Monday, 14 October 2013


British Film Institute
12 October 2013

Tiny excerpt from the film. From here.

An important rediscovered Indian film, which seems an ambitious failure on first viewing.

Indian films are in thrall to money and so harming the nation, says Uday when one of his lovers suggests he make a film of his life to raise money for his hard-pressed revolutionary cultural centre. He will never make a film, he says.

There are two ironies here. The intended irony is that he does make a film, and it’s the 1948 film we’re watching. The unintended irony is that his prediction that he is unsuited to making a commercial film is proved correct.

Uday Shankar – older brother of Ravi – clearly did not suffer from false modesty. He wrote, directed, designed, choreographed and starred in this idealised autobiography, in which his vision is presented as being vital for the cultural revival of all India, if only people would listen and support him.

His character has no head for money, but by the end of the film has succeeded in raising enormous funds for his cultural centre through a Spring Festival promoting the regional dances of India.

In reality, the cultural centre closed through lack of funds, and this film wasn’t a success either. Still, it is explicitly a fantasy, and a very charming one, so we can easily forgive this optimistic rewriting of history.

I’ve no idea how closely this film maps its creators actual biography, and whether this matters. One striking difference between the two Udays is that the film character seems not to have left India, whereas the director became a celebrated choreographer in Europe.

This is important, because one aspect of the film is its celebration of India, of Uday’s attempt to help forge a unified national identity. The film teeters on the brink of didacticism, keen to show us that differences of gender, class and caste don’t matter (and in that order).

It helps that the film has a light touch – at one point the royal audience for the festival believes it is watching African dancing. It is informed this is actually from the Naxalite region of their massive country. It’s a deft satire.

The film is surprisingly quiet about religion; to my ignorant eye Shankar seems to assume everyone is Hindu. But it didn’t seem very prominent; at other moments he appears antagonistic to religion generally.

This is an enormously ambitious work, with the idealised cultural centre attempting to revolutionise almost every aspect of human life through a greater respect for India’s heritage. The films many dance sequences are Shankar's attempt to fulfil this project, which requires India to become united and to awaken to the heritage that can transform the world.

The framing narrative is around Uday’s two lovers, one of whom is the director’s wife in ‘reality’. They oppose each other, and are perhaps best described as two sides of a single woman, in best expressionistic fashion. Shankar's direction also draws upon the expressionistic silent films of the 1920s, with exaggerated facial poses.

Unfortunately the framing device is too slender to support quite so many dances, and I found the experience increasingly dull. Repeated viewings may improve my appreciation for what is intended to be a compendium as much as a drama.

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