Cinema: Essay

Beyond the Breathless and the Restless

Gurvinder Singh is a film director. This is an edited version of his lecture at the symposium ‘Against Storytelling’ held in Delhi recently
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Let it be the feelings that bring about the events in films, not the other way around

THE IMAGE ON the right is from the prologue of Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, or Alms for the Blind Horse, a film dealing with the alienation and exploitation of marginalised castes in Punjab that I made in 2011. It is based on a novel of the same name by the celebrated Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh. When I shared the film with a prestigious international film festival, the director of the festival enthusiastically included it in the programme. I could not have asked for more for my debut feature. But my joy at having been selected for this elite festival was shortlived, as within a few days I received a ‘list’ of suggested cuts and changes, which, though not obligatory on my part to implement, was nevertheless meant for me to seriously consider for the ‘betterment’ of the film. And a major part of this suggested overhaul included getting rid of this prologue, which ran for about nine minutes, leading to the opening credits. The programmer argued that it does not in any way impact the story of the film. That the story could very well begin after this sequence of a ‘family waking up’ in the twilight hour and going about their mundane daily routine: a daughter struggling to light firewood wet with dew; father lying listless in the courtyard after waking up; mother too tired to wake up early; son too lazy to take goats for grazing. Perhaps the programmer felt these ‘events’, if one could call them so, were not worthy of the soon-to-unravel conflict, and it was better to get directly into the meat of things than to create a framework for them; it was an argument not dismissible in its entirety if the only purpose of cinematic narrative was to posit cause and effect, conflict and resolution, or a cycle of those. But is that the only reason films are made and viewed? What would be lost if I were to remove this entire segment from the film? What would the film gain other than reduced time length, if that’s a welcome gain in the first place? For me, it was very clear that the film would become experientially poorer. It might not be affected spatially or thematically, but the quality of experience and attention would undergo an unwelcome change. And if the film underwent an experiential change, whose film would it be?

According to Henri Bergson, the whole is not given or giveable, because according to him it is ‘open’, because its nature is to endure constantly, or to give rise to something new. Each time we find ourselves confronted with a duration, or are in a duration, we may conclude that there exists somewhere a whole which is changing, and which is open somewhere. Was the curator looking for a quick closure and did not have the necessary quality of attention to endure, or was she acting and fore-warning me on behalf of an audience she perceived to lack this quality? Perhaps.

I stuck to my guns and refused to oblige the festival curator. Though the festival did screen the film, I was given a cold shoulder at the event. I was also informed that my refusal to comply with the suggested cuts finished my chances of winning any award. ‘Welcome to the world of curatorship,’ I said. But such instances only steel your resolve and make you even more stubborn in inflicting the misery of ‘time’ and ‘attention’ on your audience.

Attention, or dhyaan, is an idea I first came across sitting in a classroom with my teacher Mani Kaul. Till then, the word only conveyed an idea of command and discipline. I wondered what it had to do with cinema.

Having been taught in film school that film thrived on privileged instants, on the Eisensteinian model of movements or developments extracted from moments of crisis, on collision of ideas and thematic reasoning; enduring or attending to information, however rarefied or saturated and unfolding in time, was perhaps what had escaped all of us. It changed my way of looking at cinema, of looking through the camera. From an obsession with space and information, I started seeking out duration, time and attention. The film turned from a visual art into a delightful temporal form. From information juxtaposed from one set to another set, it turned into a juxtaposition of attentions and durations, of tonalities and temporal volumes.

It rid me of the notion that cinema was a visual art. The visual was easy to grasp and create and replenish. The way of seeing, the angle of seeing, the character of light on objects and faces and bodies, the arrangement of objects, the graphic quality of the image were all in the domain of the visible. It was the material of cinematic image, concrete and tangible, that constituted narration in conjunction with a relay of words. But without knowing, the obsession with the image had become a hindrance. Was it merely information that one was chasing? How could an image turn from carrier of information into a carrier of feelings?

I got back to my own experiences of reading literature, listening to music and watching films. The films that had me hooked were films which I could not grasp, the films in which I was not even mentally present in the world of the story unfolding on the screen. The best films were the ones which took me ‘elsewhere’. Or reading One Hundred Years of Solitude without even bothering to know about the ‘X Y Z’ of the story and its plot points. Just going on reading because it was a thrill to read, because the words were a delight to confront, because the descriptions were leading to vivid imaginations of spaces and textures and smells and sounds and faces and colours. The writing was leaving impressions which one need not decode but which left one with curiosity about the external and internal world. If someone asked me what the story was, I could not say even a sentence about it. At least, that is my memory of it now. Or maybe I could at that time.

Bergson in the first chapter of Matter and Memory theorises: there are not only instantaneous images or movement images; there are finally time images—that is, duration images— change images, relation images and volume images which are beyond movement itself.

That which is beyond movement has to be beyond the spatial, beyond the visible and graspable. Can duration itself be that image? If evocation of feelings is the ultimate goal of cinematic storytelling, then perhaps yes, duration can be that carrier. The resonance of an image of a tree unfolding in time will undergo drastic changes in perception, first of course in relationship to the set of images it is juxtaposed with, but more significantly with the time volume it occupies in the unfolding set of durations. The immediate feeling will be decoded from the angle and distance of view, the magnification of its physicality, the quality of light falling on the tree and its surroundings, and whether there is movement of objects impacting its presence, or whether the camera itself is mobile or immobile. This decoding is directly linked to the essential time required for this information to register.

Let’s say there is an objective idea of this time duration. The Hollywood director or the editor will say, ‘Cut. That’s it. I need not show it longer. It has done its job. Let’s move on to the next set.’ But perhaps someone else will come along and say, ‘I am immersed in it and would want to stay immersed a little longer. I am immersed in the experience it is creating for me.’ Or just the opposite, someone else would say, ‘I don’t want the feeling to register completely. It should be just like a whiff which came and vanished. But it has carried your senses along or even distracted them. It has provoked your sensibility to wonder.’

Both, according to me, are valid means to feelings, one perhaps leaving you breathless, and the other perhaps leaving you restless. The ‘objective’ sense of duration is perhaps the most obvious which kills your sensibility to wonder—because that sense reduces every set of objects to possessing an identical and objective set of notions and associations for the viewer. It reduces the seen and the seer to an average sensibility of meaning, and of looking and grasping things. Cinema seen as a series of object sets organised to create a series of qualities of attentions, each one having the possibility of being abruptly killed in an instant and reborn with a new condition.

What is this non-significant and what is its importance in the scheme of storytelling, especially for the filmmaker? Our lives don’t comprise of significant instants every moment of our breathing. So why should a work of art aspire to that unrealistic objective? To create is to tie new relationships between persons and things. And extended to film, it involves tying new relationships between time itself which can give rise to new feelings. And as Bresson said: “Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.”