If Bharata Muni watched European thrillers…

EXCERPT: A new book evaluates masterpieces of cinema with the Indian aesthetic theory of Rasa

Prachand Praveer | February 11, 2021


#Cinema   #arts   #philosophy   #Natyashastra   #Bharata   #books   #literature  


Cinema Through Rasa
A Tryst with Masterpieces in the Light of Rasa Siddhānta
By Prachand Praveer
Translated by Geeta Mirji Narayan from the Hindi original (‘Abhinava Cinema’)
DK Printworld, 376 pages

What if instead of ghosts and spirits, one comes face to face directly with death? In Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s (1919–2007) film, The Seventh Seal (1957), the hero, while returning home ten years after the Crusades, meets death on the way. The very fearsome picturization of death, its costume: black clothes and a white face and the way death follows the hero throughout the film leave an absolutely unforgettable image on the viewer’s mind. This film has been influenced greatly by Victor Sjostrom’s (1879–1960) film The Phantom Carriage (1921). The film based on a novel by Nobel Laureate, writer Selma Lagerlof, was very well known for the special effects showing ghosts. Both these Swedish films effectively create the feeling of dread and apprehension, but also cajole the viewer to think and meditate upon the intricacies of life and the cycle of life and death. The hero of the film The Seventh Seal played chess with death and bargains for a few days of life from him. But has death lost to anyone till date? It is quite intriguing to foresee how Ingmar Bergman would have dealt with the mythological story of Sāvitrī and Satyavān. It is said that Ingmar Bergman was a non-believer and would not have made such a film. Despite being an atheist, he has made films which have remained incomparable. One such film is Hour of the Wolf (1968), original name Vargtimmen, in which one character creates intimidation by pulling out the skin of his face along with the eyes as though they were just spectacles and nothing else.

The apogee of fear is reached when a person gets scared or dreads even the most mundane of things. Let alone headless dead bodies or murder or ghosts and spirits, even the simple task of crossing the road can intimidate a person. This was achieved by Polish director, Roman Polanski (b.1933) in his film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). A newly-married woman finds herself surrounded by strange neighbours and a crooked husband. She discovers she is pregnant by some devilish forces. She is tormented by loneliness and wonders how she can bring the baby up on her own. The director’s vision and the actress’ ability went a long way in establishing the true worth of this film. This film was a part of an Apartment Trilogy, made by Roman Polanski. The other two films were Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976). All the three films dealt with fear-causing circumstances in city apartments. Two other films worth watching by the same director are Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002).

The Exorcist (1973), made by American director William Friedkin (b.1935), is considered as the most frightening films ever made. The story deals with how a ghost/spirit enters the body of a little girl and the Christian ways to dispel it. The writer of the novel, on which this film is based, claims it is a true incident. The film has won world acclaim and has been very successful commercially too. It boasts of heart-wrenching, fearful scenes wherein the spirit is shown to torture the little girl’s body, even rotating her head around.

Don’t Look Now (1973), made by British cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018), is a film which shows adumbration. To have a foreboding of imminent danger is extremely fearful and this premonition makes fear very mysterious. In this film, a father is devastated after his daughter’s death, of which he had a premonition. Both parents are yet to come to terms with this tragedy, when they meet two elderly ladies, one of who is blind but has a strong sixth sense.

A man, in an uninhabited hotel, is taken over by spirits and is forced to murder his son and wife. This is the plot of The Shining (1980), one of the renowned films made by American director, Stanley Kubrick (1928-99). Helplessness against demonic forces are the root cause of fear, and in this movie, it is manifested with no (immediate) nearby help to son and wife.

Japanese and Korean film industries have been producing many fear and dread-inducing horror films, in the last twenty years. The plots of the films are generally the untimely death of young children and they turn into ghosts or spirits. Most of the ghosts shown in these films are blue in colour and are visible in less light or a darkened room. In these films, fear of being killed and the fear of being mutilated have been very impressively integrated. One film which stands out in this genre is Japanese film Ringu (1998), it has been serenaded throughout the world and is based on the folklore of Japan. Some of the prevalent techniques used in Indian cinema to create fear like murder, casting a spell on someone or cursing someone have been used in this film.

Let the Right One In (2008) is a Swedish film which revolves around the friendship between a 12-year-old weak boy and a blood-drinking vampire girl of a similar age. The good-hearted vampire teaches the boy how to fight with the injustices done to him. The boy then discovers the true identity of his friend. Technically this film has been greatly applauded. It can be seen as an example where the fearful element no longer remains scary if one makes an ally with the monster or the horror element.

Bharata Muni has alluded the feeling of fear or fright to a sthāyī bhāva or an emotion which is prevalent in the human mind. It comes to the fore whenever we see images of ghosts or apparitions, when we see wild animals, when we have to venture into an empty house or go to the forest, when we commit an offence against an office bearer or teacher, when we see the death or torture of our near and dear ones, or when we hear strange contorted laughter or voices, etc.

The Nāṭyaśāstra trifurcates Bhayānaka Rasa, viz.:
1. pseudo or fictitious fear,
2. fear born out of wrongdoing, and
3. fear caused by great trouble or hurt or tyranny.

Scenes which use pseudo fear have been done so to prove a particular point. Abhinavagupta says that fear springs out a sense of doom. Pseudo fear brings out the meek or lenient form of fear, whereas fear born out of wrong doing cannot be easily seen in all kinds of people (Dwivedi 1992: 191-203).

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for films depicting pseudo fear and fear out of wrongdoing. Films which depict fear caused by ghosts/spirits/demons can be very widely seen. It essentially signifies the psyche and being of preceptors.

Expert film-makers do not make films only to intimidate the viewer, but to put across some serious thought. Ingmar Bergman made films to point out the complications in life, while Alfred Hitchcock made films which delved deep into the human psyche. They teach us the nitty-gritty of life; we must remain obliged to them always.

(Excerpt reproduced with permission of the publishers.)

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