By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Indian cinema can also be subtle and silent. MS Prakash Babu’s Fig Fruit and the Wasps — which competed at the recent Beijing International Film Festival — is a brilliant example of such cinema. Unlike, many, many Indian movies, Prakash Babu’s debut feature is neither loud nor exaggerated. What is more, it is entirely believable, and there is this rare authenticity about it — something that Indian films never care about.
In the course of a chat in Beijing, the debutant director told me that he had asked the protagonist of Fig Fruit and the Wasps, Bhavani Prakash (his wife in real life), “not to act”. This was important, for she came from a background on stage, having been part of the BV Karanth troupe in Bangalore. Theatre, as we know, has to be dramatic and overstated in order to communicate and be effective.
And so what do we have in Fig Fruit and the Wasps? Ninety minutes of imagery which appears to form from a colourful palate of paintings— paintings that Prakash Babu had brought alive on his canvases during his days at Tagore’s Abode of Peace, Shantiniketan. He studied art there, like Satyajit Ray had, and a touch of pride is discernible when he talks about the great master whose work once put India on the international map of cinema. Earlier, Prakash Babu was in Ahmedabad where he studied sculpting in addition to painting.
Asked whether his sculpture or painting — mostly oils, sometimes water colours — was abstract, Prakash Babu avers that “life itself is abstract...and this is what I am exploring through cinema too”. There is one shot in his film of a bottle turning into sand, and “this idea came to me from the Italian painter, Giorgio Morandi (1890 to 1964)”, who spent his entire life painting flowers and landscapes on vases, bowls and bottles. One of his favourite observations was that nothing was more abstract than reality. “I explore this, not just in my paintings, but also in my movie,” Prakash Babu says.
The director elaborates on this. “Here is this room, there are curtains. There is a desk. There is a chair. And there is you. But I will focus on the curtains, the desk, the chair. Not on you. To me, this is reality, more real than you are.”
Fig Fruit and the Wasps is a great example of this. The film starts with a car being seen at a distance. We only see its headlights in the beginning, before the car finally comes into our view. It takes a while for the car to be actually visible. There are two people in the car — documentary movie makers, Gowri (essayed with admirable subtlety by Bhavani) and Vittal (also an impressive performance by Ranjit Bhaskaran) — out in the countryside to try and meet a classical singer. But when he is not to be found, the two decide to wait for him. They hire a room and while away their time — oblivious to the sounds of the region that by themselves form rhythmic patterns, nay melodious notes.
“Topographically each space has its own rhythm,” the auteur writes in his production note. “It is enmeshed with the culture, language and day-to-day life of the people living there. The space too has a kind of music. Both internal and external forces govern the patterns of that rhythm. Like a beautiful tree infested with the termite from within, the rhythm of this peaceful fertile land has been rendered hollow. It is not visible to the naked eye. Shallow from within, it still looks beautiful and charming from outside.
“Headless Termites that have surfaced from within us are so powerful. Born with only mouth and the stomach they are very strong and are the main cause of our intellectual bankruptcy. Social values, morality and human considerations have touched rock bottom. Deprived of all these values, a land, however beautiful it might be cannot hide the stink emanating from the rotten values within its womb.”
There is not much of a story in Fig Fruit and the Wasps, and there are just two dramatic elements — if one may describe them so — in the entire movie. There is one scene when Vittal wakes up in the middle of the night, sees Gowri sleeping at the other end of the room, strips himself to his skin, walks up to her, gets on her bed and into her blanket and with great hesitation tries to caress her. She merely pushes his hand away, and Vittal returns to his own bed. The scene was probably pregnant with possibilities, but Prakash Babu chooses not to be led into a sexual high.
The other “drama” relates to a death in the village, the death of a man that Vittal had a casual acquaintance with. The police come knocking at his door, and when he tells them that he hardly knew the victim, they merely ask him to identify the dead man which Vittal does. No hysterics here. No lockup as a suspect. No lawyer. Nothing loud.
Prakash Babu says, “silence becomes a tool of protest amidst cacophony”. It sure does. His work is a string of silences. There is hardly anything spoken. But what is, it is precise and to the point. So unlike Indian cinema which often tends to be verbose and needlessly explanatory.
Recently, we saw a completely dialogue-less work by Aditya Vikram Sengupta called Labour of Love. Prakash Babu’s creation has conversations all right, but they have been kept to a minimum.
There is something else that catches one’s attention as Prakash Babu speaks. “Art is a result of the sub-conscious mind...And sub-conscious mind is made up of all our experiences.” His long stint as a journalist in a daily newspaper, and his observations as an artist have all helped him create Fig Fruit and the Wasps. A splendid effort, indeed.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent Beijing International Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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