From the beginning, there is the way that the first shot of a tree takes its time, all the time in the world. Two films open similarly on an apparently interminable shot of a tree: Otar Iosseliani’s And Then There Was Light (Et la lumière fut, 1989), where we follow an immense freshly-felled trunk pulled through the forest, and Manoel de Oliveira’s No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), where the tree fills the screen before the camera almost regretfully tears itself away.
It has become necessary today for an image – if it is to remain an image – to consist or resist as image.
But the first shot of the tree in Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960) is not truly bound to such resistance. If for us the shot carries this resistance, it seems to come from beyond itself, beyond the inside of an order of which it is a part, an order proper to the organic power of a cinema that for convenience sake can be called ‘classical’, but that everything draws towards the harsh regime of ‘modern’ ruptures. This shot is a landmark: it will serve the film’s action, its story, and be taken up in its development; it will return several times, under varied forms, in scenes arranged in relation to each other. And yet this shot endures, is amplified, composed, as much inside itself as in relation to the following shot, with the result that an extreme tension is born, inducing emotion, an emotion rarely attained to this degree, depending primarily on the pure force of each instant and the distinctly singular disequilibrium it provokes, which will travel and accumulate from one end of the film to the other.
The tree that one sees, whose mass fills almost the entire frame, comprises an infinity of trees. Their trunks are arranged in an oblique gradation where the eye loses itself before returning to the leafy mass cut off short on the right but perfectly framed on the left, the sky demarcating in the top of the frame a great hole of white light, a vanishing point which follows the tree’s descending curve. A woman moves forward, appearing very slowly beneath the tree, on the right. She is Nita (Supriya Choudhury), the heroine, the ‘cloud-capped star’, in her white sari, as if drawn by the man’s song that has very quickly replaced, in this shot, the melody from the credits. Nita comes forward, passing along the bottom of the frame, gradually growing larger in the static image, as she almost reaches centre frame. One suddenly hears a train noise mixing with the song. It is then that the cut intervenes, the dynamic cut which defines Ghatak’s art. Nita is reframed in a very tight shot, her back turned wholly to the right, the mass of her black hair cutting off the lower part of the white sari and filling up the edge of the frame like the tree did in the previous shot. On the left, in the depth of field, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) is sitting on the ground, close to the river which fills the top of the image, bordered on the other bank by the oncoming train moving at a slight angle. Nita, watching her brother, turns halfway back towards us, by a strange sweep of the head, smiling, complicit, indulgent. She is fully in profile, then turns, returning to her first position, and exits on the left with a steady motion during which Shankar sings and the train continues to advance. After the train disappears, but is still heard, the third shot arrives: Shankar, now suddenly in close-up, seen diagonally from the back but from the opposite side, closing off the left edge of the frame, starts up his melody that he accompanies with arm movements directed towards the river. He sings like this for a while before stopping suddenly, now in profile, passing his hands over his face in a strange gesture, the scene ending as he stands up.
From the beginning everything here plays on the near and the far, the too near and the too far, and the passages and leaps from one to the other. There are leaps from wide shot to close up (from 1 to 2, 2 to 3), according to unexpected axes, unsuspected portions of space to cross. There are contrasts, by way of these leaps, between open spaces and spaces that are crammed (right to the extreme edges of the frame) by the mass of objects and bodies. Add to this the oblique angles of trees, river banks, the train (the oblique angles of the riverbank and train are exaggerated in shot 3) which seem to tilt under the tension between modes of space, empty and full. Add to this the song, its upward surges, its well-held range, its falls and sudden rises, and this train noise which cuts across the song, doubling it and harshening its rhythm. Add Shankar’s spasmodic gestures, as well as the slow variation of Nita’s movements. Then you have an image of the way in which, in three very simple shots, Ghatak establishes in his film a modulation fed by collisions and conflicts here still contained, inducing a formal disequilibrium at each instant, like an echo of the historical and personal disequilibrium which creates the pathetic basis of all his films: the partition of Bengal.
Ghatak, who died an alcoholic in 1976, was born in 1925 in Dacca, East Bengal (now Dhaka, Bangladesh), and partition made him a refugee. All of his films (eight features in twenty years) bear the mark of exile from which he formed (according to Charles Tesson, one of the first critics in France to ‘discover’ Ghatak) a ‘mise en scène programme’ founded on loss, shock and separation: in short, the unacceptable. Nita’s family lives on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s, prey to a scission which will make each member of the family unit, with excessive aptness, the defeated actor of a lost anthropological unity.
There is the film we see. The film we retell, talk about. Then the film we critique, the film we analyse. These come afterwards. But there is also the film we accompany. A movement of speech, address, and perhaps exchange, whose reality is destined to disappear. The after-films are in suspense. The somewhat manic intensity and effort required for this work is always worth it, since it is a question of seeing precisely how the film works to the end. This is the basis of the teaching situation, of seminars, of so many lectures. This is the film that, despite the artifice of rewriting, I would like to refind. Just as it took place in a two hour seminar after a conference on emotion on the 8th of February 1992 at the Maison de l’image in Aix-en-Provence, each attendee having seen the film on the previous day, thus avoiding, as must be undertaken here, having to recount the plot.
The next scene is mundane. We will move on soon to some ‘strong’ scenes, but it is necessary at the outset to situate things in their narrative context, if only to grasp how, in the most banal scenes, those that serve to present the characters to us or to introduce conflicts with their local, social and historical dimension, everything is carried (sometimes lightly but effectively) by what I have called disequilibrium.
We pass, by way of a dissolve from Shankar standing up, to the village grocer. A magical force of passages when it is not only space and time changing, but bodies colliding. Resting on the counter of his shop amid planks striated by lines of light (two of them converging in an angle on his head), filmed at mid-shoulder, at a slight low-angle, his gaze fixed off-screen, the grocer challenges Nita. ‘Tell your father you owe us for two months. It is getting difficult.’ The demand forces Nita to turn and she comes forward, all of this in the reverse field. Everything in this shot is harmonised according to a very confident arrangement of diverse, unstable elements: the accentuated low-angle (one of the most consistent ways Ghatak has of situating his art from the outset beyond, or within, ‘normal’ vision); the two dark horizontal masses, above and below, sloping down, surrounding the two characters, Nita especially, positioned against the white mass of the rest of the décor and the sky which is isolated in the middle of the frame; the slant of a pole crossing this white area, connecting the black areas; the line of light, partial and parallel, from the shop roof, which goes from the grocer’s head to bounce off the right edge of the frame. Next the camera is very close to the ground to capture the mass of the lower part of Nita’s body which has entered the frame from the left (the shock and mystery of the cut as source of emotion: never, in a Ghatak film, can you tell on what part of the body the cut, the transition, will focus; here it is on the lower rather than the expected top half – but there is also a narrative explanation for this, which this initially groundless emotion prepares). In the distance, on the right, in the very open space of the shot (this is a totally realist cinema, vibrating with the everyday), a huge tapering shadow falls on the ground like a kind of threat bursting loose. It is at the moment when Nita, moving forward, seems buried in her own shadow, the points joining up in the middle of the dark mass, that the small event takes place: her sandal breaks and comes undone. Here we have another rhyme, following that of the tree, which runs right through the film, this time serving to situate the drama: poverty, of which Nita will bear the cost. Without insisting too much on the rhymes and reprises (analysis does this a lot), they are no less guarantors of the narrative (classical, but also modern), so they will inevitably be encountered. Next we see the lower body again, now bathed in the great slant of shadow, with just a little light on the left, next the hand which takes off the sandal, the camera rising up the length of the body, the bust and the head, her face pensive in the light. The camera moves with Nita who walks on down the street, now seen from behind, following the line of another mass of shadow on the right. Shankar arrives along the same slant at the grocer’s: playing with shaving soap he begs a favour and turns towards us, pretending to lather his face, a wild look in his eye. Towards us but never at us. Here we have one of the most acute forces in the film (we will see the excessive degree to which it is taken): always tending towards a look-into-the-camera which never quite takes place, playing (as here) at the limit of this contact in the game internal to the frame, or, especially, opening out to the limitlessness of the off-frame.
After the brother and sister, who are the soul of this story, and in relation to them, it remains (for the film) to present the four other members of the family, in the house which is the organic setting, from where all departures and returns take place. A heterogeneous space (at least for a foreign spectator); it is not easy to orient oneself in this series of rooms arranged around a central courtyard, a wide alley leading as far as the gate. Passing abruptly from one fragment of the set to another as required by events as well as affects, Ghatak finds the material to accentuate, through the greatest realism, the emotional insecurity which is the mark of his cinema.
The Father and Mother
They appear together in a shot (we have dissolved to this from the image of Shankar) to match the ‘madness’ which binds them. In this fallen petit-bourgeois family, now impoverished (due again to the partition of Bengal), the father (Bijon Bhattacharya) gives the impression of being a cultured man, nostalgic, old and young at the same time; the mother (Gita De) is a woman exhausted by misfortune, by domestic labour, and by a secret rivalry with Nita, the cherished child of the father, the eldest daughter whose salary (she teaches classes whilst continuing her studies) provides the minimum income indispensable to the whole family. This is the subject of the brusque exchange between the father and mother, in this shot which immediately shows them at each other’s throats. The father on the left, in profile, the dominant presence; the mother, on the right, in the background, on the edge of the frame (as so often in Ghatak’s shots, thereby preserving a vibrant off-frame where bodies always seem ready to disappear, all the better to return from somewhere else). The couple are corralled by the rectangle of light traced in the background of the image by the door that their bodies cover and uncover, following the movements of an erratic dialogue which brings them together physically little by little, in the central mass of the shot. Bodies in solidarity, alone and in despair. And the surprise comes from the father’s departure: instead of leaving by the door visible in the background as expected, it is towards us that he suddenly turns, his gaze held high (filmed from a slightly low-angle) in order to see Nita arriving at the front of the house. He moves towards her through a facing door, which nothing had led us to expect was there.
The Two Sisters
Without any transition we turn (from outside, where the father leaves with a group of students) to Gita (Gita Ghatak), the younger (and coquettish) sister. An image that is at once dense and profound and, above all, paradoxical. Against a background of thatched wall, the face is seen in a left-sided profile, a fragment of it visible in extreme close-up whereas the entire right side seems to look at us from inside a mirror in which the young woman brushes her hair as she sings. A way of once again playing with the look-into-the-camera while evading it, as permitted by the movements of combing and singing: they explain this false mobile gaze which appears, illusorily, to fix us. And this time the surprise effect in the space comes from the fact that the shot, which we assumed was situated, say, in the intimacy of a room, takes place in the yard of the house – we discover this when the shot changes (to a much wider shot), and Gita (with a skittish air) holds out a letter to Nita that she takes to her room to read.
The Letter, The ‘Cloud-Capped Star’, The Brother and Sister
This moment of letter-reading (Nita seen diagonally from behind, a tight shot, right side of the frame against a lattice window which comments on the prohibition destined to devour her) is the occasion for the first ‘expressive’ musical upsurge of this film in which music is the centre (or a centre), telling us as it does of Shankar’s artistic vocation, a film which, little by little, and in every way possible, becomes impregnated with music. By adding the second brother to his script, a change from the novella which served as his source, Ghatak found one more reason to transform, by taking it to the extreme, the tradition in which he inscribed himself: Indian melodrama – although almost all Indian films were then melodramas – where music is always so present.
Such moments, which fix and isolate the musical modulation, sometimes, as here, on a very joyful, ecstatic mode, more often in a hard, almost unbearable way, such moments touch on what the film holds most deeply within itself. In a sense, it is simply a question of a use of music (sometimes traversed by sounds which give it an edge and dramatise it) that seems to intervene, as happens in so many films, in order to underline the inner emotional state of a character, more or less reworking one of the score’s themes. But the most troubling thing, once again, is the way the event is cut up. In a shot without music or song (there are, if you pay attention, relatively few such shots, above all in shots, like here, almost completely without dialogue), we see the mother pass through the yard and the young brother operating the water pump. And suddenly, as soon as we reach Nita, the music swells, saturating the entire space, elaborating the dominant theme (let us call it the ‘cloud-capped star’ theme introduced during the credits) with a mixture of swarming sounds and shrills which will last, like this, for a little longer than a shot, becoming the measure of this moment. There is therefore in Ghatak a musical ‘expressionism’ (in its nature always difficult to qualify, but whose global feeling – here ecstatic joy – is each time very clear), added to the image expressionism, doubling, penetrating, intensifying it, all the more so as it seems autonomous, attached to its own line. This very direct way of creating permits him to express through sound what is happening in the image but which it cannot give us sufficiently, since the image is never purely ‘inner’ enough, finding itself by nature (in all realist cinema) always too close to the surface of things, bodies and faces, and therefore lacking, except through words, the ability to tell us what a character feels at the most inner point of himself, including his conscious experience of it. Thus the musical modulation, which, thanks to its seeming ‘arbitrariness’, becomes an over-motivation, suddenly permits the interior to be re-projected onto the exterior, onto the body of the image, allowing this body, which is (not only but above all) the character’s body, to become more present, more active, more pregnant, the space of an enduring instant.
But this is only possible in proportion to the intensity of the image itself. This intensity reaches an extreme point in this static shot which seems to vibrate; Nita carefully moving away, folding her letter, until she finds herself again in a very tight shot, almost directly from behind, right up against the lattice window. So that she can all the better turn towards us, the camera having regained this closeness, as if borne by the modulation, with an ineffably beautiful movement of the upper half of the body, which reveals her ecstatic face and lets the spectator believe that he is seen, looked at, by this woman’s eyes and smile. In the same way that, from the back, Nita seemed to look out the window to the external world, here, fixing us, she regards the off-frame in itself, the off-frame of the desire of which we, spectators, become the intercessors, the desire addressed to the still unknown amorous object of the letter.
And it is then that Ghatak cuts, as if to withdraw this too extreme gaze, and to permit him to return to the narrative he had suspended. But in the cut itself, and since it lasts into the very beginning of the next shot which frames her in a half-length portrait, the gaze persists a moment, miraculous for having been thereby preserved and as if intensified by this variation of the distance through which it comes to us, even though the body’s turning motion has finished and Nita now faces us. It is in this distance that the gaze subsides, at the same time as the music transforms itself. Nita lowers her eyes, reopens and reads the letter, the stacatto-like modulation gives way to a more harmonious and fluid tempo, closer to the narrative flow, evocative of a general emotion of the scene as much or more than the internal vibrations of the character.
(Let us be clear. It is not always easy to distinguish what I call the expressive modulation from other modes of musical intervention, rich and diverse as they are, passing without discontinuity from one regime to another by means of the least variations of action, bodily moods and movements, and also shot changes and distances, in short the entire work of figuration. Thus there are many intermediary moments and modes. But that does not prevent us from positing the following: there are especially clear oppositions which the music works with, precisely, as an image itself, a second image.
There is in The Cloud-Capped Star‘s music – or rather its soundtrack – a mixture of popular themes, ragas, reworked by the film’s composer Jyotirindra Moitra, that is at once subtle and stripped-bare. But it is clear that their strongest effects depend above all on the sound mix which is constructed as much with natural sounds as with those sounds created directly by Ghatak himself with the aid of objects or instruments – here is how Bhaskar Chandavarkar describes Ghatak’s drunken irruption in a recording studio in Poona, inventing reserves of ‘unusual’ sounds for a forthcoming film: ‘He breathed into an Indian flute to obtain a sharp sound like a shrill whistle, tapped on three different tablas with sticks, struck a Burmese gong, and so on, during one of his good moods’.)
In this shot, before Nita moves again, a single element breaks the equilibrium of lines: a framed photo stands at an angle blocking Nita’s body. This photo strikes her on the hip as she moves forward reading the letter, she seems to smile at her own action and whatever the photo awakens in her, then repositions it so that we can no longer see it, except some vague reflections of her body in the now barely askew glass of the frame. For the moment we will pass over this photo which prepares us for Shankar’s arrival, and will serve during the remainder of the film as a fixation-point for the excessive desire of sister for brother: these are the two children (or adolescents) that we have glimpsed in the photo, the brother and sister captured (as Nita will explain to her fiancé) in a kind of primal scene, an ideal time, ‘in the hills’. The film will later evoke the negative version of this scene in Nita’s mortal destiny.
In the following shot Nita, lying on her bed, her body inclined towards us, shot from a low-angle (here we see the ceiling clearly, as in a Welles shot), reads the letter. Then Shankar arrives in the background, opening the double doors (in which our gaze is swallowed up), pausing on the threshold, as if to indicate the extent to which every variation of an event is due to a variation of space, diverse distances implicated in the space of the frame. He rushes to his sister and snatches the letter from her. The shock reverberates through the following shot: this time the angle is high, after an elliptical cut in the movement and time of the action, and we see four arms above heads fighting over the letter, in a struggle resembling a lovers’ game, the camera suddenly very volatile, vibrating to the rhythm of this game which underlines a constant fluttering of shadows and lights. A very Cassavetian shot, before the camera becomes fixed in one of those positions Ghatak is fond of, in order to mark the circulation and blockage of energy between characters: Nita and Shankar are back to back, she hides her face in her hands, he reads the letter with his arms raised above his head. He reads out the love letter: ‘I didn’t appreciate your worth. I thought you were like the others. But now I see you in the clouds, perhaps a cloud-capped star veiled by circumstances, your aura dimmed.’ When Nita turns around and grabs back the letter, she returns to her original position, and Shankar is then, like her, turned at an angle towards us. A variation of the preceding moment, sustaining the tension of the dialogue in which the film’s theme is made clear. The brother replies to his sister who is indignant at seeing her personal life interfered with: ‘If you’re a “person” then I’ll be a genius one day.’
The end of the scene is significant in transforming this conflict of destiny into spatial terms, without it being possible to say that one ‘signifies’ or even ‘expresses’ the other. It can simply be said that a tension between open and closed space corresponds to a psychic tension, accentuated by the fact that we never know from what point in the depth of the frame a character who exits will reappear. A whole game is thus played on both sides of the frame with Shankar finally sitting, Nita disappearing from the frame and returning, alternately obstructing and uncovering with her body the deep space of the door through which she will finally leave.
The Mother, The Children
It is on a request for money (to Nita) that the scene with Shankar ends, and it is on the demands of Gita (who wants a sari) and of Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal) (the younger brother, first seen just before the scene with the letter – he wants football boots) that this penultimate scene of character introductions opens. A scene in one shot, where the space is stratified according to the tensions of the dialogue. At the beginning, the mother is initially on the right, her frightened face turned half towards us, half towards Gita who faces us (in a crowded shot). After a camera movement which finds Mantu on her left, the two children address their mother (who crosses the frame towards the left, her body suddenly blocking our vision); they speak, and deliberate, as if talking to themselves as much as each other. An effect of social bondage and an effect of solitude traverse the scene, returning the spectator to his own isolated body.
The essential thing here is the mother’s movement within this very enclosed frame. Then a second camera movement opens up a rectangular hole of blinding white light on the left side of the frame. This is a movement without any autonomy, without a proper dynamic of its own, placed after a declaration by Mantu (this is a relatively rare phenomenon, as Ghatak’s camera movements are usually tied purely to body movements, according to a tactile expressionism). The mother is now in the foreground on the extreme left (as she was at the beginning on the right), united with the depth of field. And suddenly, Mantu and Gita, like us divining Nita bathed in light (she has just been payed), hurl themselves towards her in a kind of animal race, making their initial passage to the foreground a shock directed at the spectator as they move away, and their advance towards the background of the frame a physical dialogue between shadow and light. But, disequilibrium on disequilibrium, at the very moment where the scene might establish itself, allowing us to see what is happening, the mother’s head comes towards the centre of the frame again, in an extreme close-up highlighting her eyes full of anguish, eyes which could also be looking at us since their gaze is so completely internal.
There are thus constantly frightening close-ups (arising under diverse pretexts, but also almost without reason) of this extraordinary character of the mother, coming suddenly to situate herself at the most acute point of the image, underlining the torture which obliges the body (face, gaze) to maintain itself in the space which she fails to master.
We are now at the beginning of a scene in which the final character of the drama appears. In a (pronounced) high angle shot Gita and Nita sit on a bench, Mantu standing in front of them: they speak about Sanat (Niranjan Ray), the father’s ex-student, whom Mantu thinks he sees. The following shot shows us Sanat, diagonally, very tight, who reacts to Mantu calling him (everything here creates a loss of spacial orientation, of a sense of distance); he turns and comes towards us on the right, his glasses crossed for an instant by two reflections, piercing the shadow. A miniscule but vivid initiation to the tension being set up before the following shot re-establishes the perturbed proportion of distances by showing us Sanat coming towards the group of brother and sisters.
(The Tree Again. Before moving on, to show how the rhyme insists, how it is worked through, by way of an extreme example, a second tree scene. Extreme because the scene will return seven times, in forms so diverse that they show at once the narrative insistence, the desire for symbolic centring, and an incredible capacity for invention of forms and a volatile dispersion of the image-material. The art of difference-in-repetition here reaches one of its highest expressions.
This example brings us closest to the opening scene. Nita and Shankar again: he sits singing under the same tree, as she arrives, again, out of the background of this tree made of many trees. But it is now decentred, and we initially perceive the branches of the tree under which Shankar sings. The encounter takes place in one shot, Nita moves forward and stops in front of her brother, left of screen. No train this time, only the song. So it is a quiet scene, presented in three shots: him, her, him again. But something troubling sets in, primarily at the level of the gaze: Shankar looks at his sister head on, whereas she clearly looks at him on her left (the right of the frame), at the very instant where we tend to believe she has arrived at least on the median line of the gaze [the trajectory of her movement towards Shankar? Recollection of the previous scene where, for us, she was so definitely on the right?]. And the trouble increases when, turning her eyes from the other side, Nita makes for the tree on her right in order to leave the frame: since we do not see her passing into the reverse field, we are immediately back to Shankar in a tighter shot, and cannot discern exactly the portion of space in which she appeared-disappeared. The mini-collisions of a variation, bearers of a modulation of the gaze-space).
(We are now close to a third of the way through the film.)
For Nita’s birthday, the father and Shankar take her on an outing.
Two forces mark this scene, underlining the fragility of a moment of happiness. Firstly the oblique effects which occur throughout the general shots and landscape shots (roads, fields, etc.) are brought together from the outset, appearing to gush forth from what is at first a closed shot (the bus filling the frame, the father, daughter and brother alighting from it), thereby serving all the more to liberate space, extending it, dilating it. These are shots which, although oriented towards an action, ‘the outing’, decompose time, by the force of sparingly used hiatuses between frames and the disorientation which is produced, as well as by the disequilibrious perspectives accumulated within each frame. To the point where each shot, without being subjective, seems to respond to a particular gaze (Ghatak’s, or the three associated characters’).
Then, contrasting with these first shots and resembling their internal laceration, there is the series of shots associating the three characters standing still in the landscape, first together (in a crowded shot), then each one isolated (in close-up). Everything serves to highlight the impossibility of harmoniously inhabiting this tight space together. A bit like Eisenstein (one of Ghatak’s models), but the montage here remains narrative; without any symbolic aim, or nameable meaning, the expressivity flowing always into ‘impressivity’, into an intensity of impression. In the crowded shot of the three together, the back of each is turned to the others, so that we can hardly believe in the possibility of exchange between them, even as they speak. In the close-ups, they are framed, shown in such a way (Nita against the land, the two men against the sky) that we lose the sense of the global space, of a ‘natural’ relation between bodies which impose themselves each time through a sudden appearance, as if via a collision provoked by the apparition which precedes and follows it. Hence the motion of Nita’s head turning, twice, without us truly knowing from what anterior point of space this movement comes. There are enough shots and reprises of shots, as in classical scenes graded by a succession of shot/reverse-shot, for us to feel that we are in a definable space. Yet this space floats: thanks to the precariousness, to the tension internal to each shot, the space is submitted to a kind of force (in the sense in which we say: force of compulsion), a force which each time seems to render it autonomous. We never know where the point-of-view is held even though we sense its pressure. Each body is ceaselessly repositioned relative to the other bodies according to axes of the gaze which isolate as much as they bind. Axes containing no escape routes, bearers of an inexpressible energy: the kind that bodies possess when they are at once in solidarity and alone.
The pure work of découpage accomplishes here what the music so often helps bring about: making the affects circulate (even if here the unobtrusive music runs underneath the spoken word in conventional continuity).
Sanat becomes more of a presence at Nita’s house, despite the increasingly strange behaviour of her father and mother. The latter seems to want to push Gita towards Sanat, who shows himself susceptible to her charms. Like Nita, Sanat pursues his studies in a very precarious financial condition. Everything is against the possibility of their marrying in the near future.
(Tree – 3. Sanat and Nita sit by the riverbank, close to the trees that we sense without seeing them. Nine shots. Insistent oblique angles. Almost exclusively shot in close-up [animated on him, painful-ecstatic on her], except the first and last shots where we discover some branches of ‘Shankar’s tree’, and through which the train passes again. And especially, at the start, a gentle reprise of the musical emanation linked to the letter-reading).
One evening, the father, while drunk, falls on the railway tracks and badly injures himself. Nita feels obliged to abandon her studies and work in the city.
(Tree – 4. Shankar’s tree [could it be any other?] is now almost unrecognisable. In a very wide shot Shankar sings and sinks into a reverie; it is from the extreme edge of the image, on the right, that the friend whom Nita has just met in town will appear [return of Tree 1]. Shankar runs towards the person he believes is his sister: a brusque encounter, under branches that enclose the image, a low-angle shot, as if to highlight their mutual fear, then the friend’s smile, and lastly Shankar’s laughter, alone again.
A dissolve isolates Shankar now in a wider shot, the camera following him with a lateral movement as he walks singing, right to left, developing the theme modulated at the beginning of the segment, as in ‘Tree 1’ and ‘Tree 2’).
Sanat reproaches Nita for always sacrificing herself and offers to work in order to be able to marry her; Nita cannot abandon her family and wants to postpone the event. They argue about Shankar whom Sanat believes is exploiting Nita. But Nita blindly defends her brother. She believes in his vocation, despite the objections everyone makes to him, and they remain as close as ever, despite the tensions. Mantu decides to work in a factory, a downward step for this middle class family. One afternoon, when Nita leaves to teach, Gita charms Sanat and takes him out walking. She sings for him, presses him to take up a job and to choose a wife. Nita, returning, notices and avoids them.
(Tree – 5. The force of this scene is to repeat the first shot of the film, that of Nita walking, but this time compacted: Nita emerges from the mass of branches which saturate the frame, and the song we hear [off-screen at first] is Gita’s, sitting with Sanat close to Shankar’s tree. Everything occurs in a single shot, the camera moving with Nita, marking her pause, in order to see them, before setting off again, condensing [in its very variation] the first two shots of ‘Tree 1’ and the first shot of ‘Tree 2’. And the fragment which follows, between Sanat and Gita, substitutes for ‘Tree 3’ between Sanat and Nita, all the while incorporating the playful mistake of ‘Tree 4’ between Shankar and Nita’s friend).
Nita learns from Mantu that Sanat has found work. Disturbed, she visits him in his new apartment. We are now two thirds of the way through the film.
The Most Beautiful Shot
It is the shot where, leaving her fiance’s house (he is already practically living with her sister), Nita descends the stairs by which she earlier arrived. Everything serves to prepare this shot, from the moment of Nita’s arrival, finding Sanat transformed when he opens the door to her: now elegant, wearing fancy slippers and a white scarf, a cigarette in his mouth, and behind his glasses a weak and distracted gaze.
Everything begins with this descriptive movement, borne by the music which accelerates and rushes headlong towards her, this brutal advance towards Sanat’s face, this descent down the length of his body all the way to his feet. What is powerful here is the gap between the always slightly excessive slowness of Nita’s body, as well as her gaze, and the violence of this movement. One cannot attribute the camera’s trajectory to her actual physical gaze (all the more as the movement commences from a frame where you first see Nita’s head from the back in close-up, a frame which is therefore not directly subjective). And yet it is from her implied gaze that this trajectory is born, thus from a movement in her that is both external and internal and which finds itself thereby suddenly expressed, as it is also by the music, carried by an arbitrary vibrato close in its principle to the moment of modulation during the letter-reading, but this time much harder. The music, accompanying Nita’s walk in a conventional manner until then, stops whilst she knocks on the door; all the better to begin again in its naked violence, and endure, like this, until the two bodies advance into the room – we see only the lower bodies, the feet and calves stressing Nita’s floating sari, a choice which emphasises the effect of diluting the gaze, relating it to the mass of bodies in movement.
The look lost, to the point of horror: that is what this scene is about. In an astonishing manner, a dissolve separates Sanat’s and Nita’s entry into the room and the close-up where he tips a cigarette into an ashtray, near a vulgar object (a kind of little vase with a caricature of a naked female body), before the camera travels up again to his face to refind the frame (this time tighter) which revealed him at the open door. An ascent which therefore completes the previous descent, thereby putting Nita’s gaze back into play – a gaze already seemingly dismantled by the transitional dissolve – and passing the gaze to Sanat in order to give its effect to the following shot, which paradoxically he does not see. In this shot, seen by no one (except us), but heard by both characters, a hand (Gita’s) emerges from behind a mass of curtain accompanied by the rattling of a bracelet (modulated five times like a fragment of music). This occurs twice before the hand disappears; during one such moment the camera, returning to Sanat, slowly pans across to his face, now alerted, passing back again to the curtain, finishing up on Nita, sitting, seen in a half-length portrait (a little sculpted elephant on her right), her gaze lowered, now internal, seeing only the void invading her, but doubtless having heard this rattling twice. Thus everything happens here via this presence/elision of the gaze between the lovers which is spread over the ensemble of shots. A gaze that is of course assumed but then disqualified, and above all rendered opaque by the sound which makes it pass into the entirety of the frame and the body, specifically Nita’s body which rises and leaves without seeing anything, the inner eye fixed leftwards towards the edge of the image.
Then comes the most beautiful shot. Nita found again by the camera at the extreme right edge of the frame, outside on the stairs, in a very flattened shot, strongly marked by a powerful low-angle. Nita descends the stairs until she envelopes us in extreme close-up, the camera moving only the little it takes to allow her face to be framed in an intolerable, static image, in a moment of pure affection: the immobile face, the eyes always raised, one hand convulsively grasping the throat, the entire décor as if effaced, the sombre mass of wall becoming pure expressive ground and giving its violence to the circle of white light which is very quickly formed and purified at the left of the face, appearing to be (for we spectators) the blind vanishing point of a gaze which no longer sees anything.
From the shot’s opening, the modulation begins again, punctuating the descent, step by step, then installing itself on the stricken face: very punchy shrill notes, punctuated by lacerations, like a whipping sound hissing through the air and striking a body. This continues almost to the end of the shot, dissolving to give way – an intense instant of emotion, which depends on the encounter-sliding between what is beyond time and time regained – to a softer variation of the theme which guarantees the transition between the end of this shot and the beginning of the next. A transition which maintains its cruelty right through the passage to the shot of dark angular masses of roofs and shadows in the courtyard of the house, seeming to impose themselves like blotches on Nita’s face as, little by little, her eyes close.
But there are, of course, many ‘most beautiful shots’.
Mother starts raising Gita’s possible marriage. Father is violently against the idea. Mother responds that Nita is crucial to their survival. Gita announces to Nita that she will marry Sanat. The initial preparations begin. Nita goes along with the plans, offering her jewels.
Shankar announces to Nita that he has just found work in a music school. He is happy to leave the house where he has lived as a parasite, and asks her to resume her studies.
The Brother and Sister (Again)
There is an excessive moment in this scene of Shankar’s ‘departure’. Nita asks her brother to teach her a Tagore song, and they sing together, as they did as children. The camera isolates Nita in extreme close-up, her head leaning backwards, almost horizontally, in a painful ecstasy. Their song continues for a moment through a medium-close up of Shankar, when suddenly a noise of laceration (identical to that accompanying the shot on the stairs), followed by a musical vibration which serves as its amplification, comes to merge with their song. The surprising thing here is that, from the moment the noise appears, Shankar turns brusquely towards the off-screen as if he hears it, as if he had heard this noise with us, this modulation which comes twice more over a new close-up of Nita’s face (the image used on the film’s poster): from a slight low-angle, the eyes raised towards another off-screen area, her hair haloed with light, her head topped with two white marks which violently sparkle in the dark background of the shot (two of the lattice window’s multiple ‘apertures’, as we discover later). So Shankar hears, like the spectator, in the real world of the shot, where it would be audible (visible?) beyond the frame, the effect which is meant to translate the inner state of Nita that is materialised in the following shot, where she collapses in tears. An emotion is thus liberated, carried by this type of sound hallucination which is the counterpart of the ‘hallucinated’ close-ups which incarnate Nita’s exalted suffering (in a single blow two loves and two abandonments, those of the brother and the lover, are linked by the identical nature of their effects).
Nita, feverish, takes a day off. She learns that Mantu has suffered a serious accident at the factory. At his side, at the hospital, she falls ill. An X-ray is recommended. The father asks the doctor to verify Nita’s state of health.
Nita goes to see Gita and Sanat, whose work bores him. She finally plucks up the courage to ask Sanat for the money to pay for Mantu’s required blood transfusion. Sanat agrees. Gita kicks up a fuss.
Nita, coughing, discovers with horror that she is spitting blood. She moves to another part of the house without saying anything. Her mother criticises her behaviour, and reveals what she has heard about Shankar’s newfound celebrity.
Close to the tree, Sanat meets Nita on her way to work. He wants to turn over a new leaf and return to his studies. She avoides such talk by declaring that, for her, all is lost.
(Tree – 6. This is the torturous reprise of ‘Tree 3’. A long scene [17 shots, amongst the film’s most beautiful]. For the first time, Nita arrives from the left, shot in low-angle under fully framed trees; Sanat faces her. A dissolve divides up their dialogue, during which the train once again passes, very violently, as if between them, against them.
Under the train, with it, a reprise of the musical modulation that accompanied the letter. At the end, during the last shot, when Nita rises and Sanat looks at her so intensely as she moves away, we have the impression that he can hear with us, as previously Shankar could at the time of his departure, the shrills and whiplashes which again lend rhythm to Nita’s disappearance, as they did in the stair scene.)
Gita, seeking attention, feigns illness.
Nita at work, ill.
Mantu, now better, returns to the house – he will receive substantial compensation for his accident.
The father’s mental state continues to deteriorate.
Shankar returns, famous, having made his fortune in Bombay. He signs autographs and is welcomed as saviour of the family.
(Tree – 7. This takes place in two shots accompanied by ample camera movements, as Shankar sings and retraces, from right to left, the entire path he has walked [‘Tree 4’], that Nita featured in [‘Trees 1, 2, 5’] and that her friend reprised [‘Tree 4’]. But it is hard to recognise, or only via uncertain indications that exacerbate the disequilibrium, the cut-up fragments of space that are here finally united in one block).
There is a rhyme of rare violence in this scene, in which the entire narrative is summarised: the bloodstained handkerchief as Shankar arrives in his sister’s room, hoping to cheer her up as he had done with the letter. This rhyme is carried by an unique moment: leaving the arguing brother and sister, Shankar moves close to Nita sheltering on her bed, the camera following the handkerchief that falls to the ground right of frame. A musical fracas pierced by a singing voice rises up and underlines the shock of the passage from shot to shot that we do not see, so improbable is it and therefore accentuated-diverted, but that we feel as a commotion equal to that of Shankar’s fright: we are now at a very high angle above him, upright, his head on the top edge of the frame, his arms open above the bloodied handkerchief, the hands which fall trembling in an axis 180 degrees opposed to that of the previous shot.
Such shocks, in the last part of the film, condense and accumulate so powerfully that it becomes impossible even to evoke them all. As if the most violently affected elements, hitherto distributed through the course of the narrative in which they are woven (we have dwelt on too few examples) without disrupting a tight network of strong points, spinning themselves out and accentuating each other, now suddenly collide in a sort of crescendo, a choir-like effect touching at once all the family members finally gathered in a single, violently discontinuous flow, in order to prepare the final outcome, sealing Nita’s destiny.
These are firstly the close-ups of Nita, after the discovery of the handkerchief: the first especially where, lying on her back, the eye we see in profile seems to bulge; the last where she talks about rediscovering childhood, a life without responsibilities. Then there are, in the courtyard of the house where Shankar announces that Nita is in a state of advanced tuberculosis, that he will pay for her treatment and that he will return later that night, two shots especially, which bring the colour of eternity to the drama: the father rising up out of the shadows, his finger pointing, crying out: ‘I accuse!’; and Mantu, in close-up, against a background of white sky, his head inclined like one of Pasolini’s youths, or an image of Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, ever so slowly lowering his eyes in an unconscious gesture. There are, immediately after, during the stormy night which will for the first time allow the forces of nature to participate in the drama, the parents’ faces, their haggard and fixed eyes, traversed by water and light; Nita’s face in extreme close-up, first asleep, then as if roused by her father’s gaze (whose place she physically takes in the frame), smiling with a kind of radiant madness fanned by the lightning flashes, and finding beside her the ‘mad’ father who caresses her face, notifying her that he has packed her bag and calling on her, in a delirium of love and recognition, to leave the house. Then finally Nita, her eyes shining in the shadow, her meagre bundle under her arm, a white and now ghostly figure advancing into the night under the storm (there are overwhelming passages here from extreme close-up to long shot), running into Shankar who has returned for her, dropping the fetish-photo whose glass breaks on the ground (cloud-capped star, starlit glass); and Shankar announcing that he has reserved a place for her in a sanatorium on the hills of Shillong, the hills of their childhood.
Then what happens is this. At the word ‘hills’, Nita, who looks off-screen with an absent air, turns towards her brother and with a brusque, animal movement (where the shot shifts and allows her to recapture the frame) walks towards us until she is in close-up, her eyes slightly raised to avoid looking directly into the camera, and sees the hills.
It is an absolutely powerful moment. The cinema here recognises itself in its ever-tested limit, so difficult to attain, between interior and exterior, realist image and mental image, perception and hallucination. Without forgetting what the image always owes to narrative. There are firstly static shots, trees, gulfs, roads, rocks, then, set off by a series of dissolves, long circular movements on other similar motifs of nature, suddenly rising up in their elementary forms against an open sky. These shots have at least three values. They are the internal images that Nita conjures up of her beloved landscape. They also sketch the implied trajectory of her voyage to the sanatorium. Finally they stand for the image of Shankar that we discover immediately after, in the penultimate sequence, visiting his sister. But, above all, these shots hold out to the spectator the combined energy of these three forces, in an undecidability between objectivity and subjectivity/ies that the entire film has never ceased constructing, in particular via the hyper-modulated effects of music and sound which the film at this point no longer needs, since this emotional violence has passed into the image itself: the leap that it then produces, and that the music can, with its simple and nostalgic power, simply accompany.
The Letter (Again)
What can you say about this ending, this final dialogue on the hills between brother and sister? Simply this. The effects of nearness and distance, of obliqueness and frontality, of rupture and inversion in the expected axes, and of body position (as much at the level of each body in the frame space as at the level of the relation between bodies): all this is a part of what cinema can produce most strongly and personally in the emotion tied to the appearance of figures. But it is sound, or rather the way in which sound strikes the image and penetrates it, which once again creates the most acute singularity of affective violence. When Shankar approaches Nita sitting on a rock re-reading Sanat’s letter, in the shot that has been for some seconds without music, a sonorous, musical vibration rises up, tracing the desire internal to this proximity of two bodies. It is no longer Nita alone whom the modulation delineates in order to express the variation of her internal states, as we have seen so often (and as so many other moments attest); neither is it that sonic torture which Shankar heard (as in his departure scene, where it marked their excessive intimacy as brother and sister as much as the way this intimacy took form, since their shared childhood, within music). It is a matter of something that is more simple and simply more: the vibration which arises from the rapprochement of two bodies in the same space, at the moment when the desire in the letter expresses Nita’s lost desire for the man she did not know how to love in opposition to her brother (and her entire family). Above all, the vibration translates her impotent desire to love herself (a ‘cloud-capped star’), as her brother, thanks to her, was able to do (the only other example of modulation à deux as strong as this is significantly situated, as we have seen, upon Nita and Sanat, during their last meeting by the tree).
It is this ravaged, dual, dissociated identity which bursts apart at the end of the sequence, beginning with Nita’s cry, with her words screamed first alone then in her brother’s arms: ‘I wanted to live! Tell me just once that I’ll live … I want to live’. These words, mixed with the affectionate nickname that Shankar intones (‘Cookie! Cookie!’) invade nature and remake, through shots more or less identical to those of the outward journey, Shankar’s entire return journey, punctuated by moments of this shot of impossible (and silent, the voices having becoming autonomous) embrace which persists, against all reason, between brother and sister, crossing hills and valleys, culminating in the endless moaning of Nita’s voice over the unfolding landscape.
This is an art of looping, of rhymes which accentuate the affects that they mark out without restricting their reach: pure affirmation. Shankar arrives at the grocer’s, as Nita did before at the beginning of the second sequence, which ended (as we perhaps recall) with Shankar’s arrival, faced with this same grocer who now asks him for news of his sister. But, above all, there is the sandal.
In the street, Shankar suddenly sees a young woman passing whom we recognise: it is Nita’s friend that she met in the city, when she took her decision to abandon her studies and work. A friend whose movements and bearing are very similar to Nita’s. She is also the girl Shankar mistook for his sister in the fourth tree sequence. At the moment when Shankar rushed towards her calling out (‘Cookie! Cookie!’), when the frame changed suddenly from a wide shot to a crowded shot and the bodies almost collided, Shankar recognised his mistake, which made Nita’s friend smile. There was even a brief moment of very intense sound-music (like bells) to punctuate the event.
She now passes in the street in this shot where Shankar watches her. Everything happens, as so often in Ghatak, so that the gaze becomes more and less than the gaze, so that it occurs via the body and the entire space. This means that the camera, leaving Shankar, follows the young woman, then frames the lower half of her body to isolate the motion which makes her stop to bring her hand down to her broken sandal (as Nita, leaving the grocer’s, previously did), here according to a (frontal) axis which has nothing to do with Shankar’s (lateral) gaze, while nonetheless remaining dependent on it. Wherein the extreme violence of the single exchange of looks which one feels more than one sees: Shankar’s head, in close up, from the back, the young woman in the depth of field who lifts her head, and Shankar who lowers his, since this vision is too close to that of his sister to be bearable. This does not stop the young woman, shown again in a tight shot, from fixing him with a stare before turning her head, smiling, and leaving, seen from behind (by the camera). For Shankar no longer sees anything, even if the alternation of the last four shots (her/him/her/him) carries the mark of the gaze beyond itself, according to the line of the event. Shankar is alone, twice against the sky, in a tighter and tighter close-up, eyes open as if turned inwards, towards the immaterial off-screen, before collapsing in tears and burying his eyes in his hands in order to see nothing more (this last time he is not looking at us, even though he is so close to us). A scene during which the music, until now dominated by a singing voice, becomes more and more present as the film goes on, doubled by a vibration which reaches a crescendo, the final modulation.
This modulation, as we have seen, and often said, is so diverse that one cannot reduce it. It marries, more or less, the line, the lines of the drama, detaches itself often, sometimes barely, from the myriad forms of instruments, voices and orchestration, making this film an almost uninterrupted score, where each movement of the image (and there are so many) relentlessly captures bodily life, finds itself at once innervated and summoned by its double of sound and melody. But being mainly centred, despite everything, on Nita, everything which touches her and moves her, passing especially through her from Sanat to Shankar (from whom it comes to her), before finally fixing on him after the visit to Nita who is marked for death, this modulation tends thus towards a centre: it is the vibration of too much love devoted to the impossible. Or this could also be called: incest, which is not perhaps the same in this other culture, but which here depends (as in our culture) on the promised and deferred jouissance that creates bodies in torment. Ghatak, assuming, through Shankar, in the light of this risk, his artistic vocation, thus tells us in the rawest fashion how to comprehend the energy and the essence of his cinema haunted by music. A cinema that he wished could be ‘popular’, even if he was only able, like all the greats, to give it the most aristocratic form and force possible.
This is doubtless what Serge Daney had in mind when he encouraged me to rework my analysis in this somewhat different form, describing The Cloud-Capped Star as ‘one of the five or six greatest melodramas in cinema history’.
I would like to thank Emmanuelle Ferrari and Nicole Brenez, who organised this seminar, and Aline Horrisberger, who taped it. Adriano Aprà, who lent me the video. And Charles Tesson, for his assistance.
This piece first appeared in another version, with a commentary on the absence of complementary images, in Traffic no. 4, Autumn 1992.