Monday, June 30, 2014

Cinema Ritrovato 2014: Mother India, Mehboob Khan, 1957

When the husband, after an accident that led to his having both arms amputated, leaves his home and his wife, Radha, he touches the forehead of the sleeping woman (with his lips?) and thereby smeares her Bindi. When seeing this scene, I was just struck by the color effect itself, the somewhat translucent red trace on her skin. If I had thought even one bit further I surely wouldn't have missed the symbolic meaning of his gesture: He can no longer function as a husband (and, especially, as a provider), so it is logical to destroy or at least attack the inscription the marriage made on his wife. Only minutes later, after one of countless kinetoemotional (feeling and movement always come together in Mother India) outbursts, her mother in law informs her about her now completely missing Bindi. When in reaction to this Radha is taken by an enormous shock, one realizes that for her it isn't really a question of symbolism. Her husband is gone, because he doesn't register on her face any more.

Radha's face is a medium inside a medium, at least in the first half of the film. Almost every imoportant action is inscriped on this very special surface - but not as externalizations of psychic insciptions, but as material traces that are irreducible to subjectivity. Above all: beads of sweat (that are the result of narrative,rather than bodily stress), but also decorative dirt, wounds. To put it another way: the face is a screen on which Khan projects a film inside a film.

I only realized the importance of Radha's face for the film when it suddenly - almost - vanished from it: after a time leap, Radha is an old woman and has to make place for the younger generation. Especially for her son Birju, who has an interesting and prominent face, too; but his face never gets quite the same treatment, it is never used as a stand-in for the film as a whole. Birju is much too wayward (to borrow an important characterization from Kapoor's Awaara, which I saw the following day) to be reduced to a national allegory. I have to admit that I prefered the much weirder, sometimes almost german-sex-comedy-like second half to the socialist-realism-infused tiered-people-staring-in-profile-into-the-future first half. Of course, this kind of analytic partitioning isn't really useful in a film that switches gear completely every few minutes and that never shies away of undercutting all kinds of poetics in the spur of the moment (the urge of the moment always taking precedent over The Big Picture).

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