The Blank Screen

Let nothing be changed and everything be different. -Robert Bresson

What did I learn all these years ?

I learnt a story is a story but not Cinema. I learnt drama is drama, but not Cinema. That photography is about image alright, yet not quite Cinema. A still image is all said and done, still. It is only when 'time' enters and sets it rolling, that Cinema happens. It is here then, that the spell of the moving image binds you to your seat and you get gooseflesh looking at the ghost of a train come towards you on the screen. As with Cinema, so with the students of Cinema, the main problem remains that of Time.

Cinema is both--the movement in time as well as time made still. Sometimes it is movement, and sometimes it is the still center of movement. It is like the center of the spinning top that remains still while all around it moves. Or one can also put it this way-----all else moves only because the center is still. Following this basic nature therefore, it seems there are two kinds of effects that Cinema can have upon you. One, of moving your still center, two, of stilling your moving center. Consequently there are these two kinds of Cinemas too-- one that moves you, takes you out of yourself; and the other that stills your center, turns you around like a silent top, and takes you further into an understanding of your own self. There are cans and cans of the first kind of Cinema being produced everyday in this country and world. The makers and takers of the latter, are a handful, here, as elsewhere. Given a chance I would like to talk about that handful.

To begin at the beginning, one realized as soon as one stepped into the Film school, that the actual process or rather the technical aspect of the making of cinema was very tricky in itself. It tricked you into believing in the projections it made on the blank screen, while the truth remained far from it, in fact often turned out to be quite the contrary. Such that one can say, when the reality was movement, (of the film reel in the projector behind you) the illusion it gave was that of steadiness (on the screen). And one wondered, What is Cinema ?


It seemed things were not to the camera eye what they were to the human eye. They changed from the one eye to the other. And they changed beyond recognition. For instance, the goal to record and capture a swaying tree seemed simple enough. It only turned into a challenge as we persevered. In the soundtrack the rustling of leaves sounded like the waterfall buzz and the actual footsteps became hammering noise when played back along with the image. It became quite impossible to reproduce simple things like a rustle of cloth or a crumpling of paper, because they sounded like something else. So it happened in the process of Cinema that we finally feigned something to make it pass off as something else. For example we waved a silk scarf before the microphone in the studio, and when played back nobody could say it was not the sound of the wind. Truth, alas seldom worked, in a lie that was Cinema.


Professor D was very fond of stories. - ' tell me a story ' He would say. ' What's the story ?' He insisted, ' But there's hardly a story here... ! ' he grumbled. We could hardly hear him, All we heard however was, Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his rod. (the fish that arises from nowhere.) At some such point it became clear that Cinema was'nt just about a story.


I must mention here a ten minute film by Istvan Gaal from Hungary called, ' People at work '.

Noon. Top sun. A bunch of labourers working with their hammers, shovels and nut screws at a railway track. The continuous sound of the iron on the gravel and the bang of the hammer on the track joints. The distant sound of the train approaching. The workers pick their tools up and step aside to let the train to pass. The train comes down roaring and speeds past thundering. The eyes of the workers inspect the track checking for loose joints if any, that might shake with the movement of the train. After the train has passed each follows his/her own gaze tothe loose nut and gets back to the suspended work. People look at the rail-tracks. Camera looks at the people and the train. We look at the people not looking at the train. Not a word spoken. People at work. I do not think it is possible in any medium other than Cinema to show so quintessentially --'People at Work'.


Is this not what one essentially demands of a medium--this inevitability of the medium, to say something in a way it cannot be said in any other. So here, the wonder that once was--the train, passes by without any of the men and women as much as once looking up at it. Could it be the same 1895 Lumiere train whose mere arrival at the station gave gooseflesh to the people watching it zoom towards them on the screen ? I wonder. This is perhaps as much as Cinema travels across a century, or so, I think. To me it seems to have been a journey from the near and the personal to the impersonal verging on the universal.


We did a lot of still photography in the beginning and then all through whenever we found the time for it. The dark room was the most splendid place on earth, or so it seemed to some of us then. A place where in the willed darkness, things existed only to the tactile, and the outside world all but vanished for the while. Then suddenly from nowhere emerged an image. It was sheer magic to see the image appear out of nothing on the silver bromide paper as it floated in the chemical. It seemed the image would start speaking soon. It was so mesmerizing, and yet it couldn't still be called Cinema.


The dark of the darkroom also resembled that of the cinema hall. Yet, it seemed there still had to be something else. This wasn't quite cinema. In the pitch dark, a ray of light flashed through and illuminated the blank screen. When the light went out, the projection stopped, the images vanished and once again the screen turned lifeless and dead. Technically it was only a still image projected at the terrific rate of twenty four frames a second, in an effort to appear moving to the human eye. Time inched every second and the film in the projector many times faster, yet all the images on the screen moved at a steady pace, appearing normal (4) to the human eye. Apart from the general pace, even if the character on the screen were to appear still, the film would anyway have to run at the same pace.


For instance to show a woman on screen sitting still on a chair with her head thrown back, lost deep in thought, the film strip with this single image of the unmoving woman will have to keep moving nevertheless at the rate of some twenty four frames a second. It has to keep running if only to capture a batting of her eye, a heaving of her chest as she breathes, or a tear drop, if you like, from the edge of her eye. The film strip keeps running at an amazing speed of six times four in the projector, while the woman appears to sit quite still on the screen, until a tear drops or an eye blinks. So all the feet lengths of running film to capture this pearl swell in the eye and drop down ! Is it then about the most vital, yet subtle movements of life? Is it then, not about an inspector chasing a thief, but about a tear dropping from the core of the eye ?


I remember here a french film called Le Jette by Chris Marker.
The entire film is made of still images, the filmmaker as a style has chosen to make it by stringing together a series ofstill photographs. The film is about the love between a soldier at war and his beloved behind. All the images are photographs taken with a still camera. (Technically though even here for you to grasp fully, each image is projected continuously at the rate of twenty four frames a second for whatever length of time required for it to hold on the screen. For instance if it is required of the image to hold for ten seconds, it will be projected two hundred and forty times in a row.) So the narrative unfolds one by one through this sequence of independent images that are still. Suddenly in one image of the girl, as she lies quietly with her face on the pillow, the eyelid bats. Only at a single point has the filmmaker chosen to use a moving image and it is enough to move you, caught unawares. Suffice it is to experience the power of a single moving image in a whole bunch of still ones, and be moved with it. Enough to know what little is capable of creating drama in Cinema -- sometimes, just a blink of the eye.

Fair enough that it has little to do with the drama of the stage. In fact it has no need for it, precisely because it creates a drama of its own. Here the lifting of an eye, the falling of a leaf is drama enough. Hence the power that an otherwise everyday, ordinary image acquires in Cinema is extraordinary. Like the rope in the film, 'Desert of thousand lines' by Mani Kaul. While one end of the rope lies deep down at the bottom of the well holding on to the bucket, the other end remains tied to the camel constantly moving away from the well. A part of the rope slithers endlessly against the barren land. No words explain. Only the sound of the rope moving on the land and the sand stirring by the moving rope. In the unending movement of the rope, camera shows us without showing- the water deep down in the desert  sand. Cinema seems to be searching for the impersonal, in the process revealing the hidden. It looks at the everyday, the prosaic, the commonplace and strives to create the uncommon and the poetic through it. It is a way of looking at things, of Seeing. Long before Cinema, back in the fourteenth century, perhaps it was a poet mystic Kabir who saw. He saw, as everybody else did, a leaf fall off a tree --

Patta tuta dal se, le gayi pavan udaye,


but what he saw in the next line, was something hidden to the other eyes.

Ab ke bichhude nahin milen, dur paden hain jaye

Tragedy in the fall of a leaf. Viraha Forever. Such absolutely everyday ordinary images. It is what the poet sees through them, that lifts them to unbelievable heights. So much power it acquires, as can shatter your world. It shows you, or sees for you, something that you 'see' everyday and yet do not quite see. It invites you a la Bresson to  'Be the first to see what you see as you see it.'

Cinema to me, also seems like something that comes closest to the everyday wisdom of Zen. It can perhaps best compliment the saying that the everyday mind is the mirror that gathers no dust. And well, there is no mirror. So where will the dust gather ? One has to learn to wait for the whack, and learn to be patient for the Satori.


Like that monk woman, who fetches water everyday for years, one has to walk day after day over the chipped wooden bridge, mindful yet not quite striving for the same. One has to allow it to come when it will. And it is only then, in the darkening haze as the evening descends, that one day the woman is likely to trip over one of the broken planks in the bridge, her pitcher likely to break and she likely to see, nothing less than 'the moon flowing out of the pitcher'. Satori. Wisdom. Bliss.


Could Cinema then be about waiting ? Professor D inquires "story" ? I want to say "Satori" ! Cinema sometimes comes closest to the as-it-is simplicity of the folk or the tribal song. Just a plain and simple description of things choiceless-ly being what they are. An image of the simple awareness of the simultaneity of things without as much as offering a comment. A matter of just being aware.

Kargori bhaji randhe, padhari mor bhata wo, saunvrengi gheu lakarkaye.

Bodela deera. baghwa rengaele dheere dheere, dungri ke teere.

Nahin tor daya o maya re shikari bhaiya,

baghwa rengayele dheere dheere.


The dark girl is cooking the vegetable, the fair one is chopping the brinjal and the brown one is pouring oil in the frying pan. Meanwhile, on the roof of the house, the pumpkin grows silently. Tiger walks by the side of the hill. (to the river for water.) O Hunter hiding in the bush! Don't you have compassion!?


Just a simple landscaping in words. A mere record of the simultaneity of things as they be. Here also comes to mind the story of one Karia Baiga as recounted by J. Swaminathan in his Perceiving fingers:

"Karia Baiga was once hunting a deer (when such a thing was possible) in the dense forest around Amarkantak, where the great Narmada takes its birth, when to his consternation he found that he was chasing not a deer but a tigress with her cubs. He ran for his life and succeeded in saving himself by climbing a tree. Karia Baiga tells me this story as he draws a tiger on paper. He is one of the artistically gifted in his community near Kabir Chaura. It is a remarkable tiger that he draws, quite unlike the ferocious beast he must have faced in the jungle. I asked Karia as to why he has not drawn a ferocious tiger, to which he replied, that ferocity is only one of the moods of the animal whereas he has drawn the animal as such."


The insistence on stating the as-it-is, as appeals to his tribal artistic sensibility points to a contra civilized urge to 'not judge'. To preserve the as-suchness of the tear, and the smile and the frown; that is the challenge here too. However much as we would like, it is not easy to follow Karia's way in cinema. Things do not remain the same, in front of the camera. A smile, a frown, a tear acquire a phenomenal proportion here. It is hard to prevent it from slipping into magnifications that allow it to become much larger than life. To prevent the likes of characterization, identification, psychology to pitch in and give it a colour of their choice. It strives to preserve the independent and the 'impersonal' being of a tear or a smile. The  tragedy inherent in a tear, irrespective of whose tear it is and what makes it brim over the precipice and drop. On the one hand it is most difficult to achieve this in cinema, for it is here that it is not possible for a chair to remain 'a' chair. It can only be 'the' chair on which light falls and it comes alive on the screen as -- 'that chair' and nothing else. So a la Gertrude Stein's rose, I say ' a chair is a chair is a chair' and it is nothing else. Unlike literature, where even an exhaustive description of a chair does not kill the possibility of a different chair in each reader's mind--to each his/her own and hence, so many. In the image on the screen however it gets fixed as the one chair and loses the possibility of being many.


This immovability however only complicates it further. Yet at the same time it is here that it can be absolved too. It is here that resonances 'too deep for tears' can also be stirred. For it is here that a relevant presence can be evoked by a significant absence. For instance there is the famous race-course scene from the film pick-pocket by Bresson, where the whole sense of the race course site is created without showing as much as a horse running. You realize only after the scene that showing the stadium would actually have been quite futile. The Iranian film by Abbas Kiarostami ' Wind will carry us' is another such example where the whole set of friends accompanying the protagonist to the village is simply invisible as characters in the film. At the most you can hear their voices from inside the room or their shadows from inside the car. And well, does it matter ?

On the other hand popularly speaking, it is an age old device of the commercial cinema since Hitchcock there & Sholay here etc. That of showing a murder without showing the weapon. The absence of the weapon creates a blank, to fill in which, terror is generated in the minds and hearts of the viewer. Basically the idea of showing only a part so that the whole is formed in the mind of the viewer, thus ensuring her/his active participation in the bargain. However coming back to the tear that belongs to no one, let us say Cinema attempts to search for the 'impersonal'. So to say, it hates to have captive audiences bound to a storyline identifying with its characters, ready to laugh & cry at the first promptings of music used to that effect. It says beware of pity, and in an attempt to save it from these pitfalls searches for the impersonal, or in other words it searches for 'the tear that belongs to no one'. Though it has terrific powers like the supernatural, to scare you, depress you or to make you laugh. At the same time it is the first unsaid rule to use such powerful tools or weapon with the utmost care. Test of warrior to not take the sword out of its sheath. Thus the principle of non-violence acquires special significance in the particular context here. Wherever there is potential power, self-restraint becomes difficult and yet the need of the hour. Am I then for a non-violent film making that respects life, talks of the everyday, and only through that aspires to talk of the universal? It seems possible to talk of the brute violence inherent in everyday life only thus. This however again brings us back to the tear belonging to no one. This tear has to drop from the eye like a leaf falling off a tree. It has to carry the agony of the inevitability of the tear falling down along with the impossibility of its ever going back into the eye. It would then be like the separation of the leaf from the tree. Viraha forever.

Ab ke bichhude kab milen, dur pade hain jaye.

We used to say, there is little that is taught at the film school and much that is learned. Inspite of the fact that the equipment was ill maintained, the faculty was devoid of inspiring teachers and the atmosphere totally unmotivated- what was it that worked ? What worked perhaps was the feeling that more often than not one had nowhere or no one to turn to but oneself. It was at times the greatest misery and at others, the biggest help. Thus every moment there, was actually, what you made of it.

Miracles also happen to those who believe in them. This is perhaps the first lesson that needs to be taught in a film school --  To finally realize you are not always the one to make things happen. As elsewhere so here it is important to let go. It is only when you watch long at the deep dark sky that there is also the possibility of a moon suddenly rising out of nowhere.


Moon. Ecstasy. Magic.


However where exactly does this magic lie ? The endless train of images on the film negative cannot be the thing, the reels in the can can't either, neither the blank screen nor the ray of light falling on it possibly can. Where is Cinema then? Is it the play of images on the screen as long as the light lasts ? For that while, you forget even the screen. Only the world visible in that light beam exists. As soon as the projector is switched off, the connection with the created world snaps. There is nothing but the blank screen once again.

This blank screen of Cinema is a pet metaphor with philosophers and mystics like Raman Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj. It is the most concrete image they find at hand when trying to talk of illusion and reality. The world is as illusory as the images projected on the screen. The images are only a projection of the mind, hence the word --imaginary. The projection of images exists in time. To be in time is to be in this World. With the end of this projection the world snaps, and once again there is nothing to animate the blank screen anymore. Looks like in the beginning, you are already where you are destined to arrive at the end ---The blank screen. It remains. The wind whirls, the leaf falls if it has to, and once again the screen is blank.


To show a leaf falling with such inevitable destiny is a cinematic challenge, which when met, is nothing short of a miracle. The ordinary and the everyday then acquires enormous proportions and the blank screen becomes the mirror that gathers no dust. But then, there is no mirror.

Published in the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research,

Vol. XX number 3 July-September 2003, Editor: Daya Krishna