Classic

Metamorphosis: An Arduous Journey

Thematic Analysis of the film The Silence of the Lambs

A classic, critically and commercially acclaimed, and one of the few films to have won Academy Awards in all the top five categories i.e., Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) undoubtedly is a masterpiece.

This psychological thriller is adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel; the screenplay is by Ted Telly and it is directed by Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. [Source – Hollywood Reporter]

The story revolves around a young ambitious FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, who is interviewing a serial killer now in prison, Dr Hannibal Lecter or famously known as Hannibal the Cannibal, to get his help in finding another serial killer – Buffalo Bill.

An astute psychiatrist, Dr Lecter, agrees to cooperate only if he is transferred to a prison of his choice.

The situation aggravates when Buffalo Bill kidnaps a senator’s only daughter so as to finish his ‘woman-suit’ made from real women’s skin. Clarice knows only Dr Lecter can help her, but when he escapes from the custody she is left with unclear anagrams and a few hours to save the senator’s daughter.


Thematic Thread Runs the Story

What is that which helps weave the plot, the characters, the motivations, and the milieu in a story as one? What is that which subtly runs the story? It is the theme/ the central idea/ the core of a story. The plot builds on and the characters reflect the theme, solidifying the thought behind the tale.

In The Silence of the Lambs too it is the theme that gives enough space and opportunities to the screenwriter and the makers to explore the story cinematically.

Adapting a novel into a film script is not that easy a task, one needs to fix the storyline, make it crisp and compact, shuffle and alter it without disturbing its soul, rewrite it using the cinematic language.

The poster of the film. [Source – Wikipedia]

The Silence of the Lambs is a great study to understand film adaptation; not even a second of the screen-time is wasted, with every scene we get closer to catching the serial killer and yet, the suspense continues.


Main Themes in the Film

Metamorphosis

Clarice Starling, Dr Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill – the protagonist, the pivotal character and the antagonist – all want to bring a change in their lives; they instigate, obstruct and fight not fearing the consequences.

“Lecter – Was it a butterfly?

Clarice – Yes. A moth. Just like the one we found in Benjamin Raspail’s head an hour ago. Why does he place them there, Doctor?

Lecter – The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, and from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change, too.”

Clarice’s first meeting with Dr Lecter. [Source – The BFI]

Stifled by his real identity, Buffalo Bill wants to become a transsexual, and after failed attempts to achieve it via sex reassignment at selected few hospitals, he decides to stitch a woman suit; he kills women and skins them for it. Accepting this gruesome act as his destined journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly, he treats his victims as mere objects.

He calls Catherine Martin, the senator’s daughter, ‘it’ and refuses to take her as a person.

“Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it’s told.

Catherine – Mister, my family’ll pay cash. Whatever ransom you’re asking for, they’ll pay it.

Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. Yes, it will, Precious. It will get the hose.”

Though we meet Bill rather late in the film, his deeds speak for him from the very beginning. It is Buffalo Bill’s case that Jack Crawford (from the Behavioral Science Department, FBI) is unable to decode and thus, sends Clarice to meet Dr Lecter in the hope of getting his help.

Dr Lecter sees through Jack Crawford’s plan, but nevertheless decides to play along, one, because this could be his only opportunity to get out of Dr Chilton’s custody and two because he enjoys talking to Clarice, she is like an interesting subject for him.

In his first encounter with Clarice, he understands how desperate she is to get to the bottom of this case, how badly she wishes to catch Buffalo Bill. He astonishes and scares her at the same time; appreciating Clarice’s genuine desire to do well as a detective, he gives her the first hint.

A game of Quid Pro Quo. [Source – Britannica.com]

A change of scene, another place where he could be closer to nature is what he wants in return. Quote –

“What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree or even water.”

And through Clarice lies the way. Playing a game of ‘Quid Pro Quo’, Clarice tells Dr Lecter about the worst day of her life – the day when she tried to save a lamb from getting butchered but failed, allowing Dr Lecter to manipulate her, hoping to gain his trust, determined to know more about Buffalo Bill.

Then, like in the game of chess, Dr Lector moves to check-mate the asylum’s warden Dr Chilton; aware that the abduction of a senator’s daughter by Buffalo Bill could probably be his only chance to escape the life of a prisoner, Dr Lector overtakes both Jack Crawford and Clarice and sides with his ‘nemesis’ Dr Chilton and works out a deal. As demanded he is transferred to the state prison and in exchange he shares his old patient Louis Friend aka Buffalo Bill’s information with the senator.

Confident about breaking away from the makeshift prison at the Courthouse, in his last meeting with Clarice, he, like a teacher, guides a troubled Clarice step by step to understand how Buffalo Bill’s mind works. He asks her to focus on ‘simplicity’ and gives back the case file saying that everything that she needs to know about Buffalo Bill is already in the case file.

Later, he executes his horrifying plan – kills the guards, makes a face mask from one of the guard’s face to fool other officers and once in the ambulance, he kills the medical crew and runs away.

Clarice Starling also wants to bring a change in her life. Her sincere desire to succeed as an FBI trainee is actually, as Dr Lecter psychoanalyse her and reveals, an honest wish for the lambs in her dreams to stop screaming, she wants to save at least one innocent life from getting butchered, she wants to be redeemed. As a child, orphaned after her father was killed, she was helpless and this crippling state of helplessness is what she wants to change forever.

To achieve their set goals, Buffalo Bill and Dr Lecter move forward without any fear, eager to grasp transformation/ freedom, but clever enough to be cautious, while Clarice Starling, vulnerable, anxious yet brave, collects clues, discovers the truth and ultimately meets the butcher before he could make his next kill and ends his journey.


The Strong Feminist Voice

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastically strong feminist film. It talks about, shows and breaks the “male gaze” beautifully. Clarice Starling is not even close to being a damsel in distress; she is a confident independent individual. Her persona, her fighting spirit breaks the stereotypes we all are usually too lazy, slow and comfy to react to.

Still a student, Clarice Starling is called to be a part of an on-going investigation, but Jack Crawford does not reveal his plan outright. He places her forward as a pawn and waits for Dr Lecter to react, not sure if he will agree to play.

When Clarice confronts him about the same, Jack Crawford says that he did it so as to help her win Dr Lecter’s trust as he would have otherwise simply refused to comply.

Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford. [Source – No Film School]

Working in a field with a male majority, Clarice does not hesitate to raise her voice or correct her seniors. Jack Crawford tells the Sheriff while examining another Buffalo Bill victim, to discuss ‘this type of sex crime’ in private indicating that doing so in a young woman’s presence might be inappropriate; when tries to clarify it later he gets a blunt reply from Clarice – quote –

“Jack – Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.

Clarice – It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.

Jack – Point taken.”

To discern what “male gaze” actually is, we, the audience, are placed in Clarice’s position almost every time when Jack Crawford, Dr Chilton, Dr Lecter and Buffalo Bill address her, they see directly in the camera while Clarice looks slightly off the camera, their searing, manipulative gaze falls directly on the viewers.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter. [Source – Cinema Blend]
The disturbing male-gaze. [Source – Dead Cinema Society]

Then there are striking scenes like when Clarice takes the lift at the FBI academy and is the only woman amongst the men who stare at her, also when she tells Sheriff and his men to vacate the room so that she and the FBI team could finish the investigation, every one of them looks straight at her/ the audience, confused seeing a young woman asking them to leave and let her work.

This ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘showing’ of what Clarice goes through in her day to day life, subtly and firmly makes one aware about the disturbing presence of the “male gaze” in our working culture.

Climax! [Source – The BFI]

But here, effortlessly, Clarice Starling becomes the change she and we all wish to see around us. And she does so by simply not giving up – the horrifying experience at Dr Lecter’s cell, the way she is moved in and out of the Buffalo Bill case does not deter her spirit – and when finally she cracks the case and alone faces the mad serial killer, she stands her ground, fighting her way through the darkness, unaware about Buffalo Bill’s night-vision-goggled-eyes following her and fully alert, she fires on hearing him cock his gun. She fires again and again, the dark glass window shatters and light pours in the damp room.

The transformation process concludes here and is in favour of Clarice Starling.


Symbols and Metaphors –

Symbols and metaphors always assist in developing the theme, plot and characters in a story. In movies, it becomes imperative to utilize every bit of screen space to understand the underlying concepts and motifs that cannot always be explained via dialogues.

Death’s-head moth is a symbol of transformation and also of impending doom in the film. In two of the Buffalo Bill’s victims, moth cocoons were found; not his calling card, but it is rather a ritual for him as he killed them in the hope to transform, to break-open his cocoon and sooner or later emerge as a beautiful butterfly.

But as he had to pay for his grisly, despicable acts, in the end, Clarice recognises Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill when in his house a Death’s-head moth flies by her side and rests silently on a thread roll; she chases him in the labyrinth of a basement and shoots him down.

Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb. [Source – Onthisdayinfilm]

Throughout the film, lambs are used as a metaphor for one who is innocent but is still suffering, for a troubled soul wanting redemption. Clarice Starling’s father, a Town Marshal, was killed by two burglars, and an orphan at ten, she could not do anything but watch.

She grew into a brave individual, but still carries that grief, that state of helplessness within and aims to redeem herself by fighting crime. Dr Lecter understands this; he also sketches the profile of Clarice holding a lamb, showing his growing interest in her.

“Have the lambs stopped screaming”, asks Dr Lecter over the phone on Clarice’s graduation day, leaving her surprised. No longer a prisoner, he assures her that he will not come after her and hopes that she will extend the same courtesy towards him. Clarice does not promise him anything.

With this, a well-knitted story comes to a closure where Clarice sleeps peacefully, in the silence of the lambs, but only in the novel. In the film, Dr Lecter leaves Clarice guessing where he could be and hangs up to follow Dr Chilton in the crowd in the Bahamas. Thus, here Clarice’s journey does not end.


Conclusion

Sound clarity is a must when exploring the thematic range of a story. Clarice Starling’s past and present moves parallelly, an aspiring FBI agent she agrees to be psychologically manipulated by Dr Lecter, not only to be a good detective and win praises from Jack Crawford but to truly help rescue Buffalo Bill’s next victim.

Here, it is the theme that builds the plot, structure and moves the characters; it is the theme that writes the screenplay.

The Silence of the Lambs was the first psychological thriller since Rebecca (1940) to win the Academy Award for best picture. A compelling and clever script, tight direction and impeccable acting both by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins make this film an unmissable classic.

With themes like metamorphosis, good versus evil, feminism, male chauvinism and redemption interwoven into the story, the film transcends the single genre of a psychological thriller.

It raises questions for the individual as well as the society for what is nurtured is what comes out of the cocoon, both a butterfly and a death’s-head moth.

The front cover art for the book The Silence of the Lambs
written by Thomas Harris. [Source – Wikipedia]

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La Strada And The Round-Faced Clown

On the road you travel with the familiar and the unfamiliar together. Familiar landscape, known route, desired destination, accompanied by your loved ones and yet with an unfamiliar feeling, a comfortable anxiety, a strange pleasantness, a quiet freedom and a quiet fear. It fluctuates, this feeling, it dances.

Maybe it is ‘change’, for the road takes you on a journey and before you realise it, it changes you.

On the road with just the familiar is a routine and on the road with just the unfamiliar is an adventure, for Gelsomina it was the latter.

La Strada (1954). [Source – IMDB]

Federico Fellini, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, co-wrote and directed La Strada, Italian for ‘the road’, a 1954 film that also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (first of Fellini’s total four wins in this category, the most for any director till date).

[Though spoilers cannot ever mar the magic of a Fellini film, still let me alert you that this article will analyse the story of La Strada. So go watch it first if you have not already.]

The vagabonds, the circus, a fatal incomplete relationship, and the seashore – Fellini’s favourite elements to weave a story – all merge harmoniously to create a tragedy that stays with us in the form of Gelsomina’s round clown face and her innocent eyes, a sketch of whom, Fellini said, acted as the germ of a story for this film.

The excellent Italian actress Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, played the role of Gelsomina. [Source – The Guardian]

Story

Gelsomina is not like other girls, she is a little bit strange says her old mother who has already taken 10,000 lire from Zampano and is begging her to replace her late sister Rosa as Zampano’s wife.

Crying her eyes out, the old mother cannot let go of her simpleton daughter, but has to do so as then she will have ‘one hungry soul less to feed’.

Gelsomina, her old mother and younger sister. [Source – IndieWire]
The superb Anthony Quinn as Zampano. [Source – Media Life Crisis]

Gelsomina is confused but excited at the same time as she would get to visit new places and learn to sing and dance.

But when the neighbour enquires about her return, Gelsomina becomes quiet, she goes and sits in Zampano’s motorbike cart (a cart covered with tarpaulin, attached to the motorbike) and leaves crying and waving at her mother, her six younger siblings who run behind the bike-cart, shouting out her name and waving back.

Zampano’s motorbike cart. [Source – Classic Film Aficionados]

And so, in this sudden, brusque manner Gelsomina joins Zampano, a travelling performer, donning two hats, one as his clown assistant and one as his wife.

A tall, well-built, rough and rogue looking Zampano’s famous street act is to break a 0.5-centimeter thick iron chain bound tightly across his chest; Gelsomina’s role is to first build the tension by playing the tambour, wait for Zampano to show off his strength, and then to go around collecting money in her hat.

Donning two hats. [Source – Wonders in the Dark]
Zampano in the middle of his act. [Source – IMDB]

Sometimes they perform spoofs where Zampano becomes the hunter, aiming with his rifle at Gelsomina the duck and sometimes Gelsomina the clown dances and Zampano plays the tambour.

While she stays dressed as the clown the whole time, Zampano alters his look from macho strongman to a silly giant, now breaking the iron chain, now playing a simpering buffoon.

And the journey continues, with performing for the audience being the highs for Gelsomina and spending money on liquor and women the highs for Zampano.

“I go away… back to my village… it is not because of the work… I like this work, I like being an artist… but I don’t like you”, says a troubled Gelsomina to a drunk and sleepy Zampano, who asks her to “stop the bullshit”; Gelsomina then leaves.

Il Matto walking on a high wire. [Source – IMDB]

Reaching the town, she witnesses a religious procession, watches another street performer, Il Matto (The Fool), walking on a high wire, relishes these new experiences, her eyes gleaming with joy.

But this joy doesn’t last for long, as Zampano reaches there in his bike-cart, thrashes Gelsomina and leaves with her, shouting at the silent drunk onlookers.

Who can speak up against the short-tempered strongman, the brash brawn mind, the rude and cold-hearted? Who else, but The Fool?

Il Matto played by the fantastic Richard Basehart. [Source – IMDB]

Zampano and Il Matto hit off on the wrong foot as Il Matto doesn’t stop giggling, teasing Zampano about his chain-act, calling him an animal, telling the circus owner that they indeed needed one in their circus.

In Roma, St. Paul, a world-famous circus Girafa, presents the audience with its amazing acts. Gelsomina, Zampano, and Il Matto perform on the same platform now.

Sticking to their traits, Il Matto jokes around with Zampano in between his act and Zampano chases him, swearing that he will kill him.

Gelsomina, Zampano, and the circus owner looking at Il Matto walking the rope. [Source – IMDB]
Il Matto interrupting Zampano’s act. [Source – IMDB]
Il Matto training Gelsomina. [Source – American Cinematheque]

Later when Il Matto wishes Gelsomina to be a part of his skit, Zampano roars at him, warning every circus artist that Gelsomina will work only with him.

To cool down a grumbling lion, The Fool strikes again, this time with a bucket full of water and splash, he empties the bucket on Zampano.

Zampano chases Il Matto with a knife; luck favours The Fool as the police intervene.

With Zampano still in jail, Il Matto asks Gelsomina to work with him or join the circus crew, leaving Zampano for good. But understanding Gelsomina’s dilemma, Il Matto tells her that everything, even a stone, has a purpose, and maybe she is meant to stay with the poor brute Zampano.

Gelsomina playing the trumpet. [Source – Little White Lies]

The journey continues and Gelsomina dreams of marrying Zampano, she believes they are meant to be together; the nun, whom they meet in a monastery where they take shelter for a night, also tells her the same, that “we both are travellers; you follow your God, I follow mine.”

But a reckless Zampano is too numb to think so. Moving towards a disaster, Zampano and Gelsomina meet Il Matto one day; a bitter Zampano hits him twice only to accidentally kill him.

Scared and shocked, he then dumps both Il Matto and his car into a nearby stream and runs away with Gelsomina.

A troubled Gelsomina. [Source – IMDB]

“Il Matto, he feels bad”, says Gelsomina and cries every time Zampano tries to talk to her; she looks shattered, she whimpers or stays quiet.

Zampano asks her if she wants to return home, but she refuses to, saying that Il Matto had suggested her to stay with Zampano.

Travelling in a snowy region, after a gap of ten days, Gelsomina steps out of the bike-cart; a haggard Zampano tells her that he did not mean to kill Il Matto, that he should not be punished for an accident.

Wavering thoughts make Gelsomina enjoy the cold weather and then make her cry for late Il Matto.

Before abandoning Gelsomina. [Source – Charles Matthews]

Finding Gelsomina sound asleep, Zampano, in his desperation leaves; he keeps some cash, her wears, and the trumpet by her side. He looks at her as he quietly drags the bike-cart, starts it at some distance, and drives away.

A few years later Zampano, now working with another circus group, living with another woman, performing the same chain-act, on a roadside hears the tune that Gelsomina used to play on the trumpet.

A woman who was humming the tune tells him that her father gave shelter to a strange girl some four-five years back and that she picked the tune from her. When he asks about her whereabouts, the woman says that she is no more; the woman asks him if he knew her, but Zampano leaves without saying a word.

That night a drunk Zampano, after having a fistfight with some people at the bar, comes to the seashore, washes his face, sits down, looks at the sky and breaks down. All alone there, he cries.

Zampano at the seashore. [Source – Vague Visages]

Characters

Gelsomina represents the gentle femininity, one who always forgives, makes sacrifices and is loyal, and Zampano the harsh masculinity, one who is stubborn, insensitive, and also self-destructive; both are the extremes, lacking a balance.

Zampano made it a point to tell everyone that Gelsomina knows nothing and felt jealous if others praised her. At the monastery when the nun is left amazed by how well Gelsomina plays the trumpet (a tune that she picked from Il Matto), Zampano goes to a side and starts chopping woods, to show off his prowess.

He needed her, but could not admit this and thus, never changed his behaviour; in the end, he meekly chose to run away instead of facing Gelsomina’s honest eyes.

Il Matto, whose entry formed a triangle, though acted like a fool, laughing every time in a high squeaky giggling manner, understood them all better. Il Matto valued relations and he valued life, but nevertheless was a lonely soul.

As fate would have it, Il Matto and Gelsomina both die, and Zampano, reaping what he had sown, lives a miserable life.

Even a stone has a purpose. [Source – SP Film Journal]
Feminine Masculine. [Source – Film at Lincoln Center]

Music

The melancholic yet dreamy tune that enchants and leaves a listener yearning is one of the key elements in the movie; the entire score was composed by the brilliant Nino Rota.

First played by Il Matto on his kit violin, later by Gelsomina on her trumpet, the tune is a leitmotif that marks these two character’s inner voice.

It is through this nostalgic tune that Gelsmina’s inner voice is heard by those who listen.

The perky track that introduces the circus appropriately captures the attention, alerting the public to gather around and get ready for the show. The element of humour in it announces the arrival of the fools, the jokers, the clowns amongst the crowd.

Theme

In a post-world war Italy, when poverty shackled the majority, the travelling performers set out to earn a living by entertaining the masses.

They left their sorrows, their losses behind and moved from village to village, town to town to sing, dance, and make others laugh. A huge responsibility shared by the marginal class.

Through Gelsomina, Zampano, and Il Matto’s lives, we got a glimpse of the world of the vagabonds, the gipsies, the outcasts. They were crude and curt like Zampano, simple and full of warmth like Gelsomina, witty and notorious like Il Matto; they restricted themselves to the periphery, mingling with the rest of the world now and then, living un-noticed, bringing their unique charm and performing spectacles only heard of in tales.

The nomadic still carry magical chalks, bordering the society, with us on one side and all of them on the other side.

On the other side, life is too unpredictable and ruthless; throughout the film, Gelsomina enquired about her late sister Rosa – whether Zampano treated Rosa in the same manner as he treats her, whether Rosa knew about Zampano’s affairs, whether Rosa had met Il Matto – she had taken Rosa’s place but never had wished for the same end. Alas, she had to face it too.

And in this way, the story completes a circle.  

On the other side. [Source – IMDB]

Strange for the circus people and even The Fool was Gelsomina, the way she walked, talked, and especially her face; Il Matto in a scene says, ‘What a strange face! Are you really a woman? You look like an artichoke!’, and yet, this outcast amongst the outcasts was the most humane.

Gelsomina’s loving and kind behaviour is a reminder of what Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist, had said about civilisation –

“Margaret Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die … A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”

Quote from Ira Byock’s book ‘The Best Care Possible.’
The round-faced clown. [Source – Fellini: Circle of Life]

La Strada

Directed by – Federico Fellini; Screenplay by – Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano; Story by – Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli; Cast -> Gelsomina – Giulietta Masina, Zampano – Anthony Quinn, Il Matto – Richard Basehart; Music by – Nino Rota; Cinematography – Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini; Edited by – Leo Catozzo

Fellini in action. [Source – IMDB]

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Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam – A tale of role-reversals and downfalls

Film Analysis

The beautiful Meena Kumari as Choti Bahu (Bibi). [Source – bollywoodirect.com]

In the game of cards, the roles of a King, Queen and Jack are determined, but in the real-life nothing is certain, in the real-life the roles often interchange, a King becomes a salve, a Queen a maid and a Jack a conqueror. Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel, Saheb Bibi Golam (1952), narrates one such tale of a bygone era of flourishing feudalism that ultimately saw its ashen downfall.

The Hindi film Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), keeping the spirit of the novel alive, enriches its impact through the well-knitted, tight screenplay, realistic yet charismatic direction and spellbinding performances.


Adaptation

Literary adaptation to any other medium always changes the story; it inevitably enhances an aspect of it and ignores the other. The audio-visual medium of cinema chooses the part that ‘shows the story’ rather than that which ‘tells the story’. This film has very beautifully matched the tonality of a novel; scenes, transitions, songs and dialogues all combine to give it a mystical forgotten tale-like feel.

Let us see how the first scene is structured in the film:-

The first scene begins with someone flipping through the pages of Bimal Mitra’s novel that fuses into the image of a huge mansion that is now lying in a complete state of ruin; labourers are digging and clearing the place, pulling down the giant pillars; labourers who were once not allowed to enter the royal mansion are now seen shovelling its remains.

Then enters the Ghulam in suit-boot, grey haired and gazes at the ruin that was once a palace, a symbol of rich feudal lords; he does not need to say anything to the audience, his demeanour and troubled look reveal enough, there is a mystery and he is the only one who can narrate it. This is how the film begins, with a long flashback.

Just like a page-turner novel, the film hooks its audience right from the beginning. We know now that the Ghulam survived the downfall, but what about the Sahib and Bibi.


Plot & Characters

The Ghulam

Atulya Chakraborty aka Bhootnath, played by Guru Dutt, comes to the city of Calcutta, looking for a job. The protagonist is as ignorant as the audience about the drama that is yet to unfold and thus, is the best character to relate with.

Bhootnath’s brother-in-law, a teacher who lives in the quarters of the grand mansion, warns him to ignore the ‘bade log’ (big people) just as they ignore all their petty lodgers.

He gets a job in a factory that produces Mohini Sindhoor – vermilion that is supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The factory owner’s daughter, Jaba, astounds him with her wit and Brahmo Samaji attitude.

Fantastically, the plot and the main character together move this story forward. Bhootnath’s love story begins when he meets Jaba and parallelly the plot reveals the glittering feudal world, seen through Bhootnath’s eyes, building a mysterious charm capturing both his and the audience’s attention – one night, when he hears a painful voice singing about her misfortunes, he wonders about her, who is she? Who is Choti Bahu?

Bibi

The great Meena Kumari played the role of Choti Bahu, the unlucky wife of the younger brother of the two Zamindars. The fact that she is called Choti Bahu by one and all, that no one, not even her husband, calls her by her first name, suggests a lot about her character. She is truly beautiful, elegant, a devoted wife, the youngest daughter-in-law in the family and this is her job.

It is expected from her that she will forever maintain this status and not complaint in any way. After all what is there to complain about? She has everything – silk saris, jewelry, servants and a palace to call her home. That is why when she requests her beloved husband to stay back for one night instead of visiting his mistress, the husband is shocked and reminds her that he is a feudal lord and this is not only his right, but this is how he can earn a good reputation amongst other lords, he even asks her what sort of a lord spends nights with his wife.

Choti Bahu meets Bhootnath and asks for his help; she wants him to get her a packet of Mohini Sindoor so that she can win her husband’s love back and to do it secretly because women of her status does not approve of such methods. At first Bhootnath is struck by Choti Bahu’s beauty, he stares at her speechless, only later to feel pity for her, struck by her helplessness.

As the story unfolds we see how tragic a life Choti Bahu is living, like a bird in the cage. This character is very well crafted. Choti Bahu’s predicament sheds light on the hidden and ugly aspect of not only the society, the women folk, but also the individual.

When Choti Bahu is nearing her end Bhootnath tries to stop her from drinking, he even holds her hand, taken aback by his guts, she says, ‘Main Choti Bahu hun’ (I am Choti Bahu), reminding him his place that of a ghulam. This scene also highlights how an individual creates an identity and then clings to it forever; whoever then challenges her/his identity becomes her/his enemy.

Everyone is a foe for Choti Bahu, everyone who does not understand how dedicated she is, how selfless she is. Though drinking starts to kill her, she, in a troubled and an incomplete way, stays happy thinking that she is following her husband’s order and thus, fulfilling the duty of a loyal wife.

Meena Kumari’s acting heightens the dramatic impact of each scene and every dialogue. The song ‘Na jao saiyan chuda k bainya, kasam tumhari main ro padungi… ro pdungi’ has become eponymous to her. After her track begins, all the scenes are more or less about her. Bhootnath worries for her, Jaba is jealous of her without even having an encounter with her and her husband, indifferent to Choti Bahu throughout, digs his and her grave foolishly with his own hands.

Sahib

Chhote Babu, played by Rehman and Majhle Babu, played by D.K. Sapru are the Zamindar brothers who stay busy in their own silly world – one busy attending the dancer’s performance every night and the other busy either enjoying his royal cat’s wedding or pumping up for a pigeon war with his neighbouring counterpart. Blinded by excess of everything both the brothers bring their own downfall.

Majhle Babu assuming that Choti Bahu and Bhootnath are having an affair takes a reckless step; he gets Bhootnath beaten up and abducts Choti Bahu, murdering her in the end. But it is not Majhle Babu’s arrogance or the social dogma alone that killed Choti Bahu, it is her husband’s doing as well.

It is Chote Babu who made his wife addicted to alcohol, not only by asking her to be like his dancer mistress, but also by not giving her the respect and love a wife deserves. By the time he accepts his fault, he is bed ridden and it is all too late. His misery ends with his death.

The portrayal of the Sahibs of this era facing the collapse of the Zamindari system is written and directed wonderfully in the film. The two brothers come across as truly pitiful characters.


Ending

The flashback gets over and Bhootnath is informed by one of the labourers that they have found a grave on the site. He rushes to the spot only to be completely shocked to see Choti Bahu’s gold bangles on the skeleton; he remembers what she had told him, that when she dies, she should be decked up properly, with vermillion in her head, so that everyone can say that ‘Sati Laxmi’ passed away. Imagining the beautiful Choti Bahu, Bhootnath with a heavy heart steps back from the site; he sits in the carriage next to his wife Jaba and leaves the place.

The ending surprises the audience once again; that Choti Bahu was murdered and buried in the mansion itself is not something that Bhootnath or the viewer would have expected. It also closes two chapters – one of Choti Bahu’s disappearance and the second, of Jaba and Bhootnath’s relationship. They both are shown as a married couple, contrary to the novel’s ending.


Conclusion

Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam is an amazing adaption; it does justice to both the medium of the novel and cinema. Chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars, it was soon rejected by the academy stating that they sternly forbid showing alcoholic women in their culture.

The concept, quite bold for that period, is actually much deeper than the mere portrayal of a woman as an alcoholic. It has captured that moment in time where the powerful and rich were falling down and the servants were free to do as they wished. It is striking that the suffering labour-class where equally surprised by this change as they too had adjusted well to the feudal system. Bansi, Chote Babu’s personal attendant, jobless after his master’s death, tells Bhootnath that he has started working in the train station and that no one lives in the mansion anymore.

Therefore, the film is not only an interesting watch to study its screenplay, but also for those who wish to write/ make an adaptation, those who wish to study how both plot and characters can drive the story forward and how an individual fits in the larger scheme of things.

In the game of cards and in the real life, every Sahib, Biwi and Ghulam can overthrow the other and win; it is all a matter of time.


[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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Jagte Raho – Staying awake of the social realities

Film Analysis

Poster of the film Jagte Raho (Stay Awake).
[Source – Wikipedia]

Raj Kapoor, the showman of Hindi cinema, has given dozens of super hits as an actor, a director and a producer. What made it possible, other than his brilliant performing skills, is the richness of the story, good quality of screenplays and earnestly written dialogues in the majority of his films.

One such film is Jagte Raho (Stay Awake), written and directed by the legendry Sombhu Mitra, along with Amit Maitra and screenplay by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.

A social satire, this 1956 film is about a poor villager – we meet Raj Kapoor in his famous Chaplinesque avatar, though in a dhoti this time – who comes to the city with the hope of making a better life. Jagte Raho happens in real-time i.e. in a single night’s time when the protagonist feeling thirsty enters an apartment block and is simply presumed to be a thief. Thus, begins the epic cat and mouse chase where not one but many thieves are caught apart from the protagonist, who is reminded by a little girl that if he is not the thief then he should not worry at all. The poor villager then leaves the building and the chaos behind and meets Nargis (guest appearance) in a temple who finally gives him water to drink.


Setting the Tone and Overshadowing

Without wasting a second, the tone of the film is set – it is night time in the city and the watchmen are roaming the streets shouting ‘jagte raho, jagte raho!’ Who are they asking to stay awake… themselves, the residents, the thieves or the viewers? Perhaps the message is for all.

We then meet the protagonist who is searching for some water to drink. When a watchman finds him kneeling against a fire hydrant, he rebukes and pushes him down, calling him ‘Chotta kahin ka’ (petty thief) going just by his shabby look and threatens him of dire consequences if he saw him there again. This is overshadowing i.e. what is going to happen later on in the story is subtly hinted right in the beginning – the poor villager is going to be framed as a thief.


The First Song

With roughly seven minutes into the film we are presented with the first song. A drunkard (played by Motilal), lost in his world, sings these sarcastic lines –

“Zindagi Khawab Hai, Khawab Me Jhuth Kya Aur Bhala Sach Hai Kya… Sab Sach Hai.”

Translation – Life is a dream, in a dream what is a lie and what is a truth… everything is a truth.

Songs in Hindi films are different from the Western Musicals, for it does not only elevate the emotion of the scene, but takes the story forward in every possible way – introducing new characters, hinting of what is approaching, adding to the underlying theme of the story.

Here, the drunkard returns in the story, not able to distinguish between a man and a container, between his wife and the poor villager. Thus, touching the theme of the story – the elite ‘dressed in silk’ are either busy drinking or hoarding money, while the poor ‘a tramp’ is crushed even if he asks just for some water.

Jagte Raho’s hit music is given by Salil Choudhary and the lyrics are written by Shailendra and Prem Dhawan.


The Conflict

The main conflict in Jagte Raho is between the honest and the fraudster, between the poor villager and the hypocritical lot. The protagonist stumbles upon the secret world of the civilized city men complexing the conflicting situation further.

His first few encounters occur with the young lovers, the gambler who tries to steal his own wife’s jewellery and the drunkard; these situations are comic as wells as sensitive, highlighting the predicaments of the so-called upper class.

The movie then takes a dramatic turn as the Police are called for an investigation. A journalist, disappointed on finding that the information about the dacoits is false, has to make do with a resident’s photograph who is arrested for brewing liquor illegally in his apartment. This causes a silent alarm bell to ring for many residents; a Punjabi song highlights this beautifully –

“Oye aiwe duniya dewe duhai/ jhootha pondi shor/ te apne dil to pooch ke vekho/ kaun nahi hai chor/ te ki mein jhooth bolya, koi na…”

Translation – The world appeals for no reason, the liar makes a hue and cry. Why don’t you ask your heart, who is not a thief! Hey, have I lied? No!

The poor villager finally meets the biggest thug of all, a foreign return business man who mints fake money with help of a few others; when the thug finds out that the villager knows all about him, he first tries to kill him, but with the residents knocking on his door, he quickly fills the villager’s pockets with all the fake money and pushes him out through the window.

Hanging to a pipe, the poor villager is attacked by the entire society with stones until he empties his pockets and showers the crowd with the fake money; the residents immediately forget the poor villager and fight amongst themselves to collect the notes.


Culmination

The climax holds its intensity till the last scene, though the verbose speech by the poor villager on the terrace mars the impact of the silence he maintained until then. Scenes like juxtaposing the image of Christ to the bleeding poor villager adds to the melodrama.

A little girl is rightly chosen by the writer for speaking the truth as children rarely hesitate from doing so. The poor villager realises the truth and then looking fearless, he walks out; neither the Police nor the residents notice him; the situation is frantic as all the criminals in the building are getting arrested one by one.

It is early morning now and he finds a lady singing in a temple –

“Jaago Mohan Pyaare Jaago/ Navyuga chumein nain thare…”

Translation – Wake up dear Mohan, a new day is here to welcome you.

The film ends here as the lady gives the poor villager water to drink.


Writing Style

Jagte Raho is not a hard core mystery or a thriller yet it endeavors to keep the viewer throughout on the edge. Following the linear structure, each scene has a micro story that is disrupted by the protagonist for he unknowingly strips the ones who are masked.

Though an off-beat topic was selected by the RK Productions, it was made sure that this film is liked by the masses; hence, the script is full of slapstick comedy, songs and dramatic visuals.


Theme

The theme of Jagte Raho is jagte raho; the makers are warning all to stay awake for the real criminal lurks within every individual, who waits just for an opportunity to overpower you. In the film, the poor villager tries to steal the counterfeit money, but his consciousness jolts him and he does not take the money. His consciousness is in contrast to the collective consciousness of the public.


Conclusion

While a satire, Jagte Raho chooses only partially the realistic approach to narrate its story. In fact, the majority of the characters, including the protagonist, are clichéd and some even come across as frivolous and yet, as a whole, the film engages and entertains. And so, keeping in mind the era in which it was made, this film stays to be a good study for a screenplay writer.


[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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Mrinal Sen’s Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine)

Film Analysis

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drought-1745153_1920-1024x683.jpg
Famine.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

A voice narrates – “7th September 1980, a party from Calcutta, a film troupe is going to a village for shooting. The name of the village is Hatui. The name of the film is Aakaler Shandhane.”

The opening credits roll as we, along with the film troupe in cars, enter the village lane noticing the green fields, blue sky, rough road, dirt and poor villagers who are in full contrast to the vivacity of the song sung by the troupe. This is highlighted by the very first dialogue of the film by a character, a random villager standing on the roadside –

“The gentlemen are here for taking snaps of the famine… but the famine has enveloped us all.”

*

A story within a story, Aakaler Shandhane (1982), is a poignant portrayal of reality and our perception of it. The director (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) knows and believes in his story, he is determined, his research is complete, he has photographs of the Bengal famine of 1943, of a mini famine in 1959, of 1971 – he says, “remember the Bangladesh war”; he thinks that is what one needs to make a film on Bengal famine.

But the director is absolutely ignorant about 1980, the present time, his time, and so when the Hatui village reveals the crippling similarities between the famine year and the present, the director feels at his wits’ end. He does then what is suggested to him – to leave and complete the film in a studio – for the ‘famine-stricken’ village could no longer entertain any of them.

*

A still from the film; Smita Patil as a village woman.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

Smita Patil plays the role of a village woman, a wife married to a stubborn husband, who will die, but not bow down; this wife, for the sake of her little baby, accepts the famine, accepts exploitation, accepts filth and brings home a handful of rice and oil to prepare a meal in her dusty kitchen.

The husband goes mad with anger and picks up the little baby, ready to kill his own child for it unknowingly became the cause of bringing blasphemy to their household; Smita shouts and so does Durga. The director says “CUT”. Durga, a villager, standing in the crowd could not bear the pain, afraid for the child she shouted unaware of the camera and the art of acting. Every eye then stares at her, she hides her moist eyes and leaves.

*

Durga lives in the 80s, but finds a resemblance with Smita Patil’s character of the 40s – and why would not she, their lives resonate with gloom, caused by famine and its aftermath. Both are suffering, both have a child to feed, a husband to serve, a famine that torments and a society that reminds of it forever.

Quiet like a candle, Durga becomes a flambeau in the end; burning with rage she asks her incompetent husband what is wrong if the director offered her a role in the film, what is wrong if the role is of a prostitute. She tells him that when a lady, in those ugly famine days, can step out the confines of her house, why cannot she?

The old village schoolmaster asks the same question from all the respectable men of the village, reminding them about their ancestors who were as opportunistic as the film’s womanising contractor.

*

It becomes clear that the famine of 1943 was not just about starvation or five million deaths, it was also about what humans are and what humans can become in trying situations; and that hunger alone did not kill, corrupt minds and hollow traditions killed too… are still killing.

And the most affected were the poor, the weak… the females – they lost their children, their families, their lands and themselves. The director’s attempt to cast a villager for the role of a girl, who is forced to become a prostitute, creates chaos so profound that in no time the whole village starts detesting the entire troupe, no one comes to help, no fans, nothing. What else will a film dealing with the topic of famine bring, but cursed memories of the past? The villager who spoke the first dialogue of the film now comments –

“The gentlemen have created a famine after coming to make a film on famine.”

*

But what about the elite… they are now long extinct. The palace in which the film troupe settles is almost in ruins. There lives a couple – a lady and her bedridden husband – the relatives of the king. While the rest of the inhabitants have left the luxuries of this palace and shifted to the cities, the presence of this couple is also but a mere illusion of the past. When the bed-ridden husband dies, the lady aptly says that everything is over.

Twice there are talks about the photographs of the famine, on one occasion a game is played – one is to guess by looking at the pictures to which period it belongs. When Smita Patil shows a picture that is completely dark, a character says it is the photo of ‘load shedding… power crises’ and everyone laughs, then another gives it a poetic touch and calls it ‘darkness at noon’ and then finally Smita Patil gives it the title ‘past, present and future’; none of them thought that this darkness will eventually force them to abandon the film shoot and leave.

Into this darkness we see Durga fading away at the very end; the narrator tells us that her frail little child died after some time, her husband fled away and Durga was left all alone.   

*

The story structure, which is subtly linear, seamlessly integrates the characters with the plot highlighting the contrast between the film troupe’s “idea of famine” and the actual impact of the many famines still reverberating in the village.

The First Plot Point and the Second Plot Point appear visually the same i.e. both are the scenes where the photographs of the famine are shown and talked about; the former is where the director, confident about his research, is showing his actors the photographs of 1943 famine and telling how while the World War II struck the rest of the world, in their land “people just starved and dropped dead”, in the latter scene, they play a guessing game – “to which famine does the photograph belong”. In both the scenes, the horridness of the famine photographs is seen in stark contrast to the amusement of the film troupe.

The story takes a turn, naturally so, after both these plot points, taking the troupe and the audience closer to the seriousness that the reality of famine holds. In the climax we see that the entire village opposes and loathes the film troupe, the main characters find themselves completely defeated, and neither the modern nor the rural people are able to do anything about the famine that stared at them.

The original brochure of the film.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

This masterpiece by Mirnal Sen won National Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Editing; it also won Silver Bear, Special Jury Award at 31st Berlin International Film Festival.   

Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine), searched for an answer, an answer that is still due.


[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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