I posted the following on a social networking site but it seems worthwhile to post it here as well. I now regret not carrying a notebook to the screening but these are things I remembered – with all attendant misrepresentations and inaccuracies – that I jotted down as soon as I got back:
“Hi all, I’m a professor of Bollywood. I’ve written and published a lot of pieces on Bollywood. Some of you may know that Bollywood is now 100 years old. Woo hoo! Bollywood is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood. This movie has great historical value. It shows that Bollywood singing and dancing goes a long way back. Enjoy the movie.”
Those, in effect, were all the points made today, in a brief introduction by someone – not me! – introducing Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), at SIFF: an absolutely phenomenal, enchanting 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a frame narrative of a guy pitching the main story to a film producer, about an artist struggling to create an art school (the story is rejected by the producer and the movie ends on a note of despair). The movie was surprising for a variety of reasons. I didn’t know it was multilingual- Bengali and Malayalam were among the first languages for the spoken dialogue in the movie. I wasn’t prepared for the movie’s Kismet (1943) style engagement with nationalism, albeit much more sustained than Kismet and much more critical (incorporating Gandhi and Nehru at one point as empty words by sloganeering-politicians). Nor for its extended sequence of the deadening effects of factory labor reminiscent of Metropolis. Or its light and lively satire. In one scene, a group of Maharajas watch Uday Shankar’s extended ballet while a member of the theater monitors a tall barometer that measures their responses: enchanting, sex appeal, boring, so-so. In another, a character explains that the reason a dance troupe is mistaken by a character as African (in fact it’s a Naga dance) is because of Hollywood’s pernicious construction of the non-West. Then there’s its economy of expression – one of the last shots of the film, when we return to the frame narrative, is an overhead static shot of a street that indicates just enough of urban life with the movement on the edges of the frame of people, bicycles, a black car, and a street seller of food on a cart. There’s the rhythm of dance and editing that followed the movie’s themes: split-screens, dissolves, super-impositions for the dream and fantasy sequences, breathless montage for many of the movie’s most powerful critiques of modernity, and a combination of long shots, overhead shots and close-ups for the more obviously diegetic performances of the dance sequences (including a drum scene that anticipates Chandralekha). The last hour or so of the movie was a sequence of dances – Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Naga, Bhangra, and you can also see traces and/or variations of the cultural politics of post-independence India as the movie tries to craft an understanding of the popular that excludes itself. Perhaps most thrilling was the movie’s ability to completely blur the backstage drama into the dance performances till the events of the plot and the dances performed in that world, continue each other’s functions, till we can’t tell if an interaction is happening on stage or off-stage.