Kurosawa’s world

For Kurosawa, perspectives matter. Truth is ephemeral in his world, almost Heisenberg like. Who you are matters. But, who you want to be matters even more.

The ability to deceive others is almost synonymous with life. Yet, humans are unique in their ability to deceive themselves. This is what allows human to transform themselves from villains to heroes and vice versa, at will. Kurosawa realised very early that cinema is more vulnerable to this than any other narrative device.

Kurosawa explores the limits of narration in this complex compass-less world where the narrator is always unreliable. Without the narration, truth is like the ever shifting sands. Thus, Kurosawa’s movies are also his encomium to the vagaries of life itself.

In Rashmon (1950) something terrible happens. Each character in the movie narrates the story in a different way. The viewer’s first instinct is to reconcile the differences. Yet, there are some differences that cannot be reconciled. You start shuffling through the stories in your head, while you try to reconcile the differences. And then you realise that the movie is about who the characters want to be and not about what actually happened. By the end of the movie you are no wiser about what happened but you do learn a lot about the people involved. What is surprising is what you learn about characters in the movie and yourself. Of course, vanity and human frailty drives these characters. Yet, the characters are frail and vain in ways that are really surprising.

While watching the movie, something dawned on me. I have lived through episodes in my life that are as intense and as distressing as Rashmon itself. And yet, through that experience, I learnt very little about actual events of my life and learnt much more about people who lived around me. Truth is ephemeral at best. Yet, life is as substantial as the people you choose to surround yourself with.

Seven Samurai (1954) is more of a jingoistic film made in the shadows of a Japan coming to terms with its own frailty. Yet, there is more. People and their perspectives collide in what is a thinly veiled war movie. A hapless medieval Japanese village seeks the help of seven freelance samurais to help defend their village against the periodic onslaught by marauding bandits. There is camaraderie amongst the samurai. The villagers are a loose coalition. Everyone wants something for his or her self from the war, yet a common purpose unites them. It is the common purpose that papers over the human frailty. People’s perspectives constantly grinding against each other makes this an extremely complex as well as entertaining film.

In the Hidden Fortress (1958), the story is told from the perspective of two dishevelled peasants. The inspiration for telling the story from the perspective of C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star War Episode IV (1977) comes from the Hidden Fortress. In the telling the story from the perspective of two hapless peasants, Kurosawa was creating a cinematic devices that would used over and over again. The beauty of this particular cinematic device lies in the fact that hapless narrators, with very little to live for or lose, turn out to be the most reliable narrators. We get closer to the truth only when we have very little left to lose.

In Synecdoche New York (2008), another Kurosawa influenced movie, the narration becomes more and surreal and unreliable as the movie progresses. The protagonist finds solace in giving up his freedom to act as an individual and subject himself to the dictates of an in-camera director. Ironically, when I watched Synecdoche New York, I was blissfully unaware how accurately the movie reflected my life at that time. And how I unwittingly gave up my freedoms for a short but significant period of time before realising how surreal my life had become.

As I trawl through Kurosawa’s oeuvre, the impact he has had on popular culture is slowly sinking in. Both conceptually as well as technically, he is masterful in the way in which he moulds the medium of cinema to tell the story. The narration is somewhere between the Stanislavsky and the rasa mode of story telling. The characters seem fully immersed in their roles yet they seem to be puppet in the hands of Kurosawa, the real invisible narrator, who tells the stories which are ethereal yet substantial at the same time.

Its been the most glorious summer of my life. Discovering Kurosawa at the end of it has made it perfect. Kurosawa’s movies have a toolkit for life within them. They force us to confront our narcissistic self image. They explore human morality, or a lack thereof, without being pivoted around a societal conventional axis. I just wish I had started watching Kurosawa earlier. It would have saved me a lot of unnecessary misery.

A thoughtful movie

Everyone in India is watching talking about Peepli Live. After a long time a movie has caught the imagination of the country as a whole. (Link to the movie’s funky website.)

The plot starts innocuously with a poor indebted farmer called Natha contemplating suicide as a way of repaying his family’s debt. There are rumours of generous compensations for the family of the farmers that commit suicide due of indebtedness. Natha, sees this as a way of providing for his family after his death. He starts speculating about it in public and the story finds its way into the local vernacular press. Turns out that there is political battle brewing over the upcoming bye-election in that area. Overnight the national media, the politicians and the bureaucrats and the rest of the country get hooked into the story. Everyone starts trying to use the story to advance their owns interests as the story starts to snowball.

What ensures can only be described an gladiatorial contest. As the country becomes conscious about the imminent suicide of Natha through the media, various institutional components of the country get inter-locked in a battle to extract the most of out of the story for their own gain.

The beauty of the movie lies in its ability of capture the nuanced interaction between the various institutional components of the society. The bureaucracy, the media, the political establishment and a country hungry to consume sensational news.

Art is often an artist’s perception of reality. It often is not able to escape a particular perspective. Too often in the post-modern world, the perspective is celebrated and glorified. This is a reflection of the move towards self-reliance that accompanies modernisation.

Maybe, that is why it is difficult to come across art that is able to faithfully represent and explores the complexity of the world around us. The world around is woven from strands of reality that individuals experience. The sum of the whole is very different from each components. It is rare that an piece of art goes beyond a few strands. The complexity of the world is rarely captured in any form of art. If at all it is captured, it in the sterile general equilibrium models in Economics. It is welcome change of watch a movie that captures reality in a entertaining way and restrains itself from simplifying the world into black and white.

Elite capture of government machinery is a fairly clichéd theme. Peepli Live goes beyond that the obvious themes and is very deftly able to explore the tension within various institutions along the rural urban line. The suave urban TV anchor patronises the local news paper reporter. The local politician outmanoeuvres other more powerful national politician. The village politics drives national politics. The movie is extremely restrained in it portrayal and leaves the viewer to observe what is happening and to make up their minds.

The viewer observes the superstructure of the society grinding against the changing ground realities. This symbolises the permanent revolution that has gripped the nation since the early 1980s. The incumbents hang on to power, very hesitant to let go as the power centre’s dissolve and get more diversified. Recent work is telling us that the change in the country is not a result of the some brilliant insightful master plan by the incumbent policy makers and power brokers. It is a result of people forcing the policy makers and power brokers to let go. See Basu & Maertens (2007) for a very accessible account of this.

The power that centralised till the 1980 has slowly seeped away, resulting in a resurgent rural India. (See Deaton and Dreze, 2002) The rural India is slowly trying to hold the urban India accountable, while the urban India is hungry for resources and ready to grab anything and everything. The parallel with Singur, Yamuna Expressway or the Maoist insurgency in the tribal heartlands is inescapable.

In a strange way, I see Peepli Live as a complement to the Guru, a Mani Ratnam film made in 2007. Guru portrayed the resurgent India from a different perspective.  Guru is a story of Dhirubhai Ambani taking on the coterie of the industrialist and politicians that had shackled India for their own gains through license raj till 1980s. He is able to break their stranglehold by deviating from the prescribed law and accumulating enough wealth to take on the interest groups.

The power no longer lies within a small coterie. Various changes in the country has ensured that the power is geographically and socially diversified. There are many smaller power centre. Any policy or change is a result of the bargaining process between the various power centres. Institutional change as a result is on one hand painful slow but on the other hand more responsive to needs to of the people. The movie’s sophistication lies in its ability to capture this contradiction. Everyone in the country cares about Natha, yet nothing really changes.

A lot has been written about the ongoing transformation in India. The process of transformation is messy and elongated. There are winners and losers locking their horns like gladiators. India is shinning only for a minority. Peepli Live is just a ringside spectator, merely observing the gladiatorial contest. It dispassionately portrays what is observes without either getting swayed by emotions or wincing at the pain inflicted by the participants of the contest on each other. It is frightening how much life in India is like a gladiatorial conquest, where only the strongest walk out of the ring alive. The hope is that this is the just the birthing pains of new more equitable society of the future.

References:

K Basu and A Maertens (2007). The pattern and causes of economic growth in India. Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

A Deaton and J Dreze (2002). Poverty and inequality in India: a re-examination. Economic and Political Weekly.