My feeling that a poet, who called cinema a sycophant of literature would have approved Aravindan, a director who explored the medium’s possibilities, lends courage to me. This is uncannily similar to the feeling that Tagore, for a moment was stunned by what Wilfred Owen’s mother had revealed to him. I’m sure Tagore would have dumped the NBT calendar. It had only films which became films by brown nosing literature.
Two years before the Second World War, on a Christmas day in 1937, Tagore wrote another poem. It too was a parting words poem similar to the one copied into the final journal note by Wilfred Owen. Tagore wrote: ‘Danober sathe jara swagramer, tware prosthuth hotechi khore khore’ (I can only call on those who are preparing themselves in their homes for battle with the demon). The Tagore of 1937 was different from the Tagore of 1912. The weight of the Nobel Prize seems to have snared him to the 1912-self and obscured his later transformations. This becomes all the more evident when considering the fact that his output as a visual artist reached its peak in 1937.
Tagore writes: ‘Rise poet from the seat you have had for long in the courtyard of fame with its incessant buzz, bring to a close your adoration of the goddess, the public craving for flattery with your offerings of words.’ The poem ends with the words ‘sun of images’, dropping enough hints about his solstice as an artist. For Tagore, the words have been hollowed out because of commerce and flattery, and this leads him to an abstract and untitled freedom – one of visuals. In the last decade, 2065 art works by Tagore made its way out of the dim-lit archives of Viswabharati. Prior to that the world was privy only to 200 odd art works by Tagore. The only explorations made into them were about the real life likeness of solitary women in his figurative works or a search illustrations that would suit the body of poems and songs created by him.
But the writer-wanderer who strode through continents of words kept his works of art untitled. Tagore always sought an abstraction beyond words and was unwilling to re-enter the concreteness of the world of words by naming his paintings. That none of his collected works have been named by curators, even for the purpose of cataloguing, reflects a Tagorian propriety. A collection of around 2500 untitled paintings – just imagine his storehouse of energy. One should remember that this large body of work created by someone who started to paint only at the age of 67. The poet, in his own words, was trying to rise up from the seat he had in the courtyard of fame. In this new found love the ‘sun of images’ rose at the horizon. Conjuring up a cosmic transit from ‘sun of images’ to ‘sun of moving images’ looks immensely plausible.
In 1929 Tagore wrote to Murari Bhadhuri: ‘Cinema has not been liberated from the slavery of literature which, though, is a difficult proposition as unlike literature, poetry, songs and painting, the ingredients of cinema come with a high monetary cost. But the main ingredient of cinema is pace and flow of images, the beauty of which should be manufactured such that it needs no words to express its idiom. It should have an independent language of its own, just like music which can enchant in its own idiom without the support of any other language of words and sentences. Cinema doesn’t achieve that because it does not have a suitable creator’.
Let me return to the film ‘Thampu’ — the arrack shop scene with the circus muscle man, dwarf, country liquor and plethora of rustic characters. The truck driver, a local, poses questions in a state of drunken stupor: ‘Circuswalah?’ No answer. ‘Kuch help?’ No answer. ‘Mein Shekhar. Ex-service. Driver.’ A gesture and sound follow that one-sided formal response. Another round of arrack is served, gratis by Shekhar. Before every one gulps down their drinks the circuswalah opens his mouth for a toast. He had not offered a toast before while drinking with his sidekick, the dwarf. The key of that scene lies in unravelling of the ex-serviceman identity which doubles up as a signal. Their acquaintance is made in Hindi. The circuswalah who had done with his daily quota toasts Shekhar with the cry ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. It is something that an ex-serviceman can identify with. The scene has that ‘whatever’ which delineates poetry from other things and an art-experience that transmogrifies the familiar to the unfamiliar. Why show a moving train when you can do with a whistle. Why go for a lording writer’s mountainous script, if you can have that taut little toast ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. Aravindan’s ‘Thampu’ is full of such frothing images and their mirror reflections.
The organic rhythm of images spreads through our veins like music. This is the idiom of cinema or its language – an art of time ticking with meaning and experience. It’s a space where words are superfluous. The Tagore of 1920 and 1937, I am confident, would have understood that ‘Thampu’ is not another art-farty movie in Malayalam and that it abounds in gestating silences. He would also have identified and approved ‘Thampu’ as a metaphor of culture, time and life, a tent that gets pitched and ‘unpitched’ in a loop. Tagore who stood silent before Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, would have communicated to Aravindan in that very language — silence. When the church bells toll, a little history would come handy, to understand whether what is being sounded is a message of peace or death. Single, double or multiple, one needs to tune their ears to the music of bell-ringing, to peel the nuances that are hidden.
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer