“The Music Room” - Satyajit Ray (1958)

Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958) was rather different from his two earlier and more well-known works, Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1957). This time, instead of a multi-perspective, naturalistic account, the film focuses on a single character whose aesthetic obsessions isolate him from the world around him. But such structural differences can sometimes be overemphasized and lead us to neglect an important commonality. Here again with  The Music Room, as in most of Ray’s work, the narrative landscape has a significant interior dimension to it. The external events depicted lead us deep into the mind(s) of the principle character(s).  Such introspection is difficult for the film medium and better suited for printed text, but Ray excelled at this expressive dimension in his films.  In fact it is this interior aspect that elevates Ray’s films and distinguishes them from the works of Italian NeoRealism, to which genre Ray’s work was initially compared.  In the particular case of The Music Room, the most important vehicle for expressing this internal world was music.

The story of The Music Room, set in the 1920s, concerns an aging Indian zamindar (feudal landlord) whose royal estate and wealth are disintegrating around him.  From an external event perspective his decline is monotonic and relatively uneventful – a relentless downward movement. Instead of external events, however, it is on the interior level of aesthetic consciousness, signaled by the film’s music, that the drama unfolds. In fact there are three significant musical performances, each lasting 6-10 minutes, in The Music Room that represent dramatic high points on the interior plane for the protagonist zamindar.  Of course, music in Indian movies is commonplace, and it has been the general tradition of Indian cinema to have musical numbers interrupt and punctuate the action, taking the audience temporarily out of the story.  But in contrast to that style, Ray here used musical numbers as integral diegetic components to the story. And instead of employing Indian popular music, Ray engaged the top-level artists across a spectrum of classical Bengali music.

The first scene shows the zamindar Biswambhar Roy half dozing on a couch on the roof of his feudal mansion that is located near the banks of the Padma river [1].  He pauses from puffing on his hookah pipe to ask idly of his servant, Ananta, what month it is.  Ananta not only has to tell him the month but also the season, so is the apparent uneventfulness of Roy’s existence.  Roy then hears the sounds of a shehnai [2] from a neighboring villa and asks Ananta about it.  Upon hearing that this neighbor is holding the Hindu uponayon, the traditional  coming-of-age “sacred thread” ceremony, for his son, Roy closes his eyes and drifts into a flashback reverie that occupies the next forty minutes of the film. 

Roy recollects a time four years earlier when he conducted a uponayon for his own son.  Just prior to this event his newly prosperous neighbor, Mahim Ganguly, came over to his residence seeking permission to engage in property development and contracted money-lending in Roy’s feudal domain. Immediately we see the difference between the two personages.  While Roy is regal and polished, Ganguly is an ill-bred and uncouth parvenu.  In contrast to the serene hookah-puffing Roy, we see Ganguly nervously taking snuff, smoking cigarettes, and rudely stamping out his butts on the floor of his host’s home.   As the story proceeds, it is evident that Roy represents traditional culture and civility, while Ganguly represents modernity in all its unsavory nervousness and energy.  Roy has no real interest in the business practicalities that Ganguly talks about – what Roy really cares about is human existence on a higher, aesthetic plane of pure beauty.  This is exemplified and demonstrated in the ensuing classical music concert (the first of the three major musical performances in the film), that Roy proudly holds to celebrate his only son’s uponayon ceremony in his elegant manorial music room.  The showcased artist on this occasion is a woman singer (Begum Akhtar) who plays on the surbahar before an audience of upper-class gentlemen guests.  This was a male-only gathering, because although the performer was a woman, it was not the custom to allow women to attend these concerts in the company of non-relative males. 

After the concert, Roy retires to his apartment and talks to his wife, Mahamya, and son, Khoka. His wife scolds him for frittering away their dwindling financial resources by holding these lavish concerts and for not attending to the business affairs of his estate.  In fact it is revealed that he is simply selling off his wife’s few remaining family jewels (presumably from her dowery) to pay for the top-level musicians hired for the performances.  In the hopes of changing her husband’s ways, Mahamya asks him to close up the music room, but Roy is still reveling in the artistic aftermath of the concert and doesn’t even listen to her.  She then gets his permission to travel with Khoka by river boat to Naryanpur to visit her ailing father. Though their trip will be during the heavy rainstorm season, Roy doesn’t mind their absence and inattentively gives his consent; he is too preoccupied with his musical reveries.

After their departure and while subsequently serenely listening to his privately hosted sitar player (Ustad Wahid Khan), Roy is annoyed to hear raucous noise coming from the neighboring Ganguly residence.  He is informed that this is the sound of Ganguly’s newly acquired electric generator, another sign of intrusively advancing modernity. While Roy’s residence is illuminated by a candle-powered chandeliers, Ganguly now has modern electric lights!

Ganguly soon comes over to Roy’s residence to invite his lord to a concert he intends to hold to celebrate the opening up of his own new mansion.  But though Roy is alarmed to learn that Ganguly’s mansion is outfitted with the latest modern British furnishings, he is relieved to hear that at least Ganguly doesn’t have anything like his own elegant music room, which is emblematic of Roy’s social and cultural eminence. So as an impromptu response to Ganguly’s invitation, Roy tells him that he will be holding a gala concert in his elegant music room on the very day of Ganguly’s scheduled party, thereby causing Ganguly to lose face by forcing him to postpone his own event.  Roy’s steward is alarmed at his master’s impetuosity, because hosting this new concert will bring the estate even closer to financial ruin.  But Roy is determined to go ahead in order to show his superior class and thereby lord it over that crass upstart, Ganguly; and he further orders that a message be sent to his wife that she must return home with their son to be present for the grand event.

This leads us into the second elegant concert performed in Roy’s music room. This time the jalsa (concert) is a Muslim Khyal vocal performance performed by a male singer. On this occasion, though, the elegant musical presentation is clouded by ominous signs.  During the performance, Roy is alarmed to see flashes of lightening outside the window, and he is further disturbed when he looks down and sees a large, ugly insect drowning in his wine goblet. The sublime beauty of the music is contaminated by the disquieting and foreboding disorder of the outside world. Sure enough, after the concert Roy learns that his wife and only son have drowned when their ship sank during the storm that he saw outside of his window during the concert. For the shattered Roy, his life is now ruined; and he tells his servants to permanently close up the music room.

This ends the flashback part of the film, and we return to the “present” and now understand better why Roy’s life, shown at the film’s outset, is so listless and decadent.  Although he still has possession of his mansion, he has by this point lost all his wealth and servants (presumably mostly now possessed by Ganguly), and his music room has been closed since that last fatal concert. Roy gets up from his rooftop couch and decides to go downstairs for once and look at the final remaining vestiges of his past elegance: his last elephant and horse, who to Roy are not objects, but fellow souls with names and personalities.  But even here his pleasure is tarnished by his having to watch Ganguly’s modern trucks raising dust as they cruise past his grazing elephant.

Ganguly then comes over for another visit to announce that he has just added an elegant music room to his own mansion and will open it by holding a classical music concert.  In fact he intends to hire the famous woman performer, Krishnabai (Roshan Kumariv) from Lucknow, the celebrated Kathak dancer. This is just too much for Roy; it is Ganguly’s ultimate act of insolent presumption.  Roy tells his last two remaining staff, the steward and the servant, to hire the same Krishnabai for a recital in his own music room the very next day, and to invite everyone to come.  This, they all well know, will consume the very last coins of Roy’s once vast fortune. 

The third concert takes place, and its near ten minutes of screen time are almost mesmerizing.  Roy is again revived and alive – not on the practical level, but on ethereal plane that has always been his soul’s home.  At the finish when the now wealthy Ganguly attempts to present Krishnabai with a gift of coins, Roy peremptorily and regally intervenes and asserts his exclusive right as the host to be the one who makes a ceremonial offering.  With this final gesture of elegance, Roy parts with the very last coins from his reserves.

After the concert the revivified Roy is now not only inebriated from the wine but also drunk with pride.  He has once again trumped his wealthy but lower-class rival and demonstrated the virtues of his bloodlines.  As he strolls around the music room, bedecked by portraits of his royal ancestors, he almost crows in triumph.  But then he is suddenly panicked by the sight of the music room candles slowly burning out, one by one.  This is what inevitably happens to burning candles, and this is what is happening to him, too.  His own death is clearly imminent.

Everything about The Music Room is stylized, melancholy, and brooding.  This film is a long ways from having any affinities with Italian NeoRealism, and it demonstrates the fundamentally introspective aspect of Ray’s cinematic storytelling.  For this presentation of an inward-looking soul, however, Ray needed not so much naturalistic innocence, which was intrinsic to the characters of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, but instead a theatrical performer capable of projecting his inner uncertainties.  For this he chose the accomplished Indian senior actor Chhabi Biswas to play the role of the zamindar, Biswambhar Roy. Chhabi Biswas was certainly a veteran performer; this was just one of sixteen film roles that he undertook in 1958.

Visually highlighting and accentuating Biswambhar Roy’s inner turmoil is Ray’s dramatic mise-en-scene, which borders here on the expressionistic, with explicit, almost gothic visual motifs and symbols.  The zamindar’s mansion, itself, is a bleak compelling image of decadent and now petrified majesty.  Its cavernous, gloomy interior is accentuated by the numerous extreme high and low-angle camera angles that Ray employs.  There are also many recurring shots of the music room’s own symbol of grandeur – its multi-candled chandeliers.  And, of course, there are the explicit omens: the struggling insect in Roy’s wine glass and the large black spider that he sees that besmirches his majestic portrait.

The film’s music penetrates further into the interior dimension.  Ray engaged the finest classical Indian musicians and performers of his day.  The musical score was composed and performed by Vilayat Khan, a famous sitar player of equal magnitude to Ravi Shankar, who had scored Ray’s two previous films.  In addition, there were the onscreen performances of Bismillah Khan (shehnai player), Begum Akhtar (singer), Roshan Kumari (the dancer), and Ustad Waheed Khan (sitar and surbahar player).  They create the seductive music that so preoccupies Roy and leads him to neglect everything around him.

So is Biswambhar Roy a tragic hero, or is his self-indulgence too extreme to elicit our sympathies?  Certainly he represents a decadent aspect of Indian aristocracy that was giving way to modernism.  But at the same time, we can understand the zamindar’s reverence for exquisite music and art.  Ray, himself, undoubtedly felt the tensions between utilitarian modernism and the aesthetic dimension of the human soul.  He came from a cultured background, and he was a highly accomplished artist in many forms – calligraphy (he designed original typefaces), painting, music (he played the piano and composed the scores of many of his films), and writing (he published written works in both essay form and fiction). 

Certainly Ray gives us the feeling that the tension between art and life is not just a matter of escape from real-world concerns.  There is a humanizing aspect of art and music that reminds us of the meaningful moments and interactions that elevate us all.  Ray would return to this subject some twenty years later with his The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977).  With that later film, however, there was a somewhat different and more subtle theme expressed.  In The Music Room, the protagonist is virtually solipsistic – he is happy to self-indulge his artistic desires in complete isolation.  But in The Chess Players, where again the aristocratic nabobs fritter away their time in aesthetic diversions, there is at least a recognition that art can be a medium for higher levels of human compassion and engagement.  In that film the compulsive art enthusiasts do not triumph, but they do not die, either.  They live on, appreciating in the end that the highest form of artistic engagement is loving human interaction.

  1. The Padma river is the main distributary (follow-on river) of the Ganges river in Bengal.
  2. The shehnai is an oboe-like Indian classical wind instrument, a master of which was Ustad Bismillah Khan, who performed in this film.

“Taking Liberties” - Chris Atkins (2007)

In the wake of the Ed Snowden revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) illegal surveillance activities, I would expect heightened concern over the progressive degradation of privacy and other civil liberties.  Unfortunately, it seems that a large swathe of the public, particularly young people, are either indifferent or resigned to the inevitable decline of individual human rights.  So any films that examine and press these issues are potentially important and should probably be part of our general social discourse. A worthy example is Taking Liberties (2007) [1], a documentary film written and directed by Chris Atkins about the British government’s assault on civil liberties in the United Kingdom.  Although this film very much has a British focus, the depicted issues and questionable activities on the parts of the authorities described are applicable across the spectrum of nations.  In fact the NSA’s massive surveillance of civilian telecommunications, as revealed by Snowden, are even more egregious activities than those that are covered in this film.

Taking Liberties begins with coverage of a thwarted antiwar protest that was to be held outside a UK Royal Air Force base in 2003.  The three busloads of protesters were stopped by the police, detained for two hours, and then forcefully escorted back to London.  So we get the idea that the film is going to be about how the British government is trying to stifle the expressions of protest towards their policies.  But as we go along, we see that the film has a wider scope than that.  Indeed it ventures into larger issues concerning a modern trend in England to suppress a number of commonly assumed civil liberties.  These wider issues are so important that I wish the film had addressed them more systematically.  But even as it stands, the film written and directed by Chris Atkins has some interesting points to make.

The outline of the film is explicitly given early on.  It will tell the story of how the New Labour movement of the British Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair and in power since 1997, had systematically diminished basic civil rights in the UK, the country widely recognized as the worldwide initiator of official human rights.  Specifically, the film covers six basic human rights that have been damaged by Tony Blair’s policies.  Note that all of these rights are among the core elements of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was proclaimed on December 10, 1948.
  1. Freedom of Speech – Article 19 of the UDHR
  2. Right to Protest – Article 19 of the UDHR
  3. Right to Privacy – Article 12 of the UDHR
  4. Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Article 11 of the UDHR
  5. No Detention Without Charge (Habeas Corpus) – Articles 9 & 10 of the UDHR
  6. Ban of Torture – Article 5 of the UDHR
This outline structure is crucial to the film’s coherence, which otherwise seems to be a collection of “talking heads” politely complaining about their treatment at the hands of the authorities. The problem of talking heads is always an issue with documentary films.  Although talking heads may put flesh on what otherwise may threaten to be a dry exposition, these speakers need to be placed within a narrative framework in order to sustain interest in the film.
1.  Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is basic to any civilized society, and it hardly seems civilized the way 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, a distinguished anti-nuclear-weapons activist, was treated at the 2005 Labour Party Conference. With Wolfgang sitting in the audience balcony, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw gave a speech during which he said, "We are in Iraq for one reason only: to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation".  Wolfgang responded to this utterance by shouting “Nonsense!”, for which he was manhandled by security personnel and forcibly removed from the audience.  Of course, this was an outrageous act, but was it indicative of a wider problem? 

In a similar vein we learn that a 20-year-old student was stopped by the police merely for wearing a T-shirt that said “Bollocks to Blair”. 

These two example exemplify a weakness to Taking Liberties.  We sometimes get the feeling that we are merely watching a list of complaints about Tony Blair’s allegedly nasty behavior and not covering more comprehensive issues.

2.  Right to Protest
Protestors recount being arrested for failing to have asked permission to hold a demonstration in the vicinity of British government offices on Downing Street, London (for which written permission is required).  There is also mention in this section of Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs).  In contrast to what has appeared up to this point, the FITs represent a very serious menace to society, and I will discuss them further below.

3.  Right to Privacy
Atkins visits the Counter Terror World 2006 conference held in London.  Here we see that surveillance operations are a lucrative business, and the conference kiosks and poster boards advertise the latest invasive surveillance technologies.  Also covered are the proposals to issue universal electronic ID cards to the public that record and facilitate tracking of everyone’s activities.  The universal buzz-phrase in these quarters is, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t need to hide anything”. 

4.  Innocent Until Proven Guilty
There is a discussion of Blair’s proposal to legalize detention without charge for up to 90 days.  Holding people this long without charge is presumably useful for the purposes of harassment or forcible extraction of information (i.e. torture).  Although the Blair government was unsuccessful in this endeavor, they do have legalized detention without charge for 28 days, and they have been trying to get it extended to a 56-day period.

5.  No Detention Without Charge
This section covers the same area, but along a different line.  Algerian asylum seeker Mouloud Sihali was placed under indefinite house arrest without charge in connection with the notorious Wood Green Ricin Plot (2002). In this case, no ricin was ever found, although this failure to detect any ricin was kept secret for two years.  As a consequence, it led Colin Power to use the case as a justification for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.   Sihali was never found guilty of anything, but even today he faces the threat of deportation back to Algeria, where he may be subject to oppressive measures.

6.  Ban on Torture
Here we move further afield, to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where torture has been used in attempts to extract information from detainees who are being held without charge.
So the film moves progressively to more serious and disturbing issues.  In fact what starts out as a depiction of relatively minor grievances turns increasingly towards more threatening and potentially more pervasive compromises of civil liberties. This movement with respect to the successively more portentous issues is one of the film’s strengths. Another one is the superbly produced animation sequences that pop up in several places to illustrate some of the argumentation. But there are also some weaknesses that diminish the film’s effectiveness:
  • The attempts to demonize and heap scorn on Tony Blair is counterproductive to the film’s overall message.  Such derision localizes the concerns to a claimed delinquent individual and distracts the viewer from more sinister and threatening problems.
  •  Similarly the attempts at humor in the film are sophomoric and also distracting. This will only appeal to the already converted and threatens to make the film a sermon to the choir.
  • The suggestion that recent UK policies compare to German Nazism, or that they may put us on a path leading to such a horror, requires more evidence and argumentation, otherwise it is merely scare-mongering.  Incidentally, if some producer does want to go down that emotionally polemical path, I suggest that they look at the 27-minute documentary film produced by the conservative Institute for American Strategy, Only the Strong (1972).  That ultimately malevolent work advocating more nuclear armaments was a powerful and frightening presentation that pressed all the “right” buttons to attain emotive engagement.
  • The various depictions of police overreaction to protesters is not the real issue, either.  The job of the police is often to restrict people and exercise control.  While police over-aggressiveness can be a serious problem, the real problem is policies that too often place police in a position to coercively interfere with human rights.
  • And finally, this 105-minute film runs on about 25 minutes too long.  What it needed was a shorter run and a concluding brief summary of the main points and a call to action.

But despite these weaknesses, Taking Liberties has enough going for it that it should still be seen and discussed.  There are serious issues raised in the film – with far more threatening implications than the individual annoyances and transgressions documented in the film – and these deserve widespread attention.

In this connection it is worth considering the rightful place that government has in society.  We all live and interact in a common space, with many common resources that must be judiciously shared (the “Commons”). Where Commons resources are limited – such as in connection with rivers, lake and ocean foreshores, drinking water, harbors, etc. – it is appropriate for some government regulation to assure the sustainability of, as well as the fair and relatively open access to, these resources.  Even staunch libertarians concede that a man’s right to swing his fist ends where another person’s nose begins.  So some restrictions on what one can do in the public space are in order.  Thus when the British authorities seek to be informed (by requiring written application for permission) about upcoming demonstrations near the principal government buildings, that requirement does not seem unreasonable to me – as long as permission is the default response.  Police do sometimes need to know when and where potentially disruptive events may be staged.  So the film’s presentation of protesters refusing to fill out this kind of application does not elicit my sympathies for that case.

For the maintenance of the Commons in general, however, there needs to be a reasoned balance between the use of laws and norms.  Laws provide a relatively rigid, explicitly codified structure of legal and illegal behaviour; whereas norms are used to regulate behaviour in a more socially cooperative manner.  These two social regulation mechanisms work together: a society’s legal system will operate successfully only when it is in general conformance with the normative system.  And a well-functioning society’s institutional structure that harmonizes with its shared public narratives will smoothly integrate the legal and normative systems.

The metaphor of the Commons provides a useful scheme for thinking about the responsibilities of good governments.  In general, responsible government must look after three areas:
  1. Maintain the sustainability of all the Commons.  This can mean taking measures to conserve nonrenewable resources.
  2. Lease out some sustainable portions of the Commons for exclusive control on the part of those who will develop the productivity associated with the Commons.  This can result in some limitations to accessing/controlling the Commons on the part of others.
  3. Maintain as much general access to the Commons as possible in light of item 2, above.  This must be done in conformance with the UN UDHR.
A suitable balance, achieved by common consent, needs to be maintained across these above three aspects of regulating the Commons.  Unfortunately, many governments have not been following the above scheme and instead have been doing the following:
  • selling of Commons resources to business associates, who in turn operate in an exploitative and extractive manner, thereby depleting the resources and privately hoarding the profits that should be collective distributed;
  • invading the Commons space (and thereby diminishing the human right to privacy) in order to exercise greater political and social control;
  • partitioning and selling off the “Commons” of ideas (which are erroneously taken to be objectified resources).  This involves treating ideas as if they were privately ownable properties, and as a consequence restricting free expression by asserting that individuals can own this “intellectual property” and restrict others from using it [2,3].
The plundering of the Commons goes hand-in-hand with the plundering of civil liberties.  The dominant power coalitions view the reduction of civil liberties, justified by appeals to the fabricated “terrorist” narrative, as good for business.

So these larger incursions of civil liberties and degradations of the Commons, which Taking Liberties does raise tangentially, are far more ominous and demonstrate that freedom in British society is in serious decline.  Appropriately enough for this modern age of government newspeak, there are four new and potentially sinister initiatives identified in the film by their acronyms: CCTV, IDs, ASBOs, and FITs.   For example, it is claimed that Britain has more deployed CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras than any other country in the world [4] (50% more than China) [5,6].  This is an unwarranted invasion of privacy and is not justified by the threat of terrorism.  It is implemented in order to maintain control on the part of the dominant power coalitions of each society.  For similar reasons, governments around the world are proposing the issuance of compulsory ID cards to all citizens for the purposes of tracking.  In addition, in Britain, the government has instituted anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), which can be issued by a court to anyone who makes a complaint about somebody else’s action.  This means that a person can go to jail merely for annoying someone else, even if what he does nothing in violation of the written law.  This is an example of what I mentioned above – seeking to extend the legal system into the proper realm of the normative system.

A particularly alarming development in Britain has been the deployment of Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs). These are teams of police officers who are sent out to gather intelligence on “potential” lawbreakers and disrupt and deter so-called antisocial behaviour before it occurs. Governments that operate using the latest electronic technology in this proactively invasive fashion (e.g. in the fashion of the NSA and its collaborating organizations [7,8]) are attempting to implement the kind of society horrifyingly envisioned in Minority Report (2002).

Nations under such suffocating watchful surveillance will gradually and inevitably morph into social systems far different from the free, open, and prosperous societies in the most developed parts of the world. Not only will creation and innovation be curtailed, it will mean that individual, meaningful personal interactions will be inevitably misinterpreted by a collective judgmental and coercive gaze.  This will change who we are.  Taking Liberties is hopefully just at the forefront of further informative films that articulate these serious concerns.

  1. The film title has also been called Taking Liberties Since 1997.  There is an associated book and a Web site: http://www.noliberties.com/.
  2. For further discussion on the false objectification of ideas as intellectual property, see: RiP: A Remix Manifesto' - Bret Gaylor (2009), The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/08/rip-remix-manifesto-brett-gaylor-2009.html.
  3. Also see: SiCKO' - Michael Moore (2007), The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/02/sicko-michael-moore-2007.html.
  4. David Barrett, ”One Surveillance Camera for Every 11 People in Britain, Says CCTV Survey”, The Telegraph, July 10, 2013.
  5. Tom Kelly, “Revealed: Big Brother Britain has more CCTV cameras  than China”, Daily Mail, August 11, 2009.
  6. The common perception that the UK and Chinese governments stand on opposite ends of the human rights spectrum may need to be revised.  Business interests seem to be taking precedence in all quarters.  See Jonathon Mirsky, “Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money”, The New York Review of Books, October 19, 2013.
  7. Susan Stellin, "Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly", The New York Times, 21 October 2013.
  8. David Rohde, "Our Fear of Al-Qaeda Hurts Us More Than Al-Qaeda Does", The Atlantic, 27 October 2013.

“The Man from Earth” - Richard Schenkman (2007)

The Man From Earth (2007) is a science-fiction fantasy directed by Richard Schenkman and based on a short story by noted sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby, famous for his earlier work for the original Star Trek and The Twilight Zone television shows. The film focuses on an otherwise ordinary man who claims to be 14,000 years old and on the degree to which his close associates are wiling to believe him when they are apprised of his claim.

Although I would say the film is science fiction, the low-budget production really only consists of a lengthy discussion about the claim between the principal character and his friends.   If the main character’s claim is false – and we only have suggestive evidence that it is anything but false – then the story is simply about gullibility. 

The action of the film takes place entirely at the home of Professor John Oldman, who has just resigned from his tenured position at a university and is about to depart the area for good.  As he is loading up his pickup truck before departure, he is visited by colleagues from the university who have come over to organize and impromptu good-bye party.  So virtually the entire cast of the film is made up of the following people:
  • John Oldman (David Lee Smith), the retiring philosophy professor
  • Dan (Tony Todd), an anthropology professor
  • Harry (John Billingsley), a biology professor
  • Edith (Ellen Crawford), an art history professor
  • Sandy (Annika Peterson), a historian who is in love with Oldman
  • Art Jenkins (William Katt), an archeology professor
  • Linda Murphy (Alexis Thorpe), Katt’s student
  • Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), a psychiatrist
The questions on the minds of Oldman’s friends are why is he, a successful academic for the past ten years and a man expected to be the next department head, leaving his job? Where he is going?  And, what he is now going to do with his life?  Oldman just smiles, and when pressed only gives evasive answers.

Finally Oldman decides to lay it out to them. He tells them that he is a Cro-Magnon man who was born 14,000 years ago. He says that he aged normally until he was about 35, and then he abruptly ceased aging. His cells were perfectly able to reproduce themselves, such that they always repaired all wounds and left no scarring. Since then he has always changed his address and identity after living somewhere for about ten years, because people would begin to become suspicious as to why he didn’t age along with everybody else.

The first roughly half of this long conversation covers Oldman’s responses to the probing questions of the disbelieving academics.  Biologist Harry concedes that perfect cell reproduction is theoretically possible.  Dan, the anthropology professor, is open-minded. But Art, the archeologist, is suspicious and suspects that whole thing is a put-on. 

When asked questions about history and anthropology, Oldman concedes that he doesn’t know everything that happened in various historical periods or why.  He says he is just an ordinary man with the limited horizon accorded to all of us and was just aware of what was going on around him. During each age of man in which he lived, he tells them, he was aware of the wisdom of the time, but no more.

The academics in attendance feel they must be open to unusual information and that they must supply an evidence-based refutation of his claims, but they all come up short.  So some of them, particularly Dan and Harry, are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of argument. 

As the conversation continues, Oldman reveals some further implausible aspects of his past.  This is where the story veers over to issues of human cultural history. Oldman clams that he was personally acquainted with the Babylonian king, Hammurabi. Not only that – he knew Christopher Columbus, and the artist Vincent Van Gogh personally gave him one of his paintings. But these revelations are trivial compared to what follows. Oldman says that he was a disciple of Gautama Buddha and that he, himself, later was Jesus of Nazareth.  He tells them that he is actually agnostic and makes no claims of personal divinity – the whole Jesus, the Son of God, thing was all just one great big misunderstanding. In explanation for this major screw-up, he tells his friends rather modestly that when a few hundred years after Buddha’s death he tried to pass on the Buddha’s teachings in the Middle East, his message was misconstrued by his disciples and wrongly made into a new religion.  This “revelation” goes down very badly with Edith, the art historian, who also happens to be a literalist Christian. But what could have been an interesting philosophical discourse turns out to be mostly huffy posturing on the part of the gathered academics.

This is all a little bit too much to take for the assemblage at hand, and psychiatrist Will Gruber sternly warns Oldman that he can have him committed to an insane asylum if he doesn’t confess that his whole story is a hoax.  Oldman surveys the room and sees that though he is viewed as a madman, he is in fact surrounded by a psychological neurotics, foremost of whom is the psychiatrist Gruber, himself. So Oldman shrugs and confesses that it was all just a put-on job to see if he could get a rise out of people. The visitors then take their leave, mostly with their feathers still quite ruffled. At the film’s close, though, we are given some evidence that essentially confirms Oldman’s story: he knows some things that he could not have otherwise known unless he had been alive at an earlier time.

On the whole, The Man from Earth has some interesting aspects to it, but the film falls short in several key areas.  Perhaps the first difficulty is that the film is just one long conversation.  Now you might point out to me that Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is mostly conversation. True, but there are actually many conversations in The Idiot, as well as several dramatic events in the tale.  Anyway, The Idiot works as written fiction, but it has proven difficult to transfer to the screen. A further problem with The Man from Earth is that the spoken discourse suffers from being overly schematic and artificial.  Many of the comments are contrived and unmotivated, and the overall effect is considerably worsened by the overacting on the part of the cast of visitors.  It comes across as an attempt to evoke academic one-liners, but it is all just too artificial.  The exception to these histrionics is David Lee Smith, as Oldman, but his laid-back, dispassionate composure has the reverse problem of being almost enervating for a story that must rely on discourse to move it along.

Another problem concerns the implausibility of Oldman’s long-term survival, even if I allow for the sci-fi fantasy possibility of his not aging and his improbable encounters with remarkable men.  Most humans in the prehistoric period did not die of old age; instead they died because of starvation, violence, accidents, and infectious diseases.  It seems to me that it would be extremely unlikely for an ordinary person, as Oldman claims to be, to have survived these other causes of death over the hundreds of generations that he is supposed to have lived.

OK, so the film is implausible and talky, but what about the intellectual content?  Is there something interesting there to hold onto? There is some, but there are mostly missed opportunities.  One interesting subject would have been the nature of time, itself, but this was not explored in the film. Time and memory would probably have a quite different structure for Oldman, given his long-term experiences, and this film could have been occasion for an examination of that topic. 

“The Chess Players” - Satyajit Ray (1977)

The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977) was something of a departure for writer-director Satyajit Ray, since it was a relatively big-budget Hindi-language film [1] and Ray’s first feature film made in a language other than his native Bengali. Stylistically, it also had elements of the broad style of acting that typically features in mainstream Hindi cinema. But even operating in this genre, Ray had his unique contributions to make.

The narrative of The Chess Players is based on Munshi Premchand’s 1924 short story of the same name about two 19th century upper-class Indian aristocrats whose obsession with the game of chess causes them to neglect everything going on around them.  Ray added a parallel thread to the story that covers the historical background concerning the political turmoil of the time (1856) and places things more firmly in a social context.

The setting is Lucknow, the capital of the wealthy Oudh (Awadh) province, an area in Uttar Pradesh.  At this time of 1856, which was a year before the upheaval associated with the Sepoy Rebellion (Indian Mutiny), the British Raj, through the instrument of the East Indian Tea Company, was angling to take over more and more of the Indian provinces.  The Oudh province was one of the last holdouts and still semi-independent – as long as it continued to pay off the British overlords with large stipends. In fact Oudh’s independence was formalized by a treaty signed by the British in 1801, but their principal operative in this story, General James Outram, had the intention of forcing the current ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, to abdicate. 

The story of The Chess Players thus has three separate theaters of action, i.e. three focalizations:
  • The royal court of the Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), who is the ruler of Oudh
  • The offices of British General James Outram (Richard Attenborough)
  • The domestic concerns of the two avid chess players, Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey)

Rarely do these three theaters come in contact during the film, but on a thematic level they are intertwined.  They ostensibly tell a straightforward story of how self-indulgence and decadence on the part of the Indian upper class allowed the relatively small (compared to India) contingent of British invaders to take over an entire subcontinent.  The Indian upper class are portrayed as effete and almost degenerate, while the British are portrayed as disciplined, vigorous, and pragmatic.  After all, as one of the Indians in this story points out, the British have introduced the railroad and the telegraph to India – two revolutionary developments of the modern age.  But Ray’s portrayal of this story adds another layer of subtlety to all of this.  By the end of the film, one sees that the Indian cultural side has its virtues, too. 

The film opens with a coverage of the historical backdrop concerning the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.  It then shifts to a discussion about the Nawab that General Outram has with his assistant, Captain Weston, who speaks Urdu and appreciates Indian culture. Weston describes Wajid as an accomplished poet, singer, dancer, and playwright – in short, a most unusual ruler.  But on hearing this the outraged Outram issues his counter opinion: Wajid is “a bad king, a frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king.”  For Outram, Wajid should be attending to administering his state, and Weston’s characterization confirms his view that Wajid should be replaced by “responsible” British rule.

Then the action shifts to the two chess players. They are wealthy and indolent, and they seem to have nothing to do other than play chess at all hours of the day. This part of the film is portrayed in the farcical manner typical of low Hindi comedy, with the two somewhat chubby and over-dressed chess players smirking and bickering their way through the chess play.  Any interruptions to their games are only annoyances, but they do take time out to learn from a friend that these British modernizers have even had the temerity to modernize the game of chess, itself.  Their version of the game alters the rules somewhat in order to make the game move a little faster. 

Of course, there has to be space for some domestic shenanigans, and we see that both Mirza Sajjad and Mir Roshan have neglected their attractive and sensuous wives and left them unsatisfied (the two wives have different strategies for dealing with that frustration).  When one of the wives steals their chess players, Mir and Mirza simply resort to playing the game by substituting the pieces with food items taken from the kitchen table.

Meanwhile we also follow the activities of the supreme aesthete, Wajid Ali Shah.  He is no ordinary aesthete, because he also abjures alcohol and prays to God five times a day. General Outram issues him an ultimatum that he must abdicate his kingship or face violence.  Of course violence in this case would involve a battle mostly between British-commanded Indian sepoys and Indian troops under the command of the Nawab – in other words, Indians against Indians.  Wajid is placed in an impossible position: either he must submit to the dishonor of abandoning his position (and thus abandoning his people) or submit to violence (which he abhors).  His world is not one of force, it is one of divine beauty, as exemplified by the lengthy dance of a beautiful Nautch girl who performs gracefully before the king (my favorite scene in the film).

In the end Wajid, the true and committed pacifist [2], succumbs to the British demands. He orders his troops to disarm and submit to British rule. 

While this is happening and anticipating some sort of political disruption, Mir Roshan and Mirza Sajjad have fled their two houses (with their troublesome wives) and gone across the river to continue their chess play.  Looking for a mosque, they only find an abandoned villa, but that’s good enough for them to start up another game.  However, when Mir Roshan makes a winning play and rudely crows about of his triumph, Mirza Sajjad taunts his boastful rival by revealing a secret he has recently learned from his own wife – that Mir Roshan is a cuckold.  Unable to take this humiliation, Mir Roshan draws his pistol and takes aim at his friend, but just misses his target when they are suddently interrupted by a local attendant announcing that the British have just taken over the Lucknow palace.

Mir Roshan then disconsolately walks away in disgust.  But after awhile he returns and wonders what he should do with his life now.  Mirza Sajjad, who has already forgiven his friend’s threat on his life, invites Mir Roshan to sit down with him again and start another game of chess.  This time, he suggests in the closing scene of the film, they can play the speedier British version of the game.

When you watch The Chess Players, you may become distracted by some of the conventional theatrics.  This is, after all, very much of a costume drama.  In fact the cinematography is not as deft as I have seen it in other Ray films.  The high-key lighting demands for this color film and this genre may perhaps have interfered with some of the camera setups.  In addition, there are a number of awkward zoom shots that are relatively obtrusive.  However, despite the genre-based histrionics, I believe Ray made an effort to present authentic historical accuracy –  even Amjad Khan actually looks like portraits I have seen of Wajid Ali Shah. 

This leads me to what I think was Satyajit Ray’s primary contribution to this story – the humanistic presentations of the principal personages. In particular, I gradually warmed up to the performances of Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey in the roles of the two chess players. As you watch these two innocent game addicts, you are reminded of how many of us fritter away our own time with vicarious obsessive diversions, whether it is watching entertainment, attending sports games, or playing with our smartphones. So a smug attitude towards the depicted chess players here is not really appropriate. As Jared Diamond has tellingly pointed out, we denizens of the modern world have no cause to feel personal pride with respect to our modernized world [3]. We are no smarter or more diligent than other people in the world. The reality is that we are all mostly free-riders who are taking advantage of the slowly accumulated technical resources provided by modern technology over the last few hundred years.  It is not so much that we are more industrious and hardworking than our ancestors, but that we function together into a very functional framework that has been built up over time. And within this framework we do need space for people who can promote more harmonious and fulfilling interactions, as to a certain extent, Wajid Ali Shah tried to do.

Viewing things from this angle, we could say that the Indians shown in The Chess Players are somewhat similar to and no less worthy than our own present-day somewhat dilettantish intellectuals. In fact these cultured Indians are superior, because both the two chess players, as well as Wajid Ali Shah, are devoted to aesthetic experiences beyond brute material accumulation. And their overriding instincts are to avoid conflict, disharmony, and violence. The relentless drive for order evinced by people like General James Outram does have its merits, but that is only a means to a higher end.

  1. Urdu, the language of the royal court in Lucknow at the time, is also used in the film.
  2. See the article by Kathy Kelly, "This Way: A Review of David Swanson's New Text on War and the Search for Peace", Truthout, (1 October 2013).
  3. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), W. W. N orton & Co.