May 29, 2013

SIFF 2013: Kalpana (1948), A Rediscovered Gem

(d: Uday Shankar c: Uday Shankar, Lakshmi Kanta, Usha Kiran, Amala Shankar, India 1948, 160 min)

The screening of the Indian dance epic Kalpana (1948) at Seattle International Film Festival 2013 held a rapt audience in its spell. This surreal fantasy mesmerized with its inventive production numbers, while passionately speaking for Indian culture and strength in a quirky mix of poetry and politics.

I always wonder how many long lost treasures there are hiding away in film archives, attics or even buried under old theater sites. Kalpana is one of those movies, it didn't make a huge splash upon its release, but is worthy of rediscovery for its influential choreography and the fact that it was the only film made by Uday Shankar, a pioneer of modern Indian dance. The film was found in an archive by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and restored in 2012. Like many Hindi films, its length tests the bladder, but it never fails to excite the senses.

Kalpana is one of those movies where a plot description will not get you far, but at least it is a start. Shankar (brother of sitar legend Ravi) is a ballet troupe owner in the middle of a love triangle who fights for purity of art and spirit as he struggles to maintain his group while staying true to his beliefs. The movie follows him from childhood to the moment he asks one part of the triangle for her hand in marriage. All of this is pretty much beside the point, because Shankar has other ideas to share.

This barest of set-ups sustains an epic that is almost indescribable in its variety. It moves through dance numbers in an almost careless fashion, catching them already in progress, and cutting away randomly. The feeling is as if the movie itself is following its own whims.

The dances are powerful, apparently a mixture of traditional styles and Shankar's own choreography, a style which would use to bring international attention to Indian dance. Minimalist music, and moments of violence and horror give these numbers an edge, almost a feeling of dread, even though they are often played for laughs. In one scene, a dancer costumed as a lion attacks its prey and rips out a long string of yarn entrails. In another, a young man grabs ahold of his lover's arm, only to have it twist off into his hands. These moments are made all the more alarming because the camera doesn't linger, and you're left wondering just what you saw.

I found that I could get lost in the world of Kalpana once I accepted that I was watching a dance performance. It was in this way that I stopped concerning myself with what the plot was cooking and settled in to admire the spectacle. That doesn't mean Kalpana was all performance though. I was surprised and impressed by the way Shankar managed to weave his political and social views into his art. He's not subtle about it. There are lots of long speeches, and passionate reminders that "we are the future of India" and "it's not poverty that's unfortunate, but the fake splendor of the rich." It gets preachy, but the overall magical, unpredictable mood of the film keeps it from dragging.

I could feel the audience becoming restless, and saw lots of people checking phones for the time as the film came to a close, but there were always moments that would draw the crowd back. It was remarkable the way a particular dance or the ominous percussive elements in a particular scene would make everyone still again. There were also several moments when I saw people leaning forward, mesmerized by what they saw on the screen. I don't know if I would call Kalpana a classic, and it could seriously try the patience of one not familiar with Indian film, because I think my own love of Hindi movies enhance my enjoyment of it, but I don't know if I've ever seen an audience so stunned by a movie. It's almost too strange and marvelous to belong to the world of film, and I am sure it will haunt my memory for a long time.

Click here for more information about the films at SIFF 2013.

And here is my full coverage of the event.

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