Artist and film critic Fred Camper has named Roberto Rossellini’s India: The Great Mother—but more widely called, simply, India—one of his three favorite films. Andrew Sarris called it “one of the prodigious achievements of the [twentieth] century.” And Jean-Luc Godard, no less, has likened it to “the creation of the world.” Last Sunday, I watched a restored version of it on DVD; this is the only time I’ve seen it in any shape or form. Rossellini’s first work post-Magnani/Bergman is, indeed, a tremendous thing.
Almost always classified as a documentary, this hybrid work fuses documentary and fictional elements. On the heels of a montage of stone sculptures, beginning with images of the Buddha, evoking ancient India, the film introduces India in the present day (1957-58), as a vast nation peaceably uniting many different peoples, languages and religions, in a documentary preface swarming with Indian humanity in the city of Bombay (today, Mumbai). Voiceover narration here and a bit later provides facts and figures—for example: “On just one-twentieth of the world’s surface live one-sixth of the world’s people.” (One is reminded of the documentary opening of Rossellini’s 1947 Germany, Year Zero.) Urban Indians are shown involved in an array of activities in the streets, including work of various kinds. One man, contemplatively reclined, we are told, “dreams”—a surmise; a subjective touch that slips in without stressing the objective reportage. We see the degree to which Indian life conjoins past and present—the old and the post-Independence new.
Following this opening, which is both efficient and bravura, a shot of rural forest accompanies an upward pan: a lone bird of prey in the sky and, just below, a lone monkey bounding across the tops of trees: figures which the film will eventually conjure facsimiles of, suggesting, perhaps, an eternal return to the origin of things. It is noted that “authentic Indians” live in its “580,000 villages.” Another montage follows, of temples and other buildings. Yet even a temple is allowed, in context, to suggest Nature. Elsewhere, we hear the “love songs” of tigers (and see elephants becoming romantic)—and hear in the voiceover narration: “The jungle is the temple in which are celebrated the rites of love.” Finally, the film bounds throughout India to present four fictional episodes—pseudo-mini-documentaries. (Here, we are reminded of the episodic structure of Rossellini’s 1946 Paisan.) The protagonist of the fourth episode, a monkey named Ramu, is female. The holistic vision of the natural universe that this film conveys, such as the connection between the snow-capped Himalayas and rivers below, exists in tension with the film’s episodic structure, which follows a course that darkens into old age and finally reaches the domain of death. The final image is of a lone, menacing vulture in the sky.
The first of the fictional episodes is the story of an elephant driver. My hearing is insufficiently acute at this point in my life to be certain, but it is possible that his is the voice of the narrator in the preliminary parts of the film. If so, his narration bounds over different parts of the film, uniting space. Both my hearing and eyesight are insufficiently acute at this point in my life to be certain, but it is possible that this is the same character who appears, transplanted for the sake of a different line of work, in the second episode. However, I may be dreaming all this.
The first episode has a number of themes. One is the close, affectionate, symbiotic relationship between an Indian elephant rider and his elephants. The narration notes that gentleness—again, peaceableness—has guided this relationship to fruition, which in this case means having the elephant work for his rider in the forest. We see, for example, the elephant fell a tree with its trunk and tusks, and carry and move the log as well. The relationship between the young man and the elephant reflects the human grasp of Nature in India.
Indeed, the realms of humanity and Nature are overlapping existential circles here—another one of the themes of the film. (While the film’s story and script were by Rossellini, Fereydoun Hoveyda, future Iranian ambassador to the U.N., and India’s Sonali Senroy DasGupta, Rossellini’s new wife, also contributed.) As such, both realms are alike in some respects and different than others. Culminating in the coincidental pregnancies of the elephant driver’s new wife and the elephant’s new “wife,” we follow the courtships of both unmarried couples. Male elephants tend to be shy, we are told (and I don’t doubt it!); but with this couple the female wastes no time getting down to erotic business. In the case of the humans, the driver and his future bride exchange blushing smiles, after which the boy arranges work so he can keep the girl within his gaze during the day. Progress to the temple wedding involves a good many formal arrangements, including a letter summoning his father from elsewhere in India, discussion between this man and his son, and between him and the father of the intended bride, and a cessation of contact between the boy and the girl. Rather than simple, direct erotic business, as with the elephants, the human way involves considerable business business: the future groom’s father presents specifics proving his son’s capacity to provide for the other father’s daughter. He saves the best for last: “We own a little land.” Throughout, a not entirely reassuring disparity exists between the minimal connection between the boy and the girl and the long, loving attention the boy gives daily to his elephant!
The protagonist of the second episode—who may be, as I say, the same guy as in the first—is an engineer working on the construction of the Hirakud hydroelectric dam, on the Mahanadi River: humanity bending Nature to its will, its impulse toward progress. But the engineer, himself, must bend to the will of others: he has been reassigned to another project by his employer. His narration anticipates his wife’s “whining”; she forever wants to “settle down” somewhere rather than continually being uprooted and moving elsewhere and on. (A key image in the film is of a tree, its exposed roots grasping the earth.) When she does “whine,” he gives her an irritated push. Doesn’t she understand how proud I am of the work I’ve done here, how I’d prefer to see it through to completion? Doesn’t she get that it isn’t up to me whether we go or stay? On the other hand, although he himself refers to the 1947 Partition, doesn’t he understand that his serial relocations so stress his marriage because they revive his wife’s childhood memory of the Partition and the human displacements it forced? The tragedy of this marriage is the tragedy of India.
In the third episode, whose protagonist is an elderly man, iron prospectors—like the oil drillers in Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948)—disrupt the natural environment with their blasts, sending fauna, in terror, to flight. Two creatures stay behind: a tiger and a porcupine. Famished, the tiger lethally attacks the porcupine, wounding her/himself on the porcupine’s protective quills, becoming a looming terror to the human inhabitants of the region, including the elderly man. Nature, then, has taken a darker turn, the result of capitalistic presumption and invasion, reviving memory of Colonial India’s ordeal.
Rossellini’s searing fourth episode seals the status of his India as a towering achievement—and a beauteous wedding gift to his bride, Sonali Senroy DasGupta, his wife until his death twenty years hence. This final episode is terribly moving, and it contains a haunting image that is the film’s finest. In an arid stretch of land, an old, old man, a figure of composure and perfect dignity, walks toward the camera, Ramu the monkey, his companion, perched on his shoulder. All of a sudden the man drops down dead, leaving Ramu startled, disoriented, bereft: a figure encapsulating the depth and dimension of inconsolable loss and a lifetime’s love. Hers is the loss of India as a result of the Partition; there is a hole in Ramu’s heart. Who knows? Perhaps hoping against hope that her companion will revive and return to her, nervously protecting his body from the gathering and approaching vultures, Ramu reflects the price Nature pays for domestication. But Ramu is not done; there is adventure ahead—and perhaps a new home.
I am grateful to The Movie Detective for making this film available for me to watch and savor. It is both spacious and exacting—miraculous, really. Now having seen it, I cannot easily let it go. India has made me feel born again.
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