Plato thought creativity was dangerous. Sophocles portrayed the artiste as isolated, outlawed and sick. Shakespeare saw the poet’s eye rolling in a fine frenzy. To Freud creativity is irrational fantasy. Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran talks about cross wiring in the brain that makes people creative. The interpretations are varied but one common truth stands out; “there is indeed something strange, even outré, about creative minds”.
That is what I felt when I recently watched two documentaries made by two young men. They had chosen to profile film-makers belonging to different periods in Indian cinema. The first film is on An American in Madras who went native with a vengeance; the other has a Baavra Mann, a mind that takes erratic flight. Karan Bali traces the adventures of the forgotten Ellis R Dungan (1909-2001) from Ohio, USA, who made 12 films in south India in the 1930s and 1940s — mostly in Tamil, one each in Hindi and Telugu. Jaideep Varma profiles Sudhir Mishra, who made his debut film (Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin) in 1987, and went on to win three national awards. Despite a notable Dharavi and an admirable Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Mishra remains a man of unfulfilled promise. As they highlight the unusual, documentarists Bali and Varma get up close to the madness or passion that drives creative minds. Interestingly, both docufilms deal with declining values.
Could the American director who introduced new Hollywood techniques to Tamil cinema, have ever imagined that some of them — like the Dungan Trolley and Dungan Track — would become part of studio jargon? Or that his innovative lighting effects would surprise even present day viewers? Finally, was he saddened to see the oblique cinematic language and subtle images he crafted for Tamil Talkies replaced by loud, explicit theatricality?
Clips from Dungan’s movies reveal how suggestion can evoke intense emotions. With a vignette from Achhut Kanya, made in the same period (1936), Bali also contrasts Dungan’s progressive outlook with the more patriarchal perspective in that reformist Hindi film. Dungan directed two Indians who went on to win the nation’s highest civilian honour — Bharat Ratna. Matinee idol and political icon MG Ramachandran was introduced in a Dungan film. Carnatic musician MS Subbulakshmi became a national cult figure when she played the Rajasthani saint poet in Meera, which Dungan considered his best work. MS once recalled, “He said that acting must come from within — like music — not from facial contortions.”
The same inward search had Mishra suggesting to Varma that he go beyond looking at the individual to explore the milieus in which he had lived — socio-cultural landscapes that shaped his heart, mind, character, vision. To revisit Sagar University (Lucknow), the National School of Drama (Delhi) and parallel cinema (Bombay), was to come face to face with attrition. The decay is confirmed by interviews with contemporaries. Mishra asks, “What happened to my colleagues, and the idealism of my cinema?”
Both Dungan and Mishra have known high moments of fulfilment. They have known what it is to be out in the cold. But what comes through unmistakably in their profiles is that they did not see themselves as special people. Dungan was bonhomous on the sets — with stars and spotboys.
Mishra’s fellow feeling extends even to unlikely people.
Their stories fascinate because neither Bali nor Varma showcases overblown heroes. The protagonists from wholly different times and places emerge as men who face loss and failure, but manage to live intensely at certain periods of their lives. Then the crossed wires in their baavra mann hum in action, doing what they most want to do, as best they can.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature.