New York Indian Film Festival 2012

May 5 - 10, 2014

Kamal Swaroop’s “Rangbhoomi”: a pilgrimage with unlimited rewards
May 17, 2014
Shekhar Deshpande
In the precious biographical details of Dadasaheb Phalke’s life that we know, he gave up on cinema after making some 95 films and scores of shorts and went to Banaras. He wrote a play called Rangbhoomi, with a strong autobiographical slant. Kamal Swaroop’s documentary on this phase of Phalke’s life, he says, is an “invocation of that text.” It comes as a puzzle, an intriguing and challenging ontological rebus of various phases of cinema and of representation.

It is a multilayered palimpsest of what cinema was and has become, with none- too-resolute conclusions. It is an exercise in artistic humility as it is a profile of a pupil who takes the threads of his teacher to move the discourse forward. If you are a filmmaker, this is a must-see. If you are a film student, it is an essential learning phase before you move on. If you are a cinephile, think of this as a pilgrimage with unlimited rewards.

Produced by Films Division, the film begins quite ordinarily. The subject of the documentary is only a memory, having left a treasure-house of provocations and artistic ruminations to ponder over. Swaroop quickly poses the first proposition of the film. Film is indexical, while theater works in figurative language. If Phalke left the former behind, relinquishing it to search for something beyond, that too in a holy place of labyrinthine dimensions, then the viewer must wonder: “was he in search of something else? Was he disillusioned in the capacities of cinema?” The subsequent turns in the style and the narrative of the film raise that reading.

Rangbhoomi is an exercise in artistic
humility as it is a profile of a pupil
who takes the threads of his teacher
to move the discourse forward
In a documentary film, Swaroop must look for actualities. He searches these in the city of Banaras. Tracking down old newspapers for Phalke’s activities and sites where Phalke may have worked, he presents a history that is slipping away, both in the older interlocutors who must preserve it and in the sites that are fast becoming archeological relics. There is a little glimmer of hope in a group of students who think of Phalke’s life and work as a challenge to be deciphered, to be made relevant to their times. These students and the researchers are the only safeguards against that fading archive of our culture. Swaroop himself narrates the manuscript of Phalke’s play throughout the film.

The people and the city, entrenched in the historical and mythological past provide all sorts of intersections on the questions of reality, of the possibilities of representation. As if to find a world that must be beyond all of this, a world where new questions can be formed, he constructs a remarkable replica of the Ghats of the city, using them variously as spaces on which to write images as much as spaces that attempt to speak for what is un-representable. The photographic image of the camera, with its inherent manipulative features, transforms that replica into a tableau of opened possibilities of new image.

The specific questions that Swaroop raises in the film are to be
encountered slowly and patiently, reading them as we read the most complex figurations
It is not an image that Phalke imagined but one he founded in cinema. Swaroop meets the sadhus of the city who question the everyday foundations of belief and reality. He spends time with a generation that could be nearly as old as Phalke’s cinema or at least could conjure that age well. Throughout, the quest is the same as that of the protagonist of Phalke’s play. Sangeet Rao questions the traditions to insist that theater bow to Brahma, the power that creates the universe, creating the real and the meaningful at the same time.

There is a converging nexus between Rangbhoomi’s Sangeet Rao, Phalke’s legacy in cinematic image, his exploration of the reality of the theater and Swaroop’s own meditation on the image. That nexus is an energized space of abstraction, a series of images that form layers of meaning, with juxtapositions, inquiries, invocations and abstractions. It is this part of the film that is its most energizing, opening up a world of insights. For Swaroop’s cinema is well beyond that of Phalke’s. It has moved out of the theater, complicating the questions of indexicality with the digital images and screens, spreading itself on all the surfaces it can devour. Swaroop heartily quizzes this phase by projecting images in the walls of Banaras, the waters of Ganga, and the portable screens in homes. Phalke’s quest has become his own. This is a broad tableau. The specific questions that Swaroop raises in the film are to be encountered slowly and patiently, reading them as we read the most complex figurations. That task is not for a film review. But the fact that film humbles you to that point, demanding that you return to it, is a testimony of its achievement.

The abstractions of this film are daunting. They are great for film festivals, which are meant to attract cinephiles. But there needs to be a community to sustain these films, as there was once in film societies. The dilution or indeed the disappearance of that climate weighs heavily against thoughtful films. It is up to such communities, wherever they are, if at the festivals or online forums like this, that films such as these need to be received and appreciated.

Plus, there were two difficult aspects of the film viewing specifically associated with this film. The narration in Hindi proceeds at a speed that is well pitched for a native listener. In the parlance of world cinema, where subtitles are necessary for a wider reception of the film, the narration was too rapid; the subtitles challenged the logic of reading the screen. Slower, deliberate speed would have helped. And finally, the film image is continually possessed by a logo of Films Division on the lower right corner. Was this a bureaucratic insight to put it in there? Or, was this an expression of insecurity that viewers would take the credit away from FD? Was this a not-too-subtle product-placement for FD? In a film that thoughtfully questions the state of the image through biographical details of a pioneer of cinema, this was an unmistakable and unthoughtful distraction.

New York Indian Film Festival
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