Thursday, August 22, 2013

Suppressing the Beloved's Inspiration: Charulata (1964), Abhinetri (1970), Raja Rani (1973), and L.M. Montgomery

Montgomery is best known for her popular Anne 
of Green Gables series. However, her "Emily of 
New Moon" series is a profoundly darker and
semi-autobiographical journey of creative
struggle and striving.
Sometimes an artist's worst detractors are the people he or she loves the most. So much so, that a choice may be required: Love or Art?

In the overlooked L. M. Montgomery classic , "Emily's Quest," (1927), the young protagonist and aspiring writer's beloved work is given a harsh review by her respected idol: the much older, well-traveled, cynical, and overly-cultured Dean Priest. 

'"It's a pretty little story, Emily. Pretty and flimsy and ephemeral as a rose-tinted cloud. Cobwebs, only cobwebs. The whole conception is too far-fetched. Fairy tales are out of the fashion. And this one of yours makes over much of a demand on the credulity of the reader. And your characters are only puppets. How can you write a real story? You've never lived."' 

Emily feels like she did when she was informed her father had died. Seeing the change in her, her friend goes further instead of shutting up or couching his statement. 

'"Forgive me, Star. But isn't it better to know the truth? Stop reaching for the moon. You'll never get it. Why try to write, anyway? Everything has already been written."' 

Emily responds coldly: '"Some day . . . I may be able to thank you for this. Tonight I hate you."' 

Dean asks her if she's being fair.

She answers: '"No, of course it isn't just. . . Can you expect me to be just when you've just killed me? Oh, I know I asked for it--I know it's good for me. Horrible things always are good for you, I suppose. After you've been killed a few times you don't mind it. But the first time, one does--squirm. Go away, Dean, and don't come back for a week at least. By then, the funeral will be over."'  

The funeral becomes more literal when Emily flies into a fit of despair and burns her manuscript in the stove.

"Repentance seized upon her. Oh, why had she done it? Why had she burned her book? Suppose it was no good? Still, it was hers. It was wicked to have burned it. She had destroyed something incalculably precious to her. What did the mothers of old feel when their children had passed through the fire to Moloch--when the sacrificial impulse and excitement had gone? Emily thought she knew."

What Emily doesn't know is that Dean has lied. He actually thinks her story is exceptional. But it's something he sees as standing between him and Emily. Perhaps he's right about this, for after the book burning, Emily has a near fatal accident, and becomes even less herself, giving up writing entirely, which gives Dean even more room to make his move. Of course, Emily eventually realizes she isn't herself in the relationship, even though she hasn't known herself for a while. Spurred by her breaking of the engagement, Dean reveals all. That he was jealous of her writing, as it took her away from him. That he had wanted her all to himself. As much as he loved their relationship of ideas and respected her as an artist, he couldn't get past the fact that she would always belong to her writing more than she belonged to him.

This releases the poison from an old wound for Emily and helps her to move on. But it was still too late for her beloved little story, and for all the stories that might have come during the months stolen from her.

I've always found this part of Emily's tale heartbreakingly realistic, and I couldn't help but see shades of it in "Charulata" (1964) and "Abhinetri" (1970). 

The titular character of Satyajit Ray's "Charulata" (1964), is a pretty early and progressive Indian depiction of a female writer, or rather, "A Woman Who Wrote Once." Charulata is a bored upper-class, late 19th century Bengali woman, doomed to wander the rooms of her mansion waiting for her husband to stop spending all his time on his burgeoning political newspaper.


Charulata is too intelligent and curious to survive in such a state for long, especially after she's read all the Bengali books in the house from cover to cover and embroidered every inch of the place.


So naturally, her husband asks his indolent and hyper-educated brother to come up to town and spend some time with his lonely wife.


Like Emily, Charulata can't quite seem to get away from other people's opinions about her art. But in this case, excellence in art itself doesn't seem to be the ultimate goal. Charulata's art appears at a suspicious time (not to be confused with the common "auspicious" time in Indian films) . . .

Charulata only starts writing when she feels the need to prove something to a very particular someone. . . who's providing her with languidly stimulating conversations about literature and music. Yep. You guessed it. Brother-in-law.


True, brother-in-law. Although I don't know if you personally are adding much. 


Yeah. I don't really get it. But, OK. 


Well, THAT I can get on board with. 

Although the film might be telling us that she writes because she feels an emptiness from her lack of motherhood and a new family of her own.




As soon as Charulata does sit down and write, she immediately achieves massive success. But somehow this isn't enough. She'd rather watch brother-in-law from every conceivable angle in the atrium and and play passive aggressive mind-games with him. She doesn't seem to be interested in writing anymore. Perhaps because it didn't get her what she wanted? (Praise? Mutual fascination? Love? It's unclear).


Unlike Charulata, the heroine of "Abhinetri" (1970) seems quite attached to her art. Yet still not attached enough to fight for it above all else.

To me, Abhinetri feels like one of the rash of "A Star is Born" reminiscent Hindi movies released in the 60's and 70's. Basically, the plot revolves around one member of a romantic duo (usually the woman) who is enjoying increasing success in films or dance or some such public display-oriented art form, and invariably, the other member of the jodi becomes increasingly jealous and/or angry and/or despondent about this fact. Eventually, the person (read = woman) usually has to give up art for the sake of love. 

Yes. But it's far too early in the film for that to happen. Aren't you paying attention to your filmi pacing? 
But this is A Star Is Born-lite, because nobody dies or walks into the scary ocean in the dead of night, and the young married couple aren't peers in the same career. Shashi's character (Shekar) is a scientist, and Hema's (Anjana) a popular stage dancer. She's pretty dedicated, too.



They meet, marry quickly, and then alternately squabble, snuggle, and separate during the rest of the film.

First clue that he might not have it all together, dear. However, your coat REALLY does.
Golden Honeymoony Days
Darn-it, Hema. WHY couldn't you just be happy with your days spent in fab sixties lingerie reading the paper on the couch? Or gazing at the pillow your Shashi put under the covers to make you think he was still at home? Why aren't you happy with the barefoot and pregnant plan?
All because: (A) Shekar can't seem to focus on work and his wife (understandably--she's adorbs) and (B) because Anjana's energetic self gets tired of sitting around waiting for her husband to come home and decides to go back to the stage.





Here's the thing, Shekar. I agree with the looking away part. I wasn't so much a fan of this dance either.  I mean, tribal-cave-volcano dances to pseudo-rock and roll in the space of 10 minutes? Kind of embarrassing. Plus, that prince-fellow was channeling Rudolph Valentino something fierce. Not something you want to have to compete with. 
The film leads us to believe that Shekar's last straw is the male fan's "lewd" commentary about his wife after a performance. (As Bolly-Blogger Beth points out here, this particular bit is so close to Shakespeare Wallah's plot it's practically cannibalized.) But his motivations are murky. Is he jealous? Ashamed? Possessive? Probably all of the above. At first, when Shekar puts his foot down, Anjana puts her foot down too, and moves out.


However, the film backs down and slides into convoluted ambiguity at the end. Shekar and Anjana choose to get back together, but without resolving the BIG question (as far as I can tell at least): Will Anjana still dance? Will she give it up for Shekar's (and his Maa's) benefit again? You get the feeling that it could go either way.



I could probably live with the whole giving up of things if it was more of an equal sacrifice. Unfortunately, Abhinetri isn't depicting a "Raja Rani" (1973) situation, where the married woman's decision to leave naach-gaana is a result of a mutual pact with her thief-beloved to leave their demeaning and dangerous professions. (Plus, she's dancing for clients *gasp* which is never a viable long-term situation for a filmi-heroine.)


In Raja Rani, both members of the relationship want OUT. Doing what they are good at has brought them a lot of pain, and has always been a matter of survival rather than passion. 


And here, when both spouses find themselves forced to go back to their old ways, it is out of love for one another (and pesky survival again) that they choose to take that risk . . . 



 And because of their love, they forgive each other when their choices go south and cause pain again.

However, even if they were able to bear one other's shame, that doesn't guarantee the ability to bear one another's success. If an inverted version of the situation were to take place--Raja and Rani running off in secret to do something they loved but getting caught--I'm pretty sure they would have also supported one another. But that's just speculation, and it might be argued that someone else's success (or joys or passion) is harder to live with than the same person's failure, however "beloved" they might be.


So far, these examples all take place in the context of romantic relationships (although Emily and Dean were friends a dozen years before they became anything else), but I think the same reasons that cause a person in a romantic relationship to suppress the creative expression/inspiration of their beloved are ALSO present and active in common-place platonic and familial relationships. 

Friends don't want to lose their closeness, and so passively prevent one another from taking steps towards other passions . . . passions that might separate them eventually. Parents don't want their children to stray too far from the homestead, and so actively push them towards careers that are safe and practical enough to keep their heads out of the clouds and down among the family where they "belong." Older mentors feel threatened by their protege's youth--which equals for them a symbolic stream of possibilities that they have left behind forever--and subtly sabotage the protege's confidence. Then there's the person who out of discontent wants to live through someone else--vicariously--and so will advise a path that is closer to their own aptitudes and unfulfilled desires. 

Even fellow artists cannot necessarily be trusted to have another artist's success in mind. Peers, as the "character" of Hemingway in "Midnight in Paris" (2011) points out, are first and foremost competitors--and so will dislike a creative work (and may seek to suppress it) regardless of its merit. 


For Charulata, success did not prove sweet. Brother-in-law is impressed by her instant fame. But he also is intimidated, and their relationship begins to sour. Whether this is because he guesses her feelings for him, or because he's jealous, it's not really clear. Perhaps both? Given his ambitions, her casual treatment of her own skills and quick achievements might have been a hard pill to swallow.



Whether it's jealousy, fear, misunderstanding, family duty, or societal pressure . . . the gifted writer or artist will always be surrounded by a crowd (many of whom may be loved ones) who will seek to undermine and derail their creative journey in either veiled or obvious ways. 

Right, because even though you read poetry all day long, you should try to be a lawyer. Yeah, that's going to work out. 
But this crowd of detractors doesn't let the aspiring writer or artist off the hook. For if the external pressure succeeds in extinguishing the creative flame (as it does for a while in Abhinetri and Emily's Quest and potentially in Charulata's life after her story ends), how strong was that spark of inspiration in the first place? I mean really? One could also ask, where did the inspiration come from? 


Did Charulata write because she was inspired from within? Or did she just want to show her budding (and impossible) crush that she could do something he valued better than he could? Without her favorite competitor around, Charulata's desire to write fizzled out completely. Which begs the question: Was she really a "writer?" Or was she just compelled to put pen to paper once because of a singular rejection? 


In the case of Montgomery's hopeful writer, Emily, the spark of inspiration did eventually return. She wrote again, and finally began to succeed. Her true love returns home, and she finds that he makes no claims on the territory of her art. Which is good, because although she could never her poor sacrificed story back, she COULD do something new. In fact, she had to, because she couldn't stop the stories from flowing out of her. Whether or not she would ever be published again, her writing would continue, regardless. 

I kind of hate to see dichotomies of Love vs. Art in personal relationships (on film or in real life), but nevertheless, where they exist, they DO serve to expose the artist's deepest motivations and drives. This is exactly why one can't feel too badly for Anjana or Charulata. (Or you could  just pick a fight with the creators of their characters. Whichever you like.) For, if you only create when you are in love, are you really creating art? And if you are willing to sacrifice your art for love, are you really an artist at all? 

Perhaps true (or inwardly sparked) inspiration is indeed a runaway train, and can only be recognized in the wake of its unstoppable momentum . . . after it has left the gaping onlookers in a cloud of dust and disappeared into the distance. 

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