Donald Crisp

Films of Donald Crisp:

“The Navigator” - Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp (1924)

Buster Keaton was one of filmdom’s masterful auteurs [1], and some of his great silent classics stand as testaments to that fact.  One of these, The Navigator (1924), was an early example.  Coming as it did immediately after Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), which was only a modest success with the critics and at the box office, The Navigator was one of Keaton’s biggest commercial successes.  We can attribute part of this success to Keaton’s adherence to his own special scheme of narrative progression, the structure of which I will remind you a little bit more about below. 

First it is worth mentioning a couple of items about the production.  Keaton often liked to give his films an atmospheric setting, the nature of which plays an important role in his cinematic storytelling.  Here in the case of The Navigator, Keaton’s production team acquired a 500-foot ocean liner that was about to be condemned for scrap metal, and most of the film is set onboard this ship [2].  And the ship’s environment is so important that in some respects we could say the ship is a key character in the story.  With respect to another production matter, we note that although veteran Donald Crisp is officially listed as having co-directed the film with Keaton, the two of them did not get along, and Keaton went ahead and finished most of the film without Crisp’s participation [2]. 

As for that matter of Keaton’s narrative progression, it is a unique feature that I have discussed in connection with my review of his Our Hospitality (1923) [3] and comprises a movement across three basic narrative schemata:
  • The Quaint  
    Here we see Keaton as an earnest but naive young man operating in accordance with what he thinks are the rules in an artificial and quaintly stilted social setting. 
      
  • The Slapstick 
    In these scenes the protagonist must deal with a relentless sequence of unexpected  events and obstacles that result in one acrobatic pratfall after another.  It is here that Keaton’s amazing agility and athleticism are on full display.  And on this occasion, Keaton’s slapstick theatrics are well complemented by those of his costar, Kathryn McGuire.
     
  • The Maelstrom 
    In this phase the world, itself, seems to close in on the protagonist and present a blizzard of unfathomable existential threats.  Chaos reigns, as Keaton struggles to survive in an increasingly dizzying world.  It is Keaton’s closing maelstrom phase that is his signature and most memorable contribution.
The story of The Navigator passes through three phases that roughly correspond to these three narrative dimensions.

1.  Getting Onboard The Navigator
This whole first phase is basically portrayed in Quaint mode.  In the beginning we are introduced to two wealthy and spoiled young people whose lives are disrupted by an obscure rivalry between two overseas countries.  When wealthy businessman John O’Brien sells the ocean liner, The Navigator, to one of the two rivalrous countries, agents of the adversarial country immediately make plans to sabotage the ship by setting it adrift from the harbor that night. 

Meanwhile, the young heir, Rollo Treadway (played by Buster Keaton), to an equally wealthy family’s fortune impetuously decides to arrange to marry O’Brien’s daughter, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire).  And he purchases tickets for himself and Betsy to go on an immediate honeymoon the very next day to Hawaii.  But when Rollo gets down to actually proposing to Betsy, she curtly turns him down.  With his honeymoon ticket already paid for, the now dazed and disconsolate Rollo decides to take the trip to Hawaii by himself, and since he doesn’t like getting up for an early morning departure, he decides to board the ship that night.  However, some pier sign confusion leads Rollo to board the wrong ship – not his Hawaii cruise ship, but the about-to-be sabotaged The Navigator

A little bit later and knowing nothing about Treadway’s doings, John O’Brien, accompanied by his daughter Betsy, makes a last-minute evening visit to his just-sold ship.  Unfortunately, the foreign saboteurs are now ready to strike, and they capture O’Brien and take him ashore.  Hearing her father’s call for help, though, Betsy boards The Navigator to look for him.  It is just then the saboteurs disengage the ship from the pier and cast it adrift.  The Navigator is now adrift in the Pacific Ocean with just two passengers, Rollo and Betsy.
                   
2.  Coping at Sea
In the second phase of the film, we move into Slapstick mode.  We have two spoiled and impractical rich kids alone on a large ship adrift in the sea.  Initially they each find evidence that there is someone else on board, and some time is spent on frenetic chase scenes as they search for each other.  When they eventually meet up, they then have to figure out what to do.  Since they have always been attended to by servants all their lives, neither Rollo nor Betsy has even the faintest knowledge concerning how to cope with practical affairs.  In particular, there is a six-minute segment showing their ludicrous attempts to prepare food in the kitchen.

Then they see a ship approaching from the distance, and Rollo, hoping to attract the ship’s attention, hoists a flag.  However the flag he unwittingly hoists is one signaling that their ship is under quarantine, and the approaching ship quickly sails away.

Since they have soaked themselves a few times in the water, they find some drier, sailor clothing to wear, and this occasions our seeing Keaton now decked out in his signature porkpie hat.  They retire to sleep in separate bedchambers, and there is a funny sequence in which Betsy sees in her own chamber a disturbing picture of a scowling sea captain, which she rids herself of by hanging it outside her port window.  But the scary picture hangs down and swings in front of Rollo’s port window, scaring the daylights out of him even more.

Eventually they find boxes of firecrackers and Roman candles which they hope to use to signal other ships.  But, of course, these get detonated accidentally all at once, causing further mayhem.  

3.  Weeks Later 
Time passes, and it seems that Rollo and Betsy have learned somehow to feed themselves on the well-stocked, but still-adrift, ship.  They have hooked up some makeshift Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions to help them deal with the large kitchen devices in the ship’s galley.  Things seem to be going better.  But finally they catch sight of what they have long been looking for – land!  This should lead to their salvation, but here it only leads to the Maelstrom.

When they look at the land through their spyglass, they see that it is an island full of cannibals.  Even worse, as their ship approaches the island, it runs aground and springs a leak.  Betsy finds a deep-sea diver’s outfit for Rollo to don, and once he is so clad, she then helps lower him over the side to repair the ship’s hull from the outside.

When Rollo enters this aquatic underworld, he finds himself barely able to move (because of his cumbersome diving suit) and having to cope with threatening sea creatures, like octopuses and swordfish.  At one point he even has to grab hold of one swordfish and use it as a weapon to engage in a sword fight with another, bigger swordfish.

Meanwhile the island cannibals have spotted the grounded The Navigator and have canoed en masse out to it, where they capture Betsy and take her as a prisoner back to their island.  Rollo, still at the bottom of the sea, sees that his line to the ship has come loose, but he somehow manages to stagger all the way to the island. 

When the natives see the strange looking figure emerge from the ocean, they think it is a monster, and they all scatter in fright.  Betsy and Rollo then make their way back to the ship, with Betsy sitting on the floating, diving-suited Rollo and rowing as if in a rowboat.  But the natives overcome their initial fright and soon chase after them.  A chaotic battle ensues, and it seems that the maelstrom only worsens.

The natives overwhelm the ship, and Rollo and Betsy try to escape in a lifeboat, but that effort fails, too.  They find themselves struggling unaided in the ocean, and all hope seems to be lost. The maelstrom has overwhelmed them.  But just as they are about to sink underwater for the last time, they are saved by an out-of-nowhere US navy submarine that lifts them out of the water and rescues them.


As is evident from the events described, the title of this film is somewhat ironic.  Far from charting and managing a planned course of action, our protagonist struggles to survive a torrent of problems that flood his way.  Overall, though, The Navigator stands out as displaying a perfectly crafted Quaint-Slapstick-Maelstrom Keaton narrative sequence.  Some critics especially single out the Slapstick part for praise [4], and perhaps it is due to this section that the film has been hailed as one of America’s all-time funniest films [5].  But I think, as with most of Keaton’s masterpieces, it is, again, the Maelstrom part that renders The Navigator its surreal, existential aura that is so special about Keaton’s best films.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Legendary film theorist Andrew Sarris included Keaton in his “pantheon” of greatest American directors:
    • Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968).
  2. “The Navigator (1924 film)”, Wikipedia, (15 March 2019).        
  3. The Film Sufi, “Our Hospitality - Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone (1923)”, The Film Sufi, (26 May 2018).    
  4. Ed Howard, “The Navigator”, Only the Cinema, (3 April 2012).   
  5. “America’s Funniest Movies”, American Film Institute, (2002).     

“Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Manda (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s comedy Shesh Rokkha (Saved at Last, 1926-29) is a multisided farce about the vagaries and uncertainties of love and marriage in traditional India.  This play served as the basis for the 23rd and 24th and episodes, “Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka” (“Make a Love”), of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Samrat Chakraborty and directed by Debatma Manda.

In Tagore’s India, and indeed in many quarters of India today, young people had few opportunities to get to know each other before a parent-approved marriage arrangement could be organized.  Even when young people were given the choice, they had little information to go on concerning who would be an appropriate marriage partner for them.  Indeed, even in the modern world, most people have little idea of what it means to share one’s life with another and how that might affect their futures.  In “Dhaai Aakhar Prem Ka” these basic uncertainties are at the foot of an entangled series of misunderstandings that lead, almost, to serious missteps on the parts of the characters [1].

The story concerns some interrelated relationships centered around a man, Chandrakant (played by Amitabh Bhattacharya), who regularly hosts meetings with some male friends to share and discuss their mutual interests in literature and poetry.  Since the thirty-something Chandrakant is the only married member of this group of about a half dozen mostly younger men, he also sometimes offers to them his reflections on married life.  Among his discussion group are
  • Vinod (Sudarshan Patil), a young lawyer who has already made something of a name for himself for his poetry;
      
  • Gaudai (Vaibhav Raj Gupta), a final-year medical student who, unlike the others, sees things from an objectivist, scientific point of view;
     
  • Lalit (Harsh Aggarwal), a relatively modest young man who is distinguished from the others by his preference for Western clothes.
Chandrakant also has two pretty and marriageable sisters who live with their father in a neighboring flat:
  • Kamal (Sudipti Parmar)
     
  • Indumati (Sainee Raj), Kamal’s impish younger sister.
Given the intertwining plot threads, the story is not really partitioned into acts, but I will somewhat arbitrarily section off the narrative into six parts.

1.  Introducing the Setting
In the beginning, Chandrakant’s group are meeting to discuss poetry, and Vinod is distracted when he hears a woman’s mellifluous voice outside the window singing a beautiful song based on his own poetry.  Vinod cannot see who is doing the singing, but the viewer can see that it is Kamal singing from inside her neighboring apartment.

Vinod returns his attention to his group and, to the wonder of his friends, recites some apparently spontaneously composed verse for them:

“The tears of the night don’t stay on a lotus leaf; they slip off.  
Sometimes the union is left incomplete. 
Sometimes all that is left are stories. 
A peaceful mind was disturbed by a chord of the heart.
A symphony of the beloved plays in each breath.
Only my beloved doesn’t know my feelings.”

Later, Chandrakant’s wife Khantamani (Pradnya Shastri) goes to visit her two sisters-in-law, Kamal and Indumati (aka Indu), where they discuss Kamal’s so-far-unseen love, Vinod.  Learning from their discussioon that Indu is just as eager to find a love of her own, Khantamani suggests that two other men from her husband’s discussion group might be good candidates – Gaudai and Lalit.

From the outset we see the two contrasting perspectivess on love generally held by the men and women in this story.  The men, obsessed as they are with poetry, have a view based on ethereal, poetic abstractions.  For them, love is focused on inner feelings and is therefore more self-obsessive.  For the women in this story, love is focused on more practical, interactive concerns of the here-and-now.

However, we also see that Chandrakant, the one person already married, sees things from a more disenchanted perspective, and he tells his fellow group members that his wife has no element of poetry in her – marriage can be a bore.  Unfortunately, Khantamani, from another room, overhears her husband say these things, and this only further contributes to the downward spiral of their relationship.

2.  Mistaken Identities
Vinod is so enamored by Kamal’s pretty voice that he decides she must be the ideal mate for him.  Even though he has never seen the girl, he forces his friend Chandrakant to support him when he approaches Kamal’s father, Nivaran, (Neeraj Shah) for her hand.  So that Kamal can see who is proposing to her, Chandrakant gives Nivaran a photo, which shows Vinod along with Chandrakant and Gaudai.

Later Indu happens to see that photo, and asks Khantamani who is that attractive third person in the photo, (who we can see is Gaudai).  Khantamani, who doesn’t have the photo in front of her, mistakenly tells her that the third person must be Lalit.

Indu then goes into a neighboring room and sees Gaudai there.  Flustered for the moment, she tells Gaudai that she is Kadambani, the daughter of bazaar merchant Chowdhari Babu.  But even in that momentary interaction, Gaudai is smitten with love.  Even though he has been dedicated to objective science and has up til now seen love as a disease, Gaudai quickly begins writing romantic poetry dedicated to his new beloved, “Kadambani”.

We now have cases of love at first sight (or sound), but there is a problem of misidentification.  Indu thinks her love (who we know to be Gaudai) is named Lalit.  And Gaudai thinks his love (who we know is Indu) is named Kadambani.

Moreover, we now see that this story has three primary relationship concerns:
  •  Chandrakant and Khantamani
  •  Vinod and Kamal
  •  Gaudai and Indu
These parallel relationship threads will be the narrative focus for the rest of the story.
Meanwhile Nivaran, on his own, goes to Gaudai’s father, Shibhcharan (Atul Srivastava), and arranges for Gaudai marry Indu.  This should be ideal, but it won’t work, because Gaudai thinks he wants Kadambani, and Indu thinks she wants Lalit.

3.  Marital Dreams Unfulfilled
At this point Chandrakant’s discussion group of men hold a bachelor’s party to “celebrate” Vinod’s upcoming marriage to Kamal. This is one of the most amusing scenes in the film, because it is evident that Vinod’s companions, far from celebrating the event, are actually mourning what they see is the inevitable loss of freedom that will come to Vinod’s married life.

And in fact, shortly after the wedding ceremony, the marriage of Vinod and Kamal starts to fall apart due to Vinod’s many incessant complaints and insensitivities.  Soon Kamal runs away to live in her parents’ home.

The Chandrakant and Khantamani relationship has also been breaking down and has descended into quarrels.  Finally Khantamani has had enough; she packs her bags and leaves her husband.  Chandrakant, however, is so fed up with Khantamani’s bad temper and constant nagging that he celebrates his newfound freedom.

Meanwhile Gaudai has been stalking the grounds outside the home of his supposed Kadambani, but he never sees the woman he loves.  His father happens upon him onetime and summarily informs him that he has arranged for him to marry Indu.  This news greatly distresses Gaudai, and he timidly informs his authoritarian and hot-tempered father that he cannot marry Indu because he loves Kadambani (although we know that the woman he actually loves is Indu, who he wrongly thinks is called “Kadambani”).

4.  Indu’s Intervention
Back in her original family home, Kamal is soothed by her sister Indu.  Speculating that Vinod’s insensitivity might be due to his having other love interests, she composes a phoney love letter from an admirer to Vinod and signs it, “Kadambani”, a name she drew out of the air.  The letter proposes a secret meeting with Vinod in the park.  However, when Gaudai visits Vinod and happens on the letter, he assumes it was written by his Kadambani, and he is crushed.

Indu coerces her friend Rajni (Natasha Pillai) to pretend to be Kadambani at the meeting.  Vinod, accompanied by Gaudai, reluctantly goes to the meeting, but when he sees the woman he tells her that he truly loves his wife, Kamal.  This assertion is eventually reported back to Kamal.  And when Gaudai saw Rajni, he could see that she is not his “Kadambani” (whom we know, but he doesn’t, is actually Indu).  So Indu’s continued schemes of misidentification actually help, on this occasion, to move two relationships closer to reconciliation.

5.  Further Identification Entanglements
Seeking to do the right thing, Gaudai’s father, Shibhcharan, now tracks down the real Kadambani’s father, Chowdhari Babu (Sameer Chandra), and arranges for Gaudai to marry that woman. 

Meanwhile Kamal learns from her sister Indu that the man she loves (whom she mistakenly calls “Lalit”, but who is actually Gaudai) mistakenly thinks that she, Indu, is named “Kadambani” (recall, she had once foolishly told him that).  So Kamal dutifully goes to Chandrakant and tells him to explain things to Lalit.

When Chandrakant talks to Lalit, though, the bewildered young man says he has never even heard of Kadambani or Indu.  When these denials get back to Indu – that her beloved cannot remember even meeting Indu – the news breaks the poor woman’s heart.

6.  Putting Things Right
Now people start coming together to try and resolve all this zany confusion – both in the world and in their hearts.  At Chandrakant’s poetry club, his friends see that he is miserably lonely for his departed wife.  They try to console him, but Chandrakant worries that is too late and that Khantamani probably won’t come back to him. 

Just then the still distressed Indu barges in and demands to see Lalit, who she cannot believe does not even remember her.  But when she looks over the group of men there, she finally sees that the man she truly cares about is actually Gaudai, not Lalit.  So Indu and Gaudai are finally connected together.  But there are still major problems to be resolved.

Gaudai’s dictatorial father, Shibhcharan, now arrives to take Gaudai to Chowdhari Babu and the real Kadambani in order to carry out the arranged wedding.  When Gaudai tells him he can’t go because he really loves Indu (the girl with whom an earlier arranged marriage (in Section 2) had been setup for him and which Gaudai had mistakenly rejected), Shibhcharan loses his temper.  He and Chowdhari Babu both stubbornly insist that Gaudai must now go ahead and marry Kadambani.  And Chowdhari Babu warns he will take legal action to ensure this wedding commitment is enforced.

But just then Chandrakant comes up with an idea.  He tells Chowdhari Babu and Shibhcharan that Gaudai and Indu are already married!  He makes up the story that the couple had a Gandharva marriage, which is an hoc type of marriage “based on mutual attraction between two people, with no rituals, witnesses or family participation” that is part of the classical Hindu tradition [2].  Chowdhari Babu and Shibhcharan reluctantly have to accept this state of affairs, and Chowdhari Babu is further appeased when the real Lalit comes forward and agrees to marry Kadambani.  Now Gaudai and Indu are united at last, and the parents are happy.

Meanwhile Kamal, newly assured of her husband’s love, returns home, and she and Vinod are reconciled.

In the final scene, Khantamani returns home and sees her husband Chandrakant packing his suitcase for a trip.  She tearfully asks if she can go with him, and he joyfully accepts.


So everyone finally ends up happy in this rather contrived tale.  We are dealing with people who fall in love based on fleeting glances or songs, and there are no personal, intimate interactions that could provide more substantial material to kindle a loving relationship.  And this lessens the seeming depth and authenticity of these amorous expressions of love.  What seems to be emphasized here instead is the need to respect the individual autonomies of those participating in (or are about to participate in) a marriage relationship.

This rather complex story has been described as hilarious and a “laugh riot” by one reviewer [1].  I wouldn’t go that far, but I was charmed by the enthusiastic performances on the part of the cast, and the effective manner in which the various dramatic elements were woven together.


Notes:
  1. Durga S, “Shesh Rokkha (Dhai aakhar prem ka" – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (8)”, Writersbrew, (3 March 2016).   
  2. “Gandharva marriage”, Wikipedia, (21 January 2019).   

“Daliya”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Dalia” (1892), aka “Daliya” or “Daalia”, concerns the innocence of love in a social climate dominated by family duty, honor, and revenge.  This story served as the basis for the 26th and final episode, “Daliya”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Anurag Basu and directed by Tani Basu.

Tagore’s story, as well as this episode, is set in 17th century Mughal India and concerns real historical personages, which is a departure from most of the episodes of this series that are set sometime in the 1930s.  The themes here, though, should be familiar to readers of other, more contemporary, Tagore stories – the contrast between love (understood to be an intuitive feeling of the heart) and tradition-bound social demands devoted to duty, honor, and revenge.

The historical background elements are concerned with the family of Shah Suja, who was the second son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, known for, among other things, commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal.  Shah Suja was serving as the appointed governor of Bengal, when his father, the emperor, came down with a serious illness.  This led to a ruthless war of succession, which resulted in the brother of Shah Suja, Aurangzeb, acceding to the Mughal throne and Shah Suja’s desperate flight to the Arakan (Rakhine) state in what is now Myanmar.  There the Arakani king supposedly offered refuge to Shah Suja and his family.

We can break the story of “Daliya” into four sections, or “acts”, parts of which are dramatized flashbacks.  Note that since this story has a surprise ending, you may want to avoid reading my account of the final act, as well as that of another review [1], before you see it for the first time.

1.  A Forest Caravan

At the outset a caravan transporting a litter (hand-carried sedan) is shown traveling through the forest.  We will soon learn that the principal figures of this caravan are: 
  • a well-dressed young woman, Zulekha (played by Preeti Sharma)
  • Zulekha’s attendant, “Uncle” Rehmat Khan (Dadhi Raj)
  • Zulekha’s younger sister Amina (Shriya Sharma)
  • a fisherman friend of Amina’s named Daliya (Kirin Srinivas)
  • Amina’s fisherman stepfather, Budha (Niraj Sah). 
During a rest stop, Rehmat tells Budha that his adopted daughter is about to marry a king.  In order to explain why, Rehmat has to give Budha some background information.  Although later important background information will be presented in dramatized flashbacks, this background is told verbally.  Rehmat tells him that
  1. Amina’s real father was Shah Suja, the brother of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who had taken refuge in Arakan.
  2. Years ago the Arakani king Sudamma had wanted his three sons to be married to Shah Suja’s three daughters, but Shah Suja rejected the offer/demand.  King Sudamma was so angered by this rejection that he decided to have Shah Suja killed.  So the King of Arakan ordered them all (Shah Suja and his three daughters) to be taken out in a boat and drowned.
  3. In the event, Shah Suja and one of the daughters died, but the other two daughters, Zulekha and Amina, as well as Rehmat, somehow managed to escape immediate death. 
  4. Although Rehmat and Zulekha had escaped, Amina, who was then a just small child, had been swept away in the water.  It turned out, though, that the fisherman Budha had found Amina in the water and rescued her.
  5. One day not long ago, Rehmat had heard from one of his informers (played by Samrat Chakraborty, who also wrote the dialogue for this episode) that King Sudamma had passed away and that his son Budh Dutt (not to be confused with fisherman Budha) had become king of Arakan.  
  6. The informer also told Rehmat that the new king Budh Dutt Sudamma had recently gone hunting and had seen Amina, now a young woman, in the distance walking in the forest.  He was immediately smitten by her beauty, and it was now his intention to marry the girl.
  7. Hearing this and guessing that this girl must be sister Amina, Zulekha and Rehmat, who obtained from the informer the approximate location of the girl, had decided to go find her before King Budh Dutt did.
Thus the caravan’s participants that we see indicate that Zulekha and Rehmat had found Amina.

2.  Flashback – Zulekha Meets Amina
The story now moves to a flashback sequence depicting when Zulekha, riding in her litter through the forest, spotted Amina running nearby.  After they meet and embrace, Amina takes her sister to meet her “father”, the humble fisherman Budha.  Zulekha wanted to find her younger sister before the Arakan king did so that she could convey to her the necessity of doing her duty – commit a murder.  In order to avenge the brutal killing of their father and their older sister, it was necessary, she told Amina, for her to kill the king when she had the chance.  Even though this act of revenge would probably cost the girl her own life, it was absolutely necessary for Amina to fulfil her familial duty.  For her part, Amina expresses the (correct) opinion that revenge is pointless, and she is undecided about accepting her sister’s command to take revenge.

But we also see in other flashbacks that Amina has a very friendly relationship with another local boy, Daliya, who is another humble fisherman.  Indeed, Zulekha can readily see that the insouciant and flirtatious way that Daliya acts toward Amina suggests to her that the two of them are in love.

3.  A   Marriage Proposal is Received
Budha now receives an official marriage proposal from King Budh Dutt Sudamma for his stepdaughter, and the king also wants to have a meeting with the girl before the marriage.  Zulekha is excited, because she feels that this meeting will offer her sister the best opportunity to kill the king.  Again, she insistently calls on Amina to fulfil her duty to enact revenge.  And Amina reluctantly accepts.

But as Amina thinks things over, she realizes to her regret that the man she really cares about, Daliya, doesn’t seem unhappy that she is about to marry the Arakani king.  She realizes that she really loves Daliya.  This is the most beautiful part of the story, because it portrays Amina’s inner struggle between her heart and her sense of duty.  Even Zulekha, seeing her sister’s ardor for Daliya, begins to question whether her own obsession for revenge justifies sacrificing her dear sister’s life.

As the time approaches to go to the meeting with the king, Amina desperately tells Daliya that she loves him and that she wants to elope with him.  But Daliya just laughs her off and tells her he is too carefree for marriage.

4.  Meeting the King
Zulekha and Amina go to the arranged prenuptial meeting place, and just before Amina is about to go alone into the king’s chamber, Zulekha hands her sister their father’s bejeweled dagger.  She has been saving it for years for the right moment, and now the time has come. 

Amina enters the room and approaches the royally robed king from behind.  Trembling, she raises the unsheathed dagger to strike.  But at that moment, the king turns to face her and reveals himself to be her dear Daliya!  Seeing his face, Amina faints, and the king/Daliya carries the unconscious girl to the bed. 

Zulekha, who had been waiting outside, rushes into the room.  Daliya explains to her that he knew all along who Amina really was, and that he figured that the only way he could ever get her to accept him was to approach her first as a commoner.  He wanted her to see him without thinking of all the treachery associated with her father’s murder, which he admitted was a terrible wrong.  He tells Zulekha that he truly loves Amina.  When Amina awakens, she is thrilled to see her beloved Daliya tending to her.  And Zulekha is finally won over, too.


This is another moving story about love triumphing over all obstacles.  But a key feature here is that in this story, it is a man’s, not a woman’s, faith in love that turns the tide and wins the heart.  And Daliya accomplished this not by relying on his earthly powers, but by following the dictates of his compassionate heart.


Notes:
  1. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).   

“Monihara”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Monihara”, aka “The Lost Jewels” [1] (1898), is a haunting ghost story about duty, greed, guilt, and grief.  This story served as the basis for the 25th episode, “Monihara” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been scripted and directed by Debatma Mandal

Tagore’s story about a married couple, whose conflicting visions of what matters in life bring them both to ruin, operates on several levels.  On one level it is a straightforward tale of how excessive greed brings tragedy.  Then it moves into a ghost story, which may be hallucinatory, that is driven by excessive grief.  But on another level, the story concerns and toys with the nature of narrative, itself. 

This story was the basis of one of the featured segments of Satyajit Ray’s earlier Teen Kanya (1961), which I have also reviewed [3]; and it is interesting to compare how these two filmed versions of the story differ.  Ray’s version of the story follows Tagore’s original scheme quite literally, and, in particular, it more closely sustains the original story’s aura of otherworldly mystery.  In contrast, in Mandal’s version there are some differences from Tagore’s (and Ray’s) telling; and as a consequence it loses some of that ghost-story flavor in order to concentrate its focus on inner suffering.  The shift is from horror to grief.

The narrative of Monihara, which comprises a story within a story, can be considered to have six segments, with the first and sixth segments composing the outer story.

1.  At a Riverbank the Recounting of a Story Commences

The story begins with a local townsman, Narayan (played by Atul Srivastava), taking up his usual fishing spot along a river and noticing a stranger sitting on a nearby rock by the river.  When Narayan observes the stranger contemplatively staring at a dilapidated mansion over on the other side, he tells the man that he will relate to him an old story about that mansion that is well-known to the local people.  At this point the narrative shifts to the inner story that makes up most of the film.

2.  Fani and Monimala
The occupants of that mansion were a young married couple, Fani Bushan Saga (Ajay Chaudhary) and his wife, Monimala (Poorvi Mundada).  Fani is a successful silk merchant, and he dotes on his beautiful and vain wife by regularly showering her with gifts of sumptuous jewelry that he can purchase from his ample earnings.  Right away the viewer can see that the stranger to whom Narayan is telling this story is Fani.  This marks a significant departure from Tagore’s and Ray’s telling, where the identity of the mysterious stranger on the riverbank is only revealed at the end of the tale.

And interestingly, Fani wears horned-rim glasses, which is a common feature of many of the male protagonists in this series.  Horned-rim glasses suggest a mild-mannered, middle-class bearing that contrasts with the more emotive female characters in this series.  Since they first became popular in the 1920s, their presence here also suggests that this episode has a setting in conformity with most of the episodes in this series – sometime in the 1930s.

For her part, Monimala is obsessed with her own glamour and incessantly seeks more of the necklesses, bracelets, brooches, and bangles that her husband keeps giving her.  She admits to him that her very identity is defined by the degree to which her beauty is decorated.  In fact one’s self-identity is something of a theme in this film.  For Monimala her identity is based on her bejeweled self-image; while Fani’s self-identity is centered around his image of marital bliss.

We are also introduced to Madhusudan (Puneet Kumar), a distant relative of Monimala’s who has come to work in their household as a laborer for Fani.  It is clear that Madhusudan is an unscrupulous lowlife who is only interested in money.

One day Fani learns that a shipment of his silk was pirated in the Bay of Bengal and that he faces an enormous financial loss.  To help restore his business, he asks Monimala if he can use her jewelry as collateral for a bank loan that he needs, assuring her he will return her jewelry to her in a few days.  But she is horrified at this prospect of even temporarily losing her jewelry, and she sees his request as an existential threat.  She reminds him that it is a husband’s irrevocable duty to satisfy his wife’s needs. 

So Fani accepts his wife’s demands, and he tells her that he will go alone to Kolkata and see if he can raise the needed money from some of his associates.

3.  Monimala and Madhusudan

Home alone with her unsavory “brother” Madhusudan, Monimala gets a letter from Fani informing her that he is having trouble securing the needed funds, but that he will try to be home soon.  This news puts the woman into a complete panic about her precious jewelry, and she decides to run away with her jewelry to her father’s home.  She asks Madhusudan to take her there, and they set off in a rowboat down the river.  Along the way, we see Madhusudan greedily eyeing Monimala’s jewelry box, and we know that something horrible is about to happen.

4.  Fani Returns Home
The action jumps forward to show Fani happily returning home from Kolkata.  He has secured the money he needs to save his business, but he only finds an empty house – both Monimala and her jewelry box are missing.  Thinking that Monimala has gone to her father’s house, he asks his steward, “uncle” Santosh (Arvind Parab), to go there and bring her back.  That night Fani hears from his bed mysterious noises in the hallway.  Then Santosh reports back that Monimala never made it to her father’s house.

So the police are summoned, and they conduct an all-out search for Monimala.  They do find her empty jewelry box floating in the river, but they fail to find any trace of the woman.  Fani, of course, is extremely disturbed.

5.  Mysterious Visions
That night Fani hears a woman’s voice mysteriously calling to him, “please forgive me.”  He goes out into the hallway, but again noone is there.  The next night Fani has lost hope of finding his beloved, and he tearfully gazes at the jeweled brooch he had brought back from Kolkata to give to Monimala. 

At this point a vision of Monimala appears and joyfully asks him, “is that for me?”  Fani is overjoyed to see his beloved, but then the ghost suddenly disappears.  So Fani goes out to the hallway again, and this time the ghost of Monimala reappears and reaches oout to take his hand.  Then she silently guides him outside and down to the river.  Still holding his hand, the beautiful ghost slowly takes Fani out partway into the water, and then again suddenly vanishes.  As if in a trance, Fani slowly turns around and sees his Monimala’s dead body floating in the water.  Shattered by what he sees, Fani falls face-down in the water and remains motionless.  His unbounded grief brings him to join her in death.

6.  The Story’s End
At this point Narayan has come to the end of his story, and he discusses his own thoughts about how true the story may be with the stranger to whom he has told it.  He reminds the stranger that, after all, it’s only a story and that Nature has more important things to do than to make up entertaining stories.  This comment about narrative’s place in the grand scheme of things is in Tagore’s original story, too.  

Then Narayan asks the stranger, whom we have clearly seen all along is Fani, how he liked the story.  The stranger says that the story is good, but it contains a few errors.  Astonished, Narayan asks the stranger how he could know that the story had some errors.  Then when he looks over at the stranger, he sees that he has disappeared.  Terrified at the realization that he has all along been speaking to an apparition, Narayan runs away.


So the ghost-story aspects of this tale permeate both the inner and outer narrative.  Narayan has been talking all this time to Fani Bushan Saga’s ghost.  This is a key and cdommon feature of all three versions (Tagore’s original text, Ray’s Teen Kanya, and Mandal’s version here), but this version has two elements that distinguish it from the two previous versions:
  1. One is the already-mentioned fact that the identity of the stranger that Narayan meets by the riverbank is immediately seen by the viewer to be Fani.   This shifts the viewer’s perspective concerning narrative weight somewhat and casts Fani more in the role of the main character.  From the outset we want to know what happened to him.
     
  2. Another distinguishing feature is that in Tagore’s story, Monimala’s reappearance at the end as a ghost is in the form of a skeleton, while in this film, her ghostly reappearance is in her usual beauteous bodily form.
In both of the above cases, Tagore’s tale is more of a horror story, and Mandal’s version moves back from the ghastly horror evoked in Tagore’s and Ray’s version and takes a turn towards sympathy and sadness for the departed love.  Monimala’s obsessive narcissism led both to the loss of her own life and to the loss of the life of the one person devoted to satisfying her self-love in all possible ways.  It is a sad reminder that sometimes we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.
½

Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Lost Jewels”, (1898), (translated by W. W. Pearson), The Modern Review, pp. 630-636, (1917), The Internet Archive, (4 July 2015).   
  2. Durga S, “The Uncanny – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (9)”, Writersbrew, (9  March 2016).      
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Teen Kanya’ - Satyajit Ray (1961)”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2017).   

“The Story of a Muslim Girl”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story draft “Musalmanir Golpo” (“The Story of a Muslim Girl”, aka “The Story of a Mussalmani”, 1941 [1]) portrays how the universality of love transcends traditional sectarian restrictions.  This story served as the basis for the 22nd episode, “The Story of a Muslim Girl” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Anurag Basu and directed by Tani Basu.

“Musalmanir Golpo” was Tagore’s last story, and it was composed about two months before his death in 1941.  Although the story was relatively brief and schematic, it still embraced Tagore’s lifelong themes of humanism and love.  Anurag and Tani Basu expanded on this story draft to craft a moving and soulful drama that captures what I think was Tagore’s emotive intent.  This telling was significantly enhanced by the lyrical cinematography of Abhishek Basu, Anurag’s brother.   Indeed this cinematography is a highlight and deserves special attention because of the recurring way it uses fluid slow-motion and rack-focusing camera shots to quietly evoke an emotional atmosphere. 

The narrative of “The Story of a Muslim Girl” is about a young woman’s experiences navigating across the social boundaries of a conservative society, and it has five sections, or phases, to it.

1.  Kamala is Rescued
The story is set sometime in 19th century Bengal, which distinguishes this episode from most of the others in this Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series that are mostly set sometime in the 1930s.  The viewer here is told at the outset that these were turbulent times in Bengal, and the common people were subjected to several oppressive elements:
  • exploitative British government overlords,
  • dishonest local landlords, 
  • ruthless dacoits (brigands) that overran the countryside,
  • caste and religious prejudices.
There was one notorious dacoit, however, who was different and was something of a “social bandit” [3], i.e. a Robin-Hood-like figure who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor”.  This was Habir Khan (played by Sunil Sinha), a devout Muslim who had his own sense of justice.  In Tagore’s story Habir Khan was not a dacoit and was simply a revered senior figure in the Muslim community.  I am not sure why Anurag Basu made this alteration, and I don’t think it contributes to the story.  Anyway, Habir Khan’s dacoity doesn’t really figure into the rest of the story.

The focus then shifts to a Hindu Brahmin household, where Kamala (Shubhangi Atre Poorey), an orphaned girl, has been raised by her aunt and uncle.  Kamala has grown up to be a beautiful young woman, and she dotes on her two younger cousins, the boy Laltu and the girl Bimla. 

But Kamala’s aunt only sees Kamala as a burden, and in these troubled times even Kamala’s beauty is seen by the woman to be a detrimental feature likely to attract unwanted attention.  She wants to have her niece married off as soon as possible.  When Kamala’s uncle receives a marriage proposal for the girl from the already-married and irresponsible son of a wealthy landlord, he readily accepts, despite Kamala’s objections. 

A formal wedding ceremony is immediately arranged.  Afterwards, though, the evening wedding procession through the countryside is attacked and plundered by a different dacoit’s gang, that of the dacoit Raghu.  However, Habir Khan’s own gang, which includes his son Nawaz (Kirin Srinivas), arrives to break up the attack, and they manage to rescue Kamala.  Kamala is then taken back to the safety of Habir Khan’s compound.

2.  Kamala’s Refuge in an Ecumenical Household
The next morning from the safety of the room provided to her, Kamala looks out her window and watches in wonder the act of Habir Khan and Nawaz devoutly praying.  But Habir Khan comes to comfort the fearful girl by telling her not to worry,
“True Muslims consider it their duty to protect other religions.”
This should serve as a reminder to viewers, that, like virtually all religions, there are compassionate versions of Islam, such as Sufism, that embrace universal love and do not endorse the fanatic intolerance and resentment that underlie some hateful sects so frequently presented in the media.

Then Habir Khan goes on to warn Kamala that her own family will now consider her to be unclean and will absolutely reject her.  They won’t take her back.  He then shows her that his compound can be a home for her – it contains a special mahal devoted to rescued Hindus, and it even has a small Hindu temple.  But Kamala insists on being escorted back to her family anyway, and Habir Khan assents to her request.

When Habir Khan takes Kamala back to her aunt and uncle’s house, though, she is devastated by their response.  They tell her that caste rules consider her defiled and render her dead to them.  This encounter is accompanied by a lyrical song on the soundtrack:
“Cast Away Your Caste”
"What a weird system this is
Nobody is interested in doing the right thing.
I see it all . . .
What was your caste in the past?
What caste did you become since?
What caste will you be when you leave?
Think it over and tell me.”
Kamala returns to Habir Khan’s compound and takes up residence there.  She starts praying at the Hindu temple, where a compound-resident priest informs her that Habir Khan’s deceased mother had been a Hindu and had been allowed to retain her religion.

3.  Kamala and Nawaz
Now the film moves into its most lyrical phase, as it portrays the gradual and tentative attraction that Kamala and Nawaz begin to feel for each other.  This is conveyed by emotive rack-focus shots of their brief encounters that focus on their subtly evolving appreciative facial expressions.  Because of their contrasting religions and backgrounds, their opportunities to even see each other from a distance are few and only momentary.  Some of these moments are
  • Nawaz showing Kamala where she can find some ceremonial Bermuda grass in the yard;
  • Kamala singing a Sanskrit hymn, which charms the surreptitiously overhearing Nawaz and Habir Khan;
  • Kamala, in turn, being charmed when she overhears music being played by musicians before Nawaz and Habir Khan;
  • Nawaz coming to take holy alms being given out on the street by Kamala;
  • Nawaz showing Kamala how to ride on a horse;
  • Nawaz showing Kamala how to fly a kite.
All of this represents an expansion on Tagore’s original story, which only briefly mentioned their growing mutual fondness for each other.

In the midst of all this, Kamala learns from a resident Hindu woman that her cousin Laltu is gravely ill and has been calling for her.  She rushes back to her home village to get a glimpse of Laltu, but again her aunt and uncle reject her for defiling their caste and turn her away.

4.  Nawaz Makes a Proposal
Finally Nawaz goes to his father and tells him about his love for Kamala.  Although Habir Khan has been kind and sympathetic to Kamala, he rejects her union with Nawaz as unthinkable.  But then Nawaz reminds him that his own grandmother, Habir Khan’s mother, was a Hindu.  Then Kamala, who has been overhearing this encounter, intervenes and expresses her own willingness to marry the Muslim man who loves her:
“For the first time I got respect and honor in your shelter.
Father, devotion and faith comes from respect and honor, right?
. . .
I worship the God who has given me shelter.
Now he is my god. 
His religion is my religion.
. . .
I will follow both the religions.”
Since this is such a key moment in the story, I will quote to you Tagore’s original words from the translated version of the story [1]:
"Father, I've no religion of my own. The man I love is my religion. I could not find the grace of God in the religion which deprived me of all love and dumped me to the garbage heap of neglect. The deity there humiliated me every day. I can't forget such insults. Father, I discovered love for the first time in your house. I realized that the life of a destitute like me has some value. I worship the deity which has sheltered me through the respect of such love. He's my God—he's neither Hindu nor Muslim. . . . You can convert me to Islam, I've no objection—maybe, I belong to two faiths."
Here is Tagore, at the end of his life, affirming his divine faith in a humanistic notion of compassion that should be an underlying theme of all religions.

Moved by their fervent expressions of love, Habir Khan accepts these pleas and embraces them both as a new coupling in his family.

5.  Another Wedding Procession Raided

The scene now shifts forward sometime later, and there is another ceremonial wedding procession in progress moving through the forest.  Again the dacoit Raghu’s gang of thugs makes an attack for plunder, and once again Habir Khan’s gang comes to the rescue.  This time, though, we see Kamala on horseback and an active participant of the rescue operation.  When Kamala goes over to the litter (sedan) carrying the bride and opens the door, she is shocked to discover that the rescued bride is none other than her very own cousin Bimla.

The final scene shows Kamala returning Bimla to her parent’s home and assuring them that her chastity and purity have not been compromised.  Before returning to her own home, Kamala tells Bimla that should she ever be in need, her Muslim sister will always be there for her.


This is one of the most heartwarming episodes of the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series, thanks to its uplifting message and the nuanced way in which it is told.  The music, camera work, editing, and acting are all excellent and are knitted together in a satisfying fashion that work together harmoniously.


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Story of a Muslim Woman”, (a draft translated from the original Bengali by Swapan Kumar Banerjee), Parabas, (2010).   
  2. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).    
  3. “Social bandit”, Wikipedia, (7 February 2019).   

“Not One Less” - Zhang Yimou (1999)

Zhang Yimou has displayed his cinematic mastery across a range of expressive styles – from  
All of them have their artistic merits, but one of the best of them all was the naturalistic Not One Less (Yigè Dou Bù Néng Shao, 1999), which was based on Shi Xiangsheng's 1997 story "A Sun in the Sky".  Filmed on location in a rural village in Hebei province and in its nearest metropolitan center, Zhangjiakou, which is a city of roughly 800,000 people about 180 km northwest of Beijing, Not One Less was shot entirely with inexperienced amateur actors whose real-life identities matched the roles they played. 

This was the first Zhang Yimou film to receive government support and endorsement [1], and in connection with this backing, the film’s critical reception was initially affected by some critical concerns over the degree to which it was a vehicle for the Chinese government propaganda [2].  Perhaps due to these concerns, Not One Less was not admitted into the 1999 Cannes Film Festival prize competition.  Indeed, many of the early reviews of the film focused on sociopolitical aspects of the story, which I think is a misguided view, and I would agree with Zhang’s assertion that the film is apolitical [2].  What this film does cover, as does most of Zhang Yimou work, are universal aspects of human existence – and that is what gives it its trans-cultural appeal.  It did go on to win the Golden Lion (the prize for best film) at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and it has received numerous critical plaudits [3,4,5,6].

The story of Not One Less is about a teenage schoolteacher whose naive and stubborn efforts to solve a problem she runs into grow to reach epic proportions.  Along the way, the teacher’s pupils, the people she encounters, and even the teacher, herself, are transformed by the modest and relentless sincerity of her persistence.  The rewards of holding fast to the pursuit of your goals is one lesson conveyed in this film.  But ultimately the film also does have something profound to say about human society.  It vividly demonstrates that (even naive) faith in human cooperation through direct engagement can work wonders for all concerned.  And in fact this is the greatest and most rewarding lesson that a teacher can give to her students.

The narrative of Not One Less progresses through five phases of the earnest schoolteacher’s quest.

1.  A Substitute Teacher Arrives at the School
At the outset, 13-year-old Wei Minzhi (played by Wei Minzhi) is installed as the temporary substitute teacher at the tiny Shuiquan village one-room primary school (1st – 4th grades).  She is to substitute for the elderly Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), who needs to go away for a month to attend to his dying mother.  When Teacher Gao sees how youthful and unprepared Wei Minzhi is – she hasn’t even gone to highschool – he protests to the village mayor (Tian Zhenda).  But the mayor replies that given the poverty in the area, this is the best he can come up with. 

So resignedly, Teacher Gao tells the new teacher just to assign the students the daily task of copying down Chinese characters from the class instruction book and to be careful not to waste chalk used for the class chalkboard.  He also tells her that a major school problem is students dropping  out – at the start of the school year, they had 40 students, and now they are down to 28.  He will  give her a 10-yuan bonus to her 50-yuan overall salary if she can get through her month without losing any more students.  “Not one less!” he sternly tells her before departing. 

When Wei Minzhi begins teaching, it is clear that she is completely in over her head.  The class is unruly and ignores her hesitant and timid remarks.  In particular, the class troublemaker, 11-year-old Zhang Huike, boldly challenges her authority.  In an ensuing class scuffle the teacher’s desk is overturned, and much of the precious chalk is crushed underfoot.  So Wei Minzhi orders the class to do their copying assignment and then leaves them by themselves and sits outside guarding the door to prevent any of the students from running away. It is evident that her main concern is not providing good instruction but instead just ensuring that the class size is “not one less” so that she can secure her bonus money.

Soon, however, Wei Minzhi is alarmed when a public sports official arrives at her school to recruit her fastest running girl student to enrol in a sports academy.  Mayor Tian assures Teacher Wei that this departure won’t threaten her bonus money from Teacher Gao, but Wei is not taking any chances.  She hides the student away from them.  However, Mayor Tian bribes the naughty Zhang Huike to reveal where the athletic student is hiding, and the athletic girl is taken away (without getting permission from the girl’s parents, by the way).  It is evident here that money is a driving force for both Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike.

2.  Another Student Goes Missing
Shortly thereafter, Teacher Wei comes into her classroom to see that Zhang Huike has impudently seized a girl classmate’s diary and is reading aloud to the rest of the class her expressed concerns about the crushed classroom chalk and the general unruly tenor of the class.  Wei is moved by these words and forces chief culprit Zhang Huike to apologize.  This is the first time that Wei has looked at things from beyond her own selfish interest.

The next day, however, Zhang Huike is missing from class, and Wei learns that Zhang’s ill and indebted mother had ordered him to go to the city and find work.  Now Teacher Wei’s class size is down to 26, and she realizes she is not living up to her promise to Teacher Gao to sustain the school.  From here on Wei’s altruistic instincts begin to dominate.  She resolves to go to Zhangjiakou and fetch the boy so that he can continue his education. 

However, Mayor Tian refuses to fund Wei’s trip expenses to go Zhangjiakou, and Wei realizes that she will have to find her own means to get there.  So she consults her class for help, and this is where the film makes a beautiful turn.  Although Wei is naive and inexperienced, when she works with the class in pursuit of a noble goal, they all share what little they know and learn from each other.  Teacher Wei and her class become a team, and this is, in fact, the best way to learn.

After pooling their knowledge, they conclude, wrongly as it turns out, that a bus ticket to Zhangjiakou would cost 3 yuan, so Wei would need 9 yuan to go there and bring back Zhang.  Wei suggests that the class further pool their resources by each contributing 50 cents, yielding a total of 13 yuan.  But one of the students reports that they can collectively earn the money by moving bricks at the local brick factory.  So the class “team” joyfully rushes off to the brick factory and enthusiastically shift 1,500 bricks for storage.  The brick factory manager is not happy with this work, but when he sees their eager persistence, he donates 15 yuan to the class.

Now with a surplus of 6 yuan above their presumed required trip expenses, Wei takes her class to the local store to drink some Coca-Cola.  One can of Coke costs 3 yuan, and this gives the viewer an idea of just how puny are the sums of money under consideration.  With only two cans of Coke available for them, the class again goes into collective sharing mode, with each student taking a couple of sips.

When they all go to the bus station, though, they learn that a one-way ticket to Zhangjiakou actually costs 20.5 yuan, so Wei doesn’t have enough money.  But she won’t give up.  After trying (at the class’s suggestion) unsuccessfully to sneak onto a bus, Wei winds up walking and hitchhiking all the way to Zhangjiakou.

3.  In the Big City
In the big city there are lots of people, but they are only connected by rules and mechanical protocols.  Wei tracks down a middle-school student, Sun Zhimei, who had come to the city with Zhang also looking for work, but it turns out that the girl had lost track of Zhang upon arrival in the train station.  At a cost of 2.5 yuan, more than Sun’s daily wage, Wei enlists her support to help her find Zhang.  They spend a long time looking around the train station, but their efforts are fruitless and Sun goes back to her own work.

Then Wei notices a missing-person poster and decides to make some of her own.  With all of her remaining 6.5 yuan, she buys a pen, ink, and 100 large sheets of paper to make the posters.  Then she diligently sets about hand-producing one hundred posters.  After spending hours on this activity in the train station, an attendant walks by and scoffingly tells her that her efforts are useless.  So Wei asks the attendant what he thinks she should do instead.  As he reflects on this problem, the attendant tells her
  • people are too lazy to respond to a poster;
  • the police are too busy to look for the boy;
  • a newspaper ad will be too small to be noticed.
Her only hope, he tells her, is to go to the TV station.  Although the TV station is a bus ride away, Wei is now broke and walks all the way there.

4.  The TV Connection

So Wei arrives at the hub of our modern-day dream of human connectedness: electronic media.  The TV station is fenced off and has an admission gate, and when Wei tries to enter, the gate attendant tells her that she needs prior permission and an ID.  This is another example of how  our modern efforts at human connectedness are rigidly restricted by rules and protocols. 

The ever-persistent Wei keeps trying but gets nowhere, and finally the exasperated gate attendant tells the penniless girl that the only person who could authorize her entry is the TV station manager, a man who wears glasses and who works on the third floor.  Until then Wei will have to wait outside the gate.  So Wei goes outside, and the next four minutes of screen-time show her for the rest of the day relentlessly asking every man passing out of the gate and wearing glasses whether he is the station manager. 

Meanwhile Zhang Huike is shown aimlessly walking the streets and looking for food handouts.  Finally a café owner offers him a full meal in exchange for doing some chores.  Wei is also shown in the evening looking for leftover food scraps before finally settling down to sleep for the night on the sidewalk outside the TV station gate.

The next morning Wei resumes her persistent querying outside the gate, and her endless efforts are finally brought to the attention of the station manager.  He sees the opportunity to present a human-interest story and has Wei inserted as a guest on their TV feature show.  On the air, Wei is hopelessly tongue-tied; but when the show hostess urges her to look into the camera and imagine she is talking directly to the lost Zhang, she tearfully begs Zhang to come back to her.  Zhang happens to see Wei on the TV at the café, and he, too, breaks down in tears.  Wei and Zhang are finally reconnected.  This is the dramatic highpoint of the film, and as Peter Rainer remarked, “it's one of the most improbably satisfying love scenes on film” [4].  Note that this is not romantic love, of course, but rather an altruistic and compassionate love that is an inherent part of everyone’s nature [7].

5.  The Return
The scene shifts quickly to shots showing Wei and Zhang on a bus joyously returning to Shuiquan village and accompanied by a TV crew and a truckload of gifts from well-wishers who had seen the TV show.  The whole village comes out to welcome them.  The final shots show  Wei back with her students in the classroom and working together in Wei’s pedagogically effective mode of “collective discovery” teaching.  Only this time they are working with some of the heaps of brightly colored chalk that has been given to them.


Not One Less stands as a classic, because it reminds us of important and universal aspects of human existence set in an authentic context.  Critics A. O. Scott and Jugu Abraham have rightly compared it to and set it along side of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as one of the great examples of neorealist expression [3,6]. Neorealism, as earlier presented by filmmakers from Italy and Iran – and here by Zhang Yimou – is not just intended to present documentary reality.  Its overarching mission is to present fundamentals of human existence in authentic social contexts.

In this respect the film’s primary themes are not really concerned with a sociopolitical critique or support of Chinese government policies.  That is merely a diversion that has distracted some critics.  Instead, the film serves as an authentically dramatic reminder of some more wide-ranging and universal concerns:
  • As we all know, sometimes our focus on money can divert us from the real path we need to take.
     
  • New forms of media can sometimes make direct and authentic human engagement more possible – if we focus our usage of these media in the right direction.
     
  • The mechanization of modern life has had a tendency to sap it of its humanistic elements. Sometimes a more unsophisticated and naively direct approach can lead to more authentic encounters.
     
  • The importance of collective cooperation is all too often neglected in our modern world that is dominated by selfish utilitarianism.
★★★★ 

Notes:
  1. “Not One Less”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018).   
  2. “Not One Less, Critical response”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018). 
  3. A. O. Scott, “`Not One Less': A Substitute Teacher Is Put to the Test”, The New York Times, (19 February 2000).                   
  4. Peter Rainer, "Not One Less", New York, (n.d.).   
  5. Kevin Lally, “Not One Less”, Film Journal International, (2 November 2004).   
  6. Jugu Abraham, “31. Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang's ‘Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)’ (1999): A marvelous neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing”, Movies that make you think, (22 February 2007). 
  7. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Back Bay Books, (2016).