The Rachel Papers

The Intimate Fantasy

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Desire in Indian cinema is best expressed in dream sequences

ONE OF THE MOST powerful political speeches of the 20th century was Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream.... His dream was more than just a hopeful vision or a wish, but also prophetic. This waking dream or wish for the future is different from the sleeping dream, where the dreamer may not have any control over the dream, but whose interpretations give us great insights into ways in which different cultures understand the workings of the human mind. The one thing these dreams have in common is that although their material and ideas may come from our pasts, they are about our presents and our futures.

The science of sleep is a medical matter, and in today’s world sleep anxieties and insomnia are much discussed, but I am more interested in oneirocriticism, the interpretation of dreams and their potential meanings.

Message dreams are fairly straightforward, being the type where someone appears to say something to the dreamer, perhaps to give a divine message or bring news from the dead, or they can be dreams which point to the future. As teenagers, my friends and I were very excited to sleep with a piece of wedding cake under our pillows so we would dream about our future husbands. I don’t recall it working.

It is the more symbolic dreams which require interpretation that are fascinating. Cultures interpret these in many different ways. There are fascinating accounts in many Indian texts about dreams (usually called swapna, which can also mean sleep) and their meanings.

The Kalpa Sutra tells of the dreams of Mahavira’s mother, Devananda, before his birth. She had 14 dreams which featured symbols such as elephants, jewels and lotus lakes. Her husband, King Siddhartha, interpreted these as meaning she would give birth to a great king. However, when he called interpreters, they told him that these were great rather than common dreams, meaning she would give birth to an Arhat.

Similarly the Buddha’s mother, Maya, dreamt a six-tusked white elephant entered her side, and this was interpreted by wise men as meaning she would give birth to a great one.

Nightmares also feature, as there are spells and charms in the Atharvaveda to ward off bad dreams, so VI: 46 is ‘Against evil dreams’, where sleep, Araru, is the daughter of Yama. Dreams are also important in Ayurveda as they may influence illness.

The Upanishads discuss dreams as well. In the Chandogya Upanishad (8th Prapathika), Prajapati teaches Indra about the Atman (self) in dreaming and non-dreaming states. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has a debate between the sage Gargya and King Ajatashatru over what a sleeping man is. The king says what he has gathered through his faculties from the waking world, his self is imagining. Later in the same text, Yajnavalkya says that swapna is a state between this human world and the other divine world.

The key text to the modern understanding of dreams is Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1899), which argues for the location of dreams in the unconscious—where wishes are censored and so becomes unrecognisable and difficult to analyse. In many ways, this does not seem so different from the wise men who interpreted dreams in the ancient world over 2,000 years ago.

The greatest dream sequence of all is Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi in Awaara. It condenses into a dream many fears and anxieties about the film’s key themes of love, religion, women, motherhood, punishment and crime

Dreams feature in many Indian literary texts. One of the most famous is Bhasa’s play Swapnavasavadatta, a Sanskrit play where King Udayana is led to believe his beloved Queen Vasavadatta has died in a fire so that he can be tricked into a second strategic marriage. One night when he was dreaming of her, she appeared in his room and his confusion between the state of dreaming and being awake is made clear.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905) is a proto-feminist story. An elite Muslim woman, concerned with the status of Indian women, falls asleep, then has a dream about a science-fiction utopia, Ladyland, where men have to live in purdah and women are in charge.

Cinema, which sometimes seems a dreamlike state in itself, often features dreams. Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966) has nightmares while the rest of the world dreams of the great star. In his film Devi (1960), Doyamoyee’s father dreams that she is an incarnation of a goddess and his belief that the dream is true sets off a tragic course of events.

Hindi films are famous for their dream sequences. These are mostly fantasies which allow a song to be pictured in locations extraneous to the plot; so Suraj Hua Madham in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) adds the Pyramids to the film’s exotic locations.

A popular use of the dream sequence is to allow expression of desire. This may be done in a comic fantasy moment such as Mehmood’s song Hum Kaale Hain toh Kya Hua? (Gumnaam, 1965), or when Faizal sees Mohsina at a wedding and dreams she sits down to feed him.

Some dream sequences may allow the audience not only to enjoy a song in a setting different from the rest of the narrative’s, but also be drawn into elaborations of the story and its emotions. Yash Chopra uses them in many films to this end. In Darr (1991), in Chhota sa Ghar, the couple dream that their empty flat is suddenly furnished, and that a wall opens into a Swiss meadow to include romance. In Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), when the romantic couple (Shah Rukh and Madhuri) first express desire, the film cuts from a wedding in Mumbai to a German pastoral scene. In Veer Zaara’s Main Yahan Hoon, the lover sings to his beloved who is about to marry another that he is still with her in spirit but only she can see him.

The greatest dream sequence of all is the one which is reputed to be the first, namely, Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi in Awaara (1951). This nine-minute sequence condenses into a dream many fears and anxieties about the film’s key themes of love, religion, women, motherhood, punishment and crime. The first shots show a spiral staircase surrounded by clouds, presumably heaven. Dancers appear among statues of loops and swirls, singing and sliding down chutes. Rita (Nargis) stands at the top of a flight of stairs, dressed in fine fabric, sequins and shiny hair ornaments, dusted with glitter, singing a love song (Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni). Raj, dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers then appears in hell, where he sings of his desires for love and spring (‘Yeh nahin, yeh nahin zindagi’) as he is surrounded by flames, dancing skeletons and other monsters. In the last sequence, he emerges through clouds to the sound of ‘Om namah Shivaya’ (homage to Lord Shiva) at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to a Trimurti (composite image of Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu), when Nargis bends down to take him by the hand to lead him to heaven. Dressed in an embroidered bodice and skirt, she sings Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi in front of a deity’s statue with flashing lights in the background. She begins to climb the spiral and Raj follows her. They then climb more stairs towards a Nataraja as Nargis appears in dancing clothes. They begin to walk along a twisting road when a giant image of Raj’s nemesis Jagga appears, holding a shining knife. Raj falls down yelling ‘Rita’ as she reaches over him but cannot save him. A montage of images, including one of Raj yelling as Rita appears superimposed, dissolves as Raj wakes up, shouting, “Maa, mujhe bachao (Mother, save me)!”

One of the pre-release controversies about Padmaavat (2018) is that it was rumoured to have a dream sequence between Padmavati and Khilji. It would have made great sense in terms of cinema, but would have been too controversial for cultural sensitivities.