India: Matri Bhumi (1958)

Last weekend, the UCLA film archive screened one of Roberto Rossellini’s rarest films, India (1958); according to Peter Brunette in his informative book on the filmmaker, the only print available in the US for years was an unsubtitled, black-and-white copy owned by the Pacific Film Archive, so it was a joy to see a rare color print despite its less-than-stellar quality. It’s one of Rossellini’s most acclaimed films; Godard once mentioned it in the same breath with Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico, Murnau’s Tabu, and Welles’ It’s All True; like those works, it’s a loving tribute to a foreign land by a traveling artist.

Rossellini’s casual and spontaneous (some say anti-formal) filming style often has the surprising effect of intensifying viewer perceptions, lending screen events the impression of fleeting, precious historical moments. The dominant moment here is 1957, just a few years after India’s independence, during significant technological and social change. Like Paisan (1946), the film is a collection of dramatic vignettes; in between them it plays in documentary mode, complete with an all-knowing, informing narrator. That this objective, third person perspective continually shifts into subjective, first person perspectives (three of the four vignettes are narrated by their protagonists) is one of Rossellini’s structural methods for introducing and immersing Western viewers into the Indian milieu, a method that fuses education, insight and empathy.

As it turns out, the film’s belated North American exposure has another historical resonance: its co-screenwriter–one-time Cahiers du cinÈma critic, human rights activist, and Iranian diplomat Fereydoun Hoveyda–passed away just last November. Though he doubtless had more important things to do than record DVD commentaries, it’s saddening to think what a fascinating cultural, personal, and cinephiliac perspective he could have offered any future video release of this film (or its related French/Italian miniseries.) Alternatively, you can read some brief notes Hoveyda wrote for Anthology Film Archives, here.

The vignette structure suits Rossellini’s organic method of filming, but it’s also an essential part of his multifaceted and integrative approach to understanding his subject. Instead of offering a single, linear investigation or narrative tale, he offers several tales and entrusts their potential for harmony or divergence to the viewer. Yet certain themes emerge: a story of first love is compared with the mating rituals of elephants; a young father helps build a dam but has to leave the city after its completion; an elderly man struggles with his contemplative life when technology intrudes upon the jungle; a man dies and his trained monkey becomes lost between the human and animal worlds. The film is as much a meditation on the stages of life and human existence as it is a questioning look at the effects of modernization, yet none of these themes are schematically rendered. The film develops them in fluid, undefined ways.

Before and after its vignettes, India is bookended by hurried montages of the sights and sounds of Bombay, emphasizing its vast population and masala cultural diversity (an aspect Rossellini’s endlessly curious, magpie mind clearly cherishes) while suggesting a macrocosm for the film’s intermediate magnifications. The anonymous narration of these sequences is dryly informative, yet idealizing, warm, and not without humor: after ruminating on the city’s impressive cultural tolerance, the film inserts a shot of an eccentric building, to which the narrator quips, “They even tolerate this architecture!” Rossellini’s Western romance for India is never in question, but it’s tempered with ironies and conundrums that prevent the film from ever becoming sentimentalized.

India is a difficult film to summarize; its whole is much greater than its parts. Its narratives and narrations are basic and its naturalistic style often seems direct to the point of “artlessness,” but–without wanting to mystify its accomplishment–its structure renders the Rossellian magic that prompts revelations, which appear unforced, spontaneous, and unending; the film has dominated my thinking all week. Even Godard seemed hard pressed to pinpoint its unique affect, cryptically describing it as “the creation of the world” and promising to write about it at length in a future article of Cahiers (which Tom Milne points out he never did). May it some day be more readily available for the repeated scrutiny it fully deserves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s