Once Upon a Monsoon

Remembering Marguerite Duras, a filmmaker who made poetry visible.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: May 11, 2014 1:04 am
Never mind, the curiously named Gates to India Song was an interesting conceit, a play trying to recapture via a film the book which was their common ancestor. Never mind, the curiously named Gates to India Song was an interesting conceit, a play trying to recapture via a film the book which was their common ancestor.

The birth centenary of the French director Marguerite Duras is just past, and we have been reminded of her work on India with a “spectacle”, a dramatisation of her novel,  Le Vice-Consul, in Delhi, Kolkata and Chandigarh conducted by the Compagnie du Barrage of Bordeaux (oddly, I always thought it was an unpublished play). And last year, French director Eric Vigner conflated the novel/play and India Song, Duras’s screen adaptation, into a spectacle of reflexive geometry, with Nandita Das in the lead role of Annemarie Stretter.

Vigner’s Gates to India Song premiered at the residence of the French ambassador in Delhi. Geometry collided with architecture. The performance began with a reading at the front door, and then a member of the cast genially beckoned the audience into a room, which served as the next set. Then he led the audience out onto a verandah, which was yet another set, and so on until they found themselves in a charbagh-like whimsy right at the back, with tastefully-lit fountains, dimly lit nahars and wholly unlit footpaths.

With a glass of Beaujolais in hand, the location feels a bit like being at the Taj by moonlight, or at Humayun’s tomb by the distant light of sodium vapour. The noted painter Jatin Das asserts that like lemmings, the best people of Delhi have blundered into those nahars and busted their shins, after getting a little too familiar with the bar nearby. Much high-net-worth blood has apparently flowed down those moodily-lit waters.

Never mind, the curiously named Gates to India Song was an interesting conceit, a play trying to recapture via a film the book which was their common ancestor. Many of the Indians in the audience, including me, have been incurious about the work of Marguerite Duras. Which we have all seen, ironically — she was the screenwriter for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which has done the film society circuit across the country, from Dibrugarh to Ernakulam. But that’s all we had seen until her birth centenary.

India Song, set in 1930s Calcutta, depicts a French diplomat’s wife bored out of her skull in a community which is as sequestered as a leper colony. She begins casual liaisons with her husband’s colleagues, with his knowledge. What could have been bored housewife porn develops into an exploration of humanity and inhumanity, and it transpires that a disgraced, problematic and possibly mad diplomat from Lahore is the only member of the corps who can be termed human. The rest  are automata.

India Song was filmed in a palace abandoned by the Rothschilds in Boulogne, but has outdoor shots which are inexplicably, lushly subtropical. Its premiere drew the world’s attention and the ire of Vincent Canby, chief film critic of The New York Times — the “make-or-break critic” of Seventies America — who dismissed it as “a four-hanky story”. It was 1975. Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon and The Eiger Sanction were in theatres. Industrial Light & Magic was established and the cameras would soon roll on Star Wars. Hollywood was overhauling the art of filmmaking at lightspeed and Canby may have had little patience for a film whose first 10 minutes have a static camera watching the sun set over an unremarkable field that fades to dark, accompanied by disembodied, poetically charged but logically confusing dialogue. Unidentifiable voices speak of a pregnant beggar girl who walked from Suvannakhet in Laos to the Ganga via Burma,  of a black Lancia racing mysteriously down an unseen road in Chandannagore. And, inexplicably, of the dust in monsoon-bound central Calcutta, which is often knee-deep in filthy water in
that season.

Canby was a contrarian critic. He had sharply disliked Mask, Blazing Saddles and Rain Man, and had skewered a landmark movie released at the same time as India Song: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If Duras fatigued him, wonder what he would he have made of another classic six years older. Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, a landmark in New Wave cinema, showed how meaningful slowness could be, stretching a short story to 110 minutes in black and white. But then, it was a Mohan Rakesh short story, and a Mohan Rakesh screenplay.

In this case, it was a Duras novel, a Duras play, developed into a Duras film. It was poetry visible. Nothing like Jaws, which was Moby Dick and Pale Rider stirred together. Nothing like Star Wars, which was a pirate movie in a sci-fi wrapper. Canby almost got it when he wrote that Duras was “no content and all style”. What is the explicit content of Basho’s Bird of Time? Of Cavafy’s Ithaka? But if these don’t grab you, poetry is forgiving. You can still enjoy The Charge of the Light Brigade.

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