Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)

charulata

Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left them behind, they come back, and take us by surprise.

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16 responses to this post.

  1. An exceptional review. To be honest I know nothing about Indian films and less about Tagore, except that I have heard his name. Is there a good starting place for someone

    The local library has the film so I put a hold on it.

    Reply

    • Hello Fred, and thanks for your kind words.

      Indian cinema is dominated by Bollywood, which, I’m afraid, strikes me merely as cheesy and schmaltzy, but tey do have a huge following. Satyajit Ray was an exceptional director, I think. There is a passage in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog where Herzog sits in a New York cinema, watching Pather Panchali and weeping. But I do frankly wonder whether, on the whole, Ray’s films are too steeped in Bengali culture to make much sense to non-Bengali audiences. I’d be very interested to know what you make of this film.

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

      • Well, as you know, Himadri, I’ve been a huge Satyajit fan for 40+ years, so, Fred, I can recommend you get hold of one of Artificial Eye’s boxed sets.

        I too can’t watch Pather Panchali without weeping, and I hardly ever watch one of his films without falling in love with one of the women, from Apu’s wife to Charu.

      • Ha a ha! You should have settled down with a Bengali girl, Dai! 🙂

  2. Posted by Janet on January 22, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Cool. I will look for Charulata. Maybe my local library can get it for me too. I saw Pather Panchali a couple of years ago and managed to find The Big City at B&N. The Apu Trilogy made the rounds of the art house circuit last year, but I missed it, which was a bummer because Ray’s movies are just not easy to find. Doesn’t really make sense since even I’ve heard of him, and I know he is revered among film critics. Darn you, Netflix and your rotten selection of classics!

    Pop music deals in essentials, so it is no wonder it can be so powerfully nostalgic. I can’t assign a zero value to something that catalyzes that water-lily effect. It just doesn’t do to lay Palisades Park alongside the Magic Flute and draw comparisons. They are as different as my cat is from a tiger. A tiger is a tiger after all, but my ridiculous cat sits on my open book and steals the foam from my coffee.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet,
      Ray is indeed highly respected, but I do find it odd that, Apu Trilogy apart, his films are barely known. By my estimate, he has mad at least a dozen or so films of the highest quality.

      I wasn’t meaning to have a go at pop culture, although I can see, reading my post over, that that is the impression I have given. I was trying to say that even things we know aren’t very good can still give us immense pleasure if they awaken memories. If you follow the link in the post to the song Tiger Feet, I think we can agree that this is not, shall we say, music of the highest quality. And yet, I love watching it, and listening to it: it just puts a smile on my face, And the very fact that I enjoy it seems to deflate any pretension I may have of having good taste. But so what? I was 14 when that song was released, and I absolutely loved it! And I love it still…

      ( You know, I can still do that dance! 🙂 )

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Though I’ve seen the Apu trilogy, I too am unfamiliar with Charulata – and I too am prompted to seek it out thanks to your lovely post. I’m reminded of something you wrote last year about refusing to go back and revise a blog post even if the Himadri of today now disagrees with the Himadri who wrote it – a way of honoring your mistakes, in a sense. The trajectory from Tiger Feet to Satyajit Ray – and the respect you lend to that journey – is worth relating.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Janet on January 23, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    For the heck of it, I checked Criterion’s website. They offer a handful of Ray’s films in their catalog, which I’m sure are all gorgeously restored and whatnot, but very pricey. If he isn’t better known, it may be from lack of availability–which is a chicken and egg kind of thing. The foreign film market in the US is pretty lean, and older ff’s seem to appeal only to hardcore cinephiles. It’s sad.

    By any chance, are you familiar with a Kannada filmmaker named Girish Kasaravalli? I made a bid on a book a guy was writing about him (didn’t get it). Sounded really interesting.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Jonathan on January 23, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    After checking my notes I can say that I’ve watched 12 of Satyajit Ray’s films and although some are obviously better than others I don’t think I’ve come across a duff one. I recently watched An Enemy of the People which I enjoyed – it was slow but that is quite a good attribute in my opinion. I recall liking Charulata but can’t remember too much about it so it’s probably time to watch it again. I remember really enjoying Jalsagher (aka The Music Room) as well. I don’t see why Ray’s films would cause any problems to a modern Western audience, after all Ray is comparable to someone like Bergman. We may miss certain references or react differently than an Indian audience but then isn’t that the beauty of watching something from a different culture and/or time? Of course he wouldn’t appeal to those people who only watch blockbusters and only want to see familiar people and cultures.

    I read the Penguin Selected Stories of Tagore a few years ago, loved it and would recommend it for anyone interested in Tagore’s work. I don’t know just how representative it is of his work as a whole though as there’s very little available in English.

    I often wonder about these ‘Greatest’ lists as well. I think that sometimes an artist will produce a steady stream of good quality work but without a single ‘stand-out’ piece which then means that there is no single work that everyone agrees on as being a ‘great’ work. Other times a single piece does become, by common agreement, their ‘greatest’ work but for no real reason than it’s the one that everyone says is their best work. In a recent online discussion I used Kurt Vonnegut as an example whereby Vonnegut’s ‘greatest’ work is often claimed to be Slaughterhouse-Five, it appears on a lot of lists and usually no other, but having read most of his work over the years I’m baffled why that particular novel is applauded so much while his other books not mentioned. I can only put it down to this ‘accumulative agreement effect’. So, with Ray I just think it’s been ‘agreed’ that The Apu Trilogy is Ray’s masterpiece and his other works can be forgotten. I think it’s just the nature of these ‘greatest’ lists – we, however, can decide for ourselves what to watch and read and ignore what others have decided is the best.

    Reply

    • Thank you Jonathan, for your very interesting comment.

      Firstly, on Tagore. I find his short stories often uneven, but at his best, he was about as good as anyone. The Penguin collection obviously chose from his best. He is most renowned as a poet and a songwriter (he wrote the lyrics & composed the music for literally thousands of songs), but quite often – as I have found from experience – when you translate poetry, that which had been beautiful and profound in the original language can appear banal or even silly in the translated. Something of the original can survive in good translations – I certainly do not mean to denigrate the translation f verse – but the verbal music, which is so important an aspect of poetry, is inevitably lost.

      I was perhaps wrong to bring up lists, as we all know they mean very little. However, when we are talking of lists made by practitioners of the cinema or by film critics, then, like it or not, these lists do represent a consensus of cognoscenti, and is about as close to a canon as is possible. And, however much we may sneer at the idea of a canon, we are unlikely to go out of our way to experience something that we do not know about in the first place. And the less something is known about, the more difficult it becomes to get hold of. There may well be, for all I know, great film-makers in Ecuador – to pick out a country at random – but I do not know about those films since they are not talked about, and so am unlikely to see them.

      And sometimes it does happen, as you say, that one work is regarded as a masterpiece, and other works by the same artist, sometimes of as fine a quality, unfairly overshadowed. This is arguably the case with Ozu’s Tokyo Story-. Outside cinema, Madame Bovary overshadows Bouvard et Pecuchet, Handel’s Messiah overshadows Belshazzar, and so on.

      As for cultural barriers, it becomes difficult to talk about, since, if I am unable to appreciate something fully, or near fully, because of cultural barriers, then I won’t know that to be the case. I suspect there are certain films especially by Ozu and by Mizoguchi that those more familiar than I am with Japanese culture will appreciate better than I can. Even with a film such as, say, Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu, which I love, it may well be the case that those more familiar with Japenese culture in general, and with Japanese dramatic traditions in particular, will be picking up certain things, instinctively rather tan consciously, that pass me by. Would I, say, enjoy Kind Hearts and Coronets so much if I didn’t have an awareness of the British class system? I don’t know. But since my posts are essentially “essays” – by which I mean I am happy to “essay”, to try out ideas, rather than record fully formed thoughts – I thought I’d throw this one into the mix!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  6. I am lucky being my age, cos both BBC2 and my uni film club were big on Satyajit in the 70s.

    Artificial Eye have boxed sets of his movies available on Amazon at least, two of which I own. I haven’t rewatched Charulata yet, as I was hoping to share the experience with a special friend and we haven’t managed to arrange that for the last three years. Maybe I’ll just watch it alone. Someone borrowed my Apu trilogy and I can’t remember who it was.

    I’m lucky living near Fear and Lothian Road in Embra, where the Filmhouse sells real fillums and had a Bengali splurge a few years ago. Lots of Ray (not Charulata) and other directors too.

    I certainly never found anything unrelateably other about the culture depicted, and I’m from the gutters of Nottingham. The key for me is always the humanity of a work or artist, and Satyajit overflows with the stuff.

    Reply

  7. Pather Panchali can be watched on dailymotion.com (what an unfortunate name for a site) and Charulata is on youtube.

    Reply

  8. Posted by alan on January 25, 2016 at 8:53 am

    I think I saw Charulata either at the Barbican or National Film theatre, but that only helps to underscore its obscurity.
    Sadly I don’t remember a lot about it except for a few scenes, but I can confirm that it bears no comparison with any of the Bollywood output I have glimpsed.

    Reply

  9. That clip of the Tagore song you link to is absolutely lovely. I knew that Tagore was a painter as well as a writer, and I knew he wrote many lyrics, but I didn’t know that he wrote music as well, least of all music as fine as that. What an amazing man. Are you able to recommend any good translations? I have read that his work has often not fared very well in its English versions, and that even his own renderings in English of his verse are inadequate.

    As for Ray, I look back on my first viewing of the Apu trilogy as a kind of personal watershed, as the power of those films struck me with the force of something like a revelation. The only other work of his that I’ve seen is Abhijaan/The Expedition (1962), which is good, but certainly minor in comparison (but how many films aren’t?). Have you seen anything by Ritwik Ghatak,? The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Subarnarekha (1965) are exceptional, I think.

    Reply

    • Hello,
      That song really is exquisite, isn’t it? I’m so glad you liked it! The singer, Suchitra Mitra (one of my favourite singers) was a renowned exponent of Tagore’s songs, and made many fine recordings of them, mainly from the 50s, 60s and 70s.
      Tagore wrote literally thousands of songs (I haven’t counted, but I believe more than 2000), and they are, effectively, the national music of Bengal: I doubt there is any Bengali who wouldn’t be able to recognise a handful of his songs. I have even heard illiterate beggars in the streets sing them. Both India and Bangladesh have adopted Tagore songs as their respective national anthems. Even without the music, the lyrics can be counted as poems in their own right.
      Translations are always awkward, as so much of Tagore’s lyrics (and poems) depend so much on what one may call its “verbal music”, and because the sounds available in Bengali have no equivalents in English; as a consequence, much that is beautiful and eloquent in the original can seem merely unremarkable or even trite or clumsy when rendered into English. To my ears, at least! (My flat-footed attempt in the post above was really to indicate what the song was about rather than to provide anything equivalent to the original!)

      However, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, in her translations of Tagore’s poems, devotes a section to some of his song lyrics. I really would love these songs to be better known, as I really do feel they deserve to be! (I’ve linked to another Tagore song, and have provided a translation of sorts, in this post.)

      I’ve seen those films of Ritwik Ghatak you mention, and agree, they are , as you say, exceptional. As for Ray’s films, Abhijaan is, I agree, among ray’s lesser films, but, apart from the Apu Trilogy, I very much love Jalsaghar (The Music Room), Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, a compendium of three short films), Devi (The Goddess), Mahangar (The Big City), Charulata, Kanchenjunga, Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), and Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder).

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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