's a nice overview of the film, as well as some great sceen caps at
Beth Loves Bollywood.

(above: Utsav title image - borrowed from B.L.B.)

Another highlight of this panel was hearing Sharmila-ji read, according to her, her first attempt at an autobiography of her acting career (which was encouraged by a friend she mentioned was in the audience). I wish this panel had gone longer, but the tight schedule of the Kennedy Center's events last weekend would not allow it. It surely would have turned into heated debate judging from Miss Tagores expressions. Stage workers ' union regulations had cut discussion short, so afterwards, Sharmila Tagore came out to meet her fans and continue the discussion about the identity of women in Indian cinema that had started during the panel (partly due to Mr Karnad's comments). It was pretty gracious that she decided to come out and meet the mob of people waiting for her (including me) to give audience members some more of her perspective.

Some of Karnad's comments were not taken well by Miss Sharmila Tagore, and she showed it in her face on stage when he spoke. His candid description of various celebrity scandals in some ways reinforced a stereotype that women "have no choice" - and that's "not true" according to Miss Tagore. She went on to say that she was tired of women being portrayed as "victims" over and over again. Mr Karnad had described Rekha's dilemma after she was forbidden to meet Amitabh anymore after his accident during the filming of Coolie - and he said that she must have been "devastated" and "totally alone" - painting her as helpless at the end of a love affair.
"They look at women and want to see the presence of the patriarchal system, but that's not always true. We all have options.. I mean, Isadora Duncan is a fallen woman or what? Isadora Duncan is not an acheiver?" she said sarcastically to the crowd of women gathered around her. I think what she meant was that Indian actresses shouldn't always be painted as victims of their personal lives when they are just living as they choose. They might make mistakes (just as the european actresses do) but they make choices on their own and it shouldn't have anything to do with how they are seen as actresses.

During all this discussion, many people edged close to her to have their picture with Sharmila snapped by a friend. It was quite a sight to see - part flash mob, part philosophical debate. Here is FLICKR PHOTO SET from that afternoon.

(The events and film screenings mentioned here were part of the Kennedy Center's excellent "Maximum India" Series which took place throughout the first half of March 2011. )


At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Reehan Miah said...

Thank you, Carlito, for your incredibly kind words about my "Devi" review (your link showed up on my site stats... which I still check on occasion, despite the retirement!). It's great to read your palpable enthusiasm for the film, and I'm incredibly envious of your day at the Kennedy Center. Sharmila Tagore sounds like a fascinating (and highly opinionated) woman. How fortunate you were to meet her in the flesh!

It's a shame to read about the poor availability of Satyajit Ray's films where you are. An incredibly wide selection of his titles are out on DVD in the UK, if you happen to have a multi-region player (and the requisite cash to import them)! I'd recommend keeping an eye out for "Pather Panchali", "Aparajito", "Jalsaghar" and "Charulata" if you haven't seen them already.

All the best,


At 11:32 AM, Blogger DJ Carl Hamm said...

Thanks so much Reehan, I'm really enjoying your blog!

I found a set of the Apu Trilogy on ebay -- im anxious to see what sort of quality I end up with. I also found a copy of Devi there.

It is unfortunate that these films (and many others) arent available legitimately here in the US. I guess distributors are sticking more with the SRK, Akshay Kumar stuff here .

I'm not saying that those films aren't fun, but it would be nice if we also had access to these classics too. Maybe I would have better luck finding them if I make a trip to New York / Jackson Heights. (I'm in VA - so we dont have the huge DVD stores that they have up there)

But from what I heard at this discussion after the film screening of Devi, there are NO proper prints of this film on the market -- they are all "inferior" in some way - according to the scholar who spoke on this alongside Sharmila-ji.

I was amazed at the quality of the film shown that day - it was played from original film reel.

Anyway, thanks for your wonderful insight! I will definitely check out your recommendations!



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