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  • Writer's pictureRAJULA SHAH

Quarantine chronicle June 2020


Starting with the Dekalog today, loosely based on the ten commandments:

6th June

Decalog 1/ Jeden Thou shalt not have any God before me

Having seen the last work trilogy 3 colours, 1994, going back to 1988 to a tv series, was a little odd for everyone. Most importantly because of the duration. Especially after the films, the episodes seemed to end abruptly. So much for the change from film to TV? It seemed a bit pat, literal, may be less 'cinematic'? May be we will get into the mode of watching a TV series. But father was way too upset. He doesn't like sad films, people dying, especially a child. He denounced the film as an idea film, his worst critical term reserved for what he would like to reject. He had also had trouble with 'A Short film about Killing'.

It's striking how different a TV series of assigned duration, slot, producer, audience can be from a film. We have already seen the 5th & 6th in the series, which Kieslowski made into longer films- two short films about love & killing. They established his formidable reputation.

I remember a student, a girl, in 1998, in a train moving from Pune to Bombay, asking mii categorically how and what makes cinema 'look' different from TV? She was excited that I was a cinema student at FTII and wanted to know the answer from mii. For instance she said, when I open the TV just randomly to any channel or even surf channels, before I notice, recognise an actor or know anything else, I already seem to know if its a TV serial or a film! What is it that makes mii see the difference at a glance? I remember being hard put to answer the question to her satisfaction. Nevertheless. I made a gallant effort and something did transpire in that conversation between perfect strangers. Or so I thought.

The lines that are between things, separating this from that side. Religion and Ideology or Faith and Reason, Human and Machine, whichever way you want to see the divides, you may. But it is on the borders, margins, where the frictions play out, where wars are fought.

Jeden/ One has a triad much like Father, Son and Holy war. Where does mother Mary figure? Aunt Irene, Father and son pulled asunder by their diverse beliefs, understanding and reasonings. The machine is ready, as it itself declares, child is dead and god is looking over, helplessly? Well he doesn't seem very happy, not quite in control. Yet it's Him watching. Kieslowski does it often times. This omniscience of a god's point of view, mostly through the camera. It can be a voyeur, it can be god. He wouldn't distinguish nor grade. And you don't quite know why you are watching or what he makes you watch, thus; as if you had nothing better to do. The devil, sure, is in the details. Every time something happens, it is usually not that which you expected to happen nor how, i.e. if at all you expected. Much like it happens in life, when you even end up doing quite the opposite of what you thought you'd do; or find yourself say something you could not imagine.

Am reminded of many things, people and places as I roam K.'s world. I meet also Jean Rouch there, believing cinema to be that 'Third pole' where it is still possible for humanity to come together, meet as they must. Third pole usually refers to the region around the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and within that the Tibetan Plateau is widely known as the Third Pole because its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions; what makes it the contentious zone of brutal conflict and also why we all need to rally support in favour of its preservation at all costs.

Tibet concerns us all.

In the claustrophobia of the apartment-ed human society and the drama relentlessly unfolding inside-outside of human consciousnesses, and inspite the beauty and light that surrounds them, the conspicuous absence of nature in Kieslowski strikes mii peculiarly. What does he intend to say through that? Is nature purposely excluded? Does it perhaps explain the obsession with camera, gaze and voyeurism present through his work. Along with the one that God is an idea, a fiction much like Ideology, and not a fact. But nature is not God nor is it an idea. It is a fact, the as-it-is-ness of things or be-ing, as is reflected upon by and through the human being in his frame. As Mosz in Kieslowski's Camera Buff says: 'Only Nature can be shown as it is.'

Sometimes the absence of Nature becomes very stifling. It exists in some frames, but no one is looking at it. No one is really aware of it. No one is missing it. No one goes out into nature, looking. Whatever they look for is often always in the rather self sufficient world of humans, who are by turns looking at each other, or not looking at each other. Everyone lives outside that reality, ensconced in a reality all of their own making, a construct. Age of the Anthropocene?

7th June

Today was exhausting with all the work from brooming, mopping, watering plants, cooking lunch and dinner. May be its good, in a way I feel. This is realistically the time one can really call one's own.

'The inner voice does not speak in words'. Just the message I needed to hear from the universe today?

For a while, a thought held mii to the graphic book in-progress. Took out the sketch book with the single liners, words, flowcharts, diagrams, tables, charts. I don't quite know, from where to get hold of this serpent. If only I can see the whole, like a film...

It seems necessary to undertake something like that, perhaps the idea closest to mii for almost a decade now, also something that spans a long period of study, starting even before reTold by Loknath, or the work around Tibetan opera.

There has been some work done around it, but it is scattered across the margin notes in books, scribbles in notebooks, sketchbooks, computer, songs, story cards. It also seems to be overlapping with some other stories, viz. the sci fi. Need to find without seeking, a way of separating the threads, in a way that breaks the jinx of a decade and more of unfinished, in many ways half done work scattered across mine and Basu's hard disks. Sorting some of that too, through this lockdown.

In the evening, we are back to our Dekalog.

Dekalog 2/dwa Thou shalt not take the name of thy lord god in vain

The same apartment complex once again. Now everyone is beginning to recognise it.

This time an old man who looks strange, cranky and ill himself, turns out to be a doctor. A woman, who looks like she may be a doctor, turns out to be a musician. A man who appears to be dying on a hospital bed, comes back to life as if it were all a bad dream. A man assured all along of his love, loses his lover along with the prospective child.

No life is ordinary, every person is special. Nothing that is out of the equation in a Kieslowski tale. The apartment complex is full of people living side by side, who like us, do not quite recognise each other. It is the quintessential urban complex we are all familiar with. Some of these characters will meet each other inside the Decalogue series itself. And we will get to share in a part of their life.

This one in particular has the taste of having entered a story universe, of reading a novel which you can't put down. One of those compelling Russian sagas, that doesn't just let you be. Even when you have to keep the book down to attend to other chores in the day, it continues to, as if stalk you through the house; the familiar house transforms itself into the story world, in which you suddenly begin to move ever so cautiously, taking care not to move too fast, lest it disturb a moment.

When you are inside such a novel-yet-familiar film universe, the one you know shall end soon; but also the one you do not want to end so soon, or at least, not just yet... know that Kieslowski has you in his grasp. He knows you- the audience of his films, almost as much as his characters, if not more. He knows how you look or overlook, listen, feel, think, remember or forget, reflect or understand. He knows how you condemn and pass judgment and is set to problematise the equation you have with the all too human ideas of truth, lie, justice et al; especially if you believed in precepts like the commandments or the tall ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity et al.

I don't know. 'I can't pass the verdict', says the un-doctor like doctor.

It's wrong to ask for too much, says the woman and asks him- 'please ask your God for an absolution'.

Do we know what she wants? Perhaps we know only as much as she knows herself. Or the doctor. Or the filmmaker. K. is not a filmmaker who hides from the viewer what he knows. He walks along. He manages to walk along simultaneously with his characters, with the author and the readers.

Remember how Chekhov sees the writer/ artist's job akin to a lawyer, presenting the case before the readers, as seen from multiple perspectives; letting the reader, viewer, the audience be the judge.

Is there a meaning in the water dripping from a leaking pipe in the hospital, or the cracked roof? What means to have faith in science and the world of medicine? What means being in love with two men at the same time? What happiness in being together? Why does the doctor wish to go to the philharmonic concert? This last question I ask, as if I really got the answer to that! Perhaps that's how special K. makes his viewers feel...

8th June

Dekalogue 3 Thou shalt observe the Sabbath. Keep it holy

Another unsettling one, like Three colours white. But mii movement as audience in this is quite reverse or so it seems to mii. While in Three Colours: White, I am not quite ready to take the woman at face value for the creepy and spiteful behaviour she metes out to her husband, nor the man for his hateful, planned revenge; in Dekalog 3, right from the beginning- I am taken in by neither of the two. They don't seem like people one needs to be interested in, even wondering why one even watches their story? Why is she behaving as she does? Why is the man going with her? It is striking to note though, that from the very beginning, the man even dressed as Santa Claus doesn't seem happy.

For Christ's sake, what's going on here!? On a day set aside to celebrate and remember the Lord God, what ought our characters be doing? Playing a game? Wishing for a sign from Life, to go on? There was love between them once, one can see. There is love in the man's eyes, still. This woman, alone, lonely, loveless and sad, spends the Christmas, lying through her teeth, needing someone to believe in her, seeking out her old lover, to tell him her tale of woes? The man can't quite believe her, when she tells the truth. Does he know what happened to the woman after he left her that day in the hotel? He did not try to find out. She did not tell. The woman in Dekalog two flashes for a moment in the mind- the scene when she tells the doctor that she is going to abort the kid, she says she is telling him coz she doesn't want him to have a clean conscience either. Is this man here in Delalog 3 going to be disturbed forever too in his seemingly happy family hereafter? We only know, that in the end he tells her he'll be seeing her. We also know he comes home and tries in vain to lie to his wife. She knows it is Eva and asks him if he will disappear for the Christmas evening too? He says he's going to stay.

What does religion mean? Does truth have a chance in the society we have built? Can we control events from happening the way they do? Why are the precepts so very impossible to live by? Why must there be commandments we are obliged to break every day? And yet again, do we know what we want?

And what do you want Mr Direktor? Why in your films does each character understand the other like they do? What is the question you ask yourself as maker while you write their parts out? The curious fact that the woman you don't much care about in the beginning of the episode, who for all you care, even creates a revulsion in you through the Zweigian 'beware of pity', transforms over the course of the unfolding narrative into someone you can relate to, even begin to care about. You still remember the man who was angry and exasperated with her at the beginning of the film when he first saw her in the landing of his apartment, was a strikingly sad Santa to begin with. After the mad breakneck speeding of the car on the empty roads of Warsaw by nigh,t on Christmas eve, when Ewa apologises for ruining his Christmas eve, he says- not at all, it was fun. There is something in his eyes betraying what he yet remembers from the past- what he needs to remember was important to him then, so is it now. She has lied to him through the night or is it for three years? He speaks the truth when he says he will be seeing her or does he?

Where is God and how ought one to pray? What is holy? Where is God, asks Kieslowski, when a woman is alone on Christmas eve, while the world gathers in their cozy homes and intimate family gatherings to celebrate life, forgetting all about the lonely & suffering ones? What about God, asks Kieslowski, who comes dressed as Ewa to play a game with a family man on Christmas eve? Does the man in question, observe sabbath the tough way? Does he pass the test which we almost fail as audience, wondering which side to take, as if it were there for our taking? Questions are what we are left with. And they are important.

9th June

Dekalog 4 Thou shalt honour thy mother and father

Something similar to yesterday's plot: the prying, pretending, the lying. The girl here, not to forget is an acting student. She may well have decided to play Electra. It is rather complex. If you so choose to decide, anything can be anything; anyone can play anyone else. Till it is whole and intact, it works, but the lines turn out to be ever so thin, when you cross them.

People however play games. People in Kieslowski's world take the game seriously enough. They are usually honest, even in the thick of their lies and deceit and bluff. Safer to play with someone you really trust, or love. Its better than playing alone or talking to yourself. So that in the event of it not working out, there is scope to just forget it, like a bad dream, instead of killing yourself over it. After all whats the use of being human, if we cannot help each other discover what we absolutely must discover, to go on.

Else, sooner than later, words get the better of you. And once you get caught in the net of words, it must take a life time to get out of the language labyrinths, may be more. At best as the poet says:

Tell the wind, to fill your emptiness.

Tell darkness to help you cross the river

Tell roads to put you to work

Tell words to...


Don't say anything to words.

The dangerous part of Kieslowski retrospective is that I am fast getting used to these visitations to his world, as if tales from another planet. The world where people look at each other, hear themselves and understand the unsaid, like nobody's business. Inspite of the noise, there is often only as much silence as needed to hear the inner voice. Will it be difficult to come back to mii familiar world after this tryst in the Kieslowskian world? Will the one who comes back be the same as the one who went in? Coming back not same from a dip in the river of time, is somehow, a comforting thought. At least tonight. When watching a sick silent video art on a link forwarded by mii student, sends a shiver down mii spine. To think of what bad art can do to an otherwise perfect day...

10th June

Dekalog 7 Thou shalt not steal

(We skipped number 5 & 6 because we already watched the longer versions of these as full fledged films earlier- the two 'short films about Love & Killing'.)

* * *

Anka, the little girl has two mothers. She recognises only one of them as mother. She is six.

Her mother can't prove she's her real mother; the papers are in the name of the other woman, who refuses to give the girl up. And now, is it too late for recall?

The 'original' mother asks the question if stealing one's own property is 'stealing'? And thence the question of 'property' hangs in the air. What should we do with the child? Is she anyone's property? She will eventually, decide for herself when she grows up. Or will she? But Kieslowski wants to tell us how choice is fate. There is no choice. Well. It is a situation. And like every other, too complex to fit in to a set of moral ordinations. Try asking: who's responsible?

Why does society lay down some laws that are actually impossible to follow? Full of contradictions and incompatible values, reflecting the makers of these laws in the name of God defending a particular religion or the many false gods that rise in opposition to it. Like Ideology. Born in nazi occupied Germany, and suffering the volte face of communism through his growing up years, there doesn't seem to be anyone more qualified than Kieslowski to tell these tales, sometimes termed 'cinema of moral anxiety'.

East European cinema has always told tales from a perspective, starkly different from what goes in the name of European in general. With good reason, one always felt closer to East Europe, even though one's idols often lay in the other more visible part. Striking how the student cinema, even from the 80's at FTII, seems to resemble a student film from East Europe. Have always wondered why. In particular, we don't seem to share their trauma of the second world war, the grave ideologically pitched political battles and moral anxiety.

We have had our past of slavery, our trauma of partition. But nothing quite as poignant that melted us so as to raise questions with no easy answers. We have found it easier to find a certain brand of peace with the past and settle for entertainment that does not dare bother us past the cinema hall's doors. Nothing that carries over in our thoughts to our homes, nothing which is allowed to haunt us or make us face uncomfortable questions. As if we say: let us only tell love stories. The poor and the tribal are usually happy and dancing in the commercial films and sad or angry in art films. As for the real ones in the jungle or the city, very few seem to even remember them. People as if are saying, don't tell us the reality outside. We are somehow trying to go beyond the bloody past and the troubled history we have. They would rather you wouldn't tell them the truth.

Did Majka never have a real mother? Why she can't be mother to her own daughter? Majka was only 16 when it happened. Did the polish teacher seduce her? Did her mother save themselves from public shame by registering the child Anka as her own daughter? Is that divine justice for her mother to now lavish the love and attention she could not on her own daughter Majka, on her granddaughter Anka. What can/should Majka, unable to bear the little girl shouting in her sleep every night, do? Being too angry and rough and a little off her head, she doesn't qualify to be a mother, or so everyone thinks. The polish teacher is now cursed with making teddy bears all his life in the Kieslowski world. Does he remember Majka, she wants to know? He doesn't remember her, but she can stay at his place for as long as she likes. It is a curiously 'just' world, this world of Kieslowski where people nevertheless, despite everything, in their own way, seem to understand each other. The teddy maker lies to Majka's father on the phone saying she is not here while she is sitting right across. Even the woman at the railway station lies to protect a Majka 'running away from everything'. People do seem to get reprimanded or rewarded, for their little acts of cruelty and kindness in this quaint Kieslowskian world. Or do they? What can set this upside world we have built, right?

11th June

Dekalog 8 Thou shalt not bear false witness

The ethics professor is shocked to recognise herself in the story told by the visiting American scholar in her class. At first she can't quite deal with it, but soon she finds herself going in search of her, finding her in the lobby, taking her out, inviting her to supper, offering her an overnight stay in her house.

The American Jew scholar apparently has lived forty years with the memory of that one difficult evening back in her childhood, when she was six. She has made her own calculations, analysis, conclusions in all these years in between. They do and do not match with what the evidence reveals. Everyone has their own set of sufferings, they must live through. What can you give someone out of what you have and how does it matter? The girl wants to do something with her anger, hurt, may be make the professor guilty after all these years? Or may be just give her a peek into one such frightful moment in the old street she takes her to revisit. It is a street haunted by that evening where a humiliation forty years old lives even now.

The harder you try to understand, the emptier you seem to become. Is there even a tiny bit of disentangling of the threads made possible in this process? May be a conversation between two people willing to own up to their past, to confront their desires, an effort to delineate their intentions does after all mean something ? A narrative-ising is perhaps the best alternative to an un-lived life that one always dreams about but one that somehow, keeps getting forever postponed. For a fiction filmmaker, anything can happen in a story, if you know how to imbue it with the real life blood you have once touched as an ace documentary maker yourself. It is possible to script a tale you would like to have people enter where they can meet each other, confront their demons, make peace with their troubled hearts, even if for a brief while. Once imagined, visualized and re-told, the story stays. It has the power of transforming something, knotted deep inside the human psyche. May be one is not the same as one was before entering this world, before meeting the unforgettable characters walking, talking, looking, smiling, crying, dreaming screaming, questioning in the film.

Else what is the meaning of all this? Who are we to each other? Living in the same apartments and meeting across continents and decades, how are we connected? Are we interested in understanding what connects us? How can we help each other through this absurd life? To what extent can we go for it?

The situations in his film, the silent word-less understanding between characters; the signs shared by them; the codes rendered collectively readable appear too good to be true at times. Yet it is the intention behind that counts. I am reminded of Anupam Misra when he talked about the principle behind the ritual of naming someone in India. It is not that someone is called Sundar or 'the beautiful one' or Pavan or 'free as the wind' because they are so, but also in the hope that the name given to them will affect their being.

Every principle K. subverts is worth the while for an individual to indict the society with; every question he raises is significant. The director uses his power to create a world where amidst crumbling morality and decay, people still have the scope to excel themselves, even if it means breaking out of the image they have crafted of themselves. They are willy nilly helped by the other person. If they so like, their meeting may mean something after all. It can become an encounter that can deeply affect their lives, if not outright change it. What more can you ask cinema to do? More than reminding yourself of who you are, who you are capable of becoming. Or is it be-ing?

12th June

Dekalog 9 / Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife

Another complex tale of a man and a woman in a marriage of ten years, apparently secure, settled and happy. But actually strangers. Or it is more like a movement from being friends to being strangers to being friends in a new way. The narrative as the film opens seems to take a sharp turn like a river in a long shot seen from somewhere up above in the sky. As it zooms in to the details thereof, other bends and contours are revealed, were hitherto invisible to the eye. Before the close up lens was mounted in the eye of the director, one would have no reason to suspect these bends. Suddenly everything remaining the same, everything changes.

Things are not as they appear to your eye as under a microscope. What you thought in the beginning is not what happens in the middle is not what it amounts to in the end. Life and relationships are the dynamic labs where truth is evolving, in a forever to-be-culminated understanding of Everything. Whatever you are sure of is certain to change belying your expectations. And this includes yourself and your desires- forever changing, forming, in a flux, in the process of becoming what you are.

What matters is the seeing of what is. This seeing is of the nature of Physical laws and of Psychological experience. The attention one brings to the reality, seems to alter its very nature. It is a back and forth process, much like the shift from particle to wave in the behaviour of atoms, a journey without a destination. But a worth the while tryst for the human being split into a myriad fragments looking to become whole again. For K. the realm of human relationships is the ground offered up for real practice.

On the condition that one enters fully and totally into a dialogue with the other, the healing does happen. There is a second chance, for those who know they have missed the first.

13th June

Dekalog 10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods

The two brothers in this film, who will later, in another film of Kieslowski, return- as they do in the black comedy Three colours white.

This one's a fable, a sort of folk tale. An incredible mix of comedy and pathos in the way the two brothers echo each other; like in the scene they both look at the sky and say how they have forgotten everything else in life, and how in that moment, it feels like childhood when there was no care in the world.

But a second childhood is in fact not at all what is in the offing. Its the harsh adult world which their stamp collector father understood and they could not for the life of them understand- neither him nor the world. With misplaced sense of trust, doubt and not knowing what they really want, the glorious property, suddenly falls into their lap from the blue sky and eventually, vanishes much the same way. The fact that it was never theirs to own up to is all too surreally revealed.

A sort of childhood does return for the two sons when having lost everything, they are now ready to start building from scratch. Once again like many times before, mirroring each other in what they do- like buying the same three stamps separately on the first day of their 'new' life.

For the first time in their life now, they have between them- a stamp series 'all of their own making', a sort of return to a beginning; something of value between the brothers, after they have gained and lost everything of supreme value to their own father and the world. Suffice it is to know what really belongs to one and begin again.

Is it then, never too late to begin again?

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