Sharing in feast of the spirit


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Category: Reflections Date: 14 Jan 01

If I had to find one word to describe that seamless afternoon- dusk-night-dawn, when the full moon was a big round bright bulb in the sky, turned up to full voltage, staring down at the filming of the Mystic Masseur, throwing its light over trees, land, props and people like a sequinned maco, it would be “feast”.


There was no prospect of fame, riches or celebrity attached to being one of 64 extras in the village wedding night scene between Ganesh and Leela.


The scene was festive enough, with burfis, jilaibis, and other Indian sweets piled high on long tables, (as props, not to be eaten) a wedding chamber festooned and woven together like plaits with crimson and green flowers and foliage.


To the stars on set (Om Puri, Ayesha Dharkar, Aasif Mandvi, the astonishing 88-year-old Indian actress Zora Sehgal, who between takes made everyone jump with her karate skills) directors Ismail Merchant, and his 70-strong team of assistant directors, producers, cameramen, technical staff, set and costume designers, and other support staff, it was just another long shoot in a tight, finely-tuned schedule where everything was so minutely co-ordinated, 70 people had to work in tandem to pull off one scene. And working 12 hours straight was par for the course. You shoot the same scene a hundred times if you have to. You shoot till you get it right, if it takes all night. You tick that off your schedule and begin again, that same tight pulling-together of elements to produce a film, the next day.


Although Merchant said the US$2.5 million budget would suffice only to pay for meals in an average or big-budget Hollywood film, it didn’t mean he was going to compromise on quality.


But to the 64 extras, myself included, whose job it was to provide a backdrop, like wallpaper, it was an entry to a world that was dripping with the adrenalin of creation. Twelve, 13 hours of standing and sitting, clapping and walking, rewinding bodies back and forwarding them for yet another take. Stomachs rumbled, feet ached, sneezes and yawns were suppressed and children fell asleep, but spirits were so high we barely noticed.


What material is the spirit made up of? Who knows, except like pools of light spilling here and there, into the darkness and potholes, it takes on many guises; humour mostly, combined with the difficult and serious act of creation.


Spirit is the commonality of humanity like the rush of blood under the human skin, where race, colour and class don’t matter.


The banter went back and forth, and laughter spilled everywhere around this tower of Babel: with the American assistant director shouting out something, and the Indian legend Om Puri throwing in a dry and hilarious response in Hindi, at which the Indian actors cracked up; the Trini technical staff interacting with the Hungarian director of photography, and the English set designer giving direction to the Indian carpenters, and a Trini language consultant advising the Indian director, Ismail Merchant, and the American James Ivory. The extras, too, waxed lyrical in the background, making me reflect that Naipaul was missing out on all this fresh material and how clever he was in the first place to harness the ole but rich and sophisticated talk of his country and make books with it.


By the end of it, as the extras staggered home at 3 am, in the light of the still grinning moon, many wondered at the hard work it takes to make a movie. A few said never again, but almost everybody who’d been asked back said yes.


Rubbing my aching feet, I mused, looking at that gaudy moon, over a comment made by James Ivory a day earlier, that all Merchant Ivory films were off the beaten track of formula films, so much so, they could be from Mars, because they encouraged people to read between the lines, because a lot of life happens there; encouraged people to listen, and think, even puzzle, over what was being said in the film, encouraged people to know themselves and the world around them. There can be no profession more important than that of creative people, because their work gives a purpose to our lives, separates us from beasts, assures us that we are more than just flesh, blows spirit and soul into our existence.


What remained unsaid, perhaps because it was understood, about this independent company’s films is that whether literary, documentary, political, or simple everyday human stories, their themes are about what it means to be human.


And like the moon, Merchant Ivory films shed new light over dark patches of life with universal themes on the nature of love and ambition, yearning and striving, comedy, beauty and tragedy, on how all this twines together like flowers and foliage and how life will always be infinitely interesting because it is infinitely mysterious.


That’s what any work of great creation does, film, book, painting or sculpture: shed a little bit of moonlight on us. That’s why that seamless afternoon-evening-night-dawn was a shimmering feast of the spirit, shattering, for the moment, the darkness around us.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur