By Divya Sachar
Anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner, who was also the founder of the Harvard Film Study Centre, which has produced films of exceptional artistic genius, died last year. Gardner’s films have had a deep impact on documentary practices but he is little known in India. In fact his seminal 1986 film Forest of Bliss, about Varanasi (then Benares), has hardly been seen here. The film works on multiple levels – as an ethnographic document about the industry surrounding death in Benares, as well as a deeper philosophical reflection on the nature of existence.
The film begins with a quote from WB Yeats’ translation of the Upanishads:
“Everything in this world is eater or eaten
The seed is food and the fire is eater.”
The quote works two ways. Apart from the Hindu belief in the co-existence and circularity of life and death, it also represents the film’s mostly nihilistic view of life – nasty, brutish and short – a vicious Darwinian struggle till the cruel inevitability of death takes over. The film shows Benares unsparingly and in all its squalid glory, but these very shots double up as dystopian symbols. A dog cries in its last throes as it is attacked by a feral pack of dogs. It’s literally a cannibalistic, dog eat dog world, where even sparrows peck at the ashes of the dead. People look for valuables among the bones of the cremated, while a rich local businessman fights with presumably a group of mourners over money. A lengthy shot of this corpulent man lustily eating his food reminds of Brueguel’s illustration The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish. A priest takes a holy dip in the Ganges while at the same time a dog tears a corpse floating in the river apart. This is not just a depiction of the alarming lack of sanitation (and Modi’s Varanasi today is no better), but juxtaposes contraries – the spiritual with the material, death with life, faith with the grim, tangible reality of existence, all of these co-existing and creating deeper layers of meaning. Shots are pregnant with multiple connotations. Men walk, bent by the weight of logs on their shoulders, visual reminders of the Sisyphean struggle that life is, and then they throw the logs down at the river bank, evoking the casting off of the mortal coil at the holy river. Similarly an oarsman rows with all his might but the boat doesn’t seem to move, however hard he toils.
The film itself acts as a memento mori – a reminder of death – and abounds in imagery that evokes it, not just visually, with the constant presence of logs of wood for cremation, the scales to weigh them, carrion birds, etc, but aurally. The soundtrack abounds with the rhythmic arrangement of the haunting sounds of oarsmen rowing boats, evoking the toil and agony of life. Another ever present sonic leitmotif is of logs of wood being chopped, and at one time the refrain of “Ram Nam Satya Hai” reaches an almost violent crescendo.
And yet, there is life. A new boat is consecrated in much the same way as an old body is given a send off. The two actions are intercut with each other to point out the similarity, and both the boat and the body are gently pushed into the river. Life and death don’t just co-exist, they are each other, as is believed in Hindu philosophy. If life leads to death, then death is a new beginning, and the holy river makes this alchemy possible. Elsewhere, film songs play and children play games, oblivious to the burning corpses around them. The kites soaring towards the setting sun beautifully evoke the idea of souls ascending towards heaven. But then again, death is always round the corner. Dying is business as usual, and people cheerfully go about their ablutions and work, indifferent to and unperturbed by the fact that they too will fall dead one day. It’s almost comical to see the fat businessman mentioned before, receiving a luxuriant massage as he dozes blissfully, oblivious to the presence of death. Gardner juxtaposes this with shots of birds trapped in cages, clamouring for freedom. This man too will be a corpse one day.
Structurally, the film depicts an entire day in Benares, from sunrise to sunset, though of course it’s been shot over several days. The structure, in keeping with the themes of the cyclical nature of existence in Hindu philosophy, is also circular. The film begins and ends with the same shots – feral dogs, flying kites, people enveloped in fog on boats – perhaps they have lost their way, or perhaps they have received salvation and found it. One could interpret this structure in a nihilistic way too. One has made this entire journey through the film and ended up in the same place as before.
The film eschews the familiar markers of conventional documentaries – talking heads, narration, et al, going for meaning created simply by the masterful arrangement of shots and the soundtrack. In fact Forest of Bliss is a masterclass in film editing. It’s high time one stopped seeing documentaries as journalism or merely as “issue based” educational films, and began seeing non fiction cinema as an art in itself. Gardner made this film nearly three decades ago but it still stands out amid the clutter that goes for non fiction filmmaking, especially surrounding documentaries about India. It certainly isn’t exoticising the Orient but giving a frank sociological (and metaphysical) account of Benares then – and since not much has changed – Varanasi now.
This review appeared first on the website takhty.in.