I did not exactly shout ‘Eureka’ but the emotions I felt on ‘discovering’ (only in a personal sense) Light of Asia were akin to Archimedes’s.
This happened a couple of months ago in Paris, when M. Henri Langlois, Secretaire General of the Cinematheque Francaise, invited me to view and catalogue his amazing collection of Indian films.
One has to visit the Cinematheque to know the extent of its riches. One has to meet Henri Langlois to realize the stuff the pioneers are made of. Almost alone, he pioneered the world archive movement. It is well-known that during the war, Hitler had his eyes as much on M.Langlois’ collection as on the treasures of the Louvre.
There is not a film worth preserving which the Cinematheque does not have, no matter what its country of origin. Today, practically all of French cinema, the Cinematheque has more American films than in America and more pre-Hitler German films than in any other film archive in the world. At the time I was asked over, Fritz Lang was viewing some of his UFA films. So overcome with emotion was Lang that he cried and said: 'My life has not been in vain, if Cinematheque has preserved so much of my work.' More than just a repository of cinema’s past, the Cinematheque has stimulated and nurtured several of today’s movie makers: Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, to name a few.
Light of Asia was jointly produced In 1925 by the Emelka film Company of Munich and the Great Eastern Corporation, Lahore. But the man who was originally obsessed with the idea and realized it (both commercially and artistically) was Himansu Rai, then an amateur actor in London. He not only co-directed it with Franz Osten (years later employed by Rai in his company Bombay Talkies) but also played one of the two principle roles (that of Sidddhartha), the other being Siddhartha’s wife played by Sita Devi.
The film, when shown in Europe got rave reviews extolling its gentle, lyrical situations.’ The audience too took to it avidly. The Emelka Company could not have asked for more. In India, however, it was a different story… Someone who saw it the day it was released in Bombay told me that the film was treated as ‘foreign’. The audience was sparse: One man was so outraged at the film’s total lack of ‘drama’ and ‘entertainment’, that in sheer disgust he flung his chair at the screen and walked out.
'My life has not been in vain, if Cinematheque has preserved so much of my work.'
The Great Eastern Corporation could barely recover from the shock. They did not recover even a part of their total investment of Rs.90,000 (quite a large sum when most films cost only a fraction of it).
Like Edwin Arnold’s poem, the film opens with Queen Maya’s dream in which a white elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk smites her and enters her body. Next day, the queen relates her dream to the king who, being without an heir, is worried and distressed. The king sends for the learned Brahmins all of whom agree that the queen will bear him a famous son. Thus is born Siddhartha.
He grows up in luxurious surroundings, unaware of pain and unhappiness. What rouses his compassion is an incident in which his cousin Devadatta shoots an arrow at a flock of passing birds and brings one down writhing with pain. Siddhartha is repelled at the thought of this ‘mutual murder, from the worm to man.' Takes place a Swayamwara in which he marries the beautiful Yashodhara.
But much as he loves his bride, the young prince soon wearies of his luxurious surroundings. During a visit to the town, he encounters an old feeble beggar and then a funeral procession. The prince returns to the palace a shaken man, his mind firmly set upon solving the mystery of age, pain and death.
That night he casts a last, loving look at his wife and leaves the palace accompanied by his charioteer Channa. Reaching his destination, Siddhrtha takes off his royal robes and gives them to his charioteer. We see him meditating and wandering in the forests. In the final sequence Gautama is seen under the Bodhi tree attaining Enlightenment. The film ends with the Buddha preaching his sermon to a crowd of herdsmen and peasants.
Looking at Light of Asia in 1964, four decades after it was made, I was entranced by the unaffected grace of the players, the subtlety and sophistication of its technique and treatment. The film had none of that slushy melodrama and soppy sentimentality which would have kept the man in Lamington Road glued to his chair instead of flinging it at the screen. It is wonder, how ‘expressionism’ which encouraged directors to stylize décor and acting and with which the German filmmakers were overtly obsessed with at the time. The film, in fact, in its approach, treatment, and milieu was ideally Indian- which most Indian films were not, then as now.
What impressed me most about the film was the economy of its expression, its naturalness and a total lack of self-consciousness. One is never made aware of the fact that one os watching the story of a man who brought about an ethical revolution in the world, unlike Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St.Matthew (1964), which I had seen earlier in Venice. In Light of Asia, there is no holy aura around Siddhartha, not even after his Enlightenment. Nor are there any statuesque poses struck by Siddhartha or any of the royal personages; Sita Devi plays Siddhartha’s wife with such simplicity that the effect is enchanting.
As to its economy of expression, two scenes particularly stand out in my memory. One, in which Siddhartha after his marriage, now a little weary of life inside the palace, drives through the city streets. The king had ordained that no ugly or painful sight should meet his gaze. But suddenly, as if from nowhere, an emaciated old man emerges begging for alms. Frail and exhausted, he can hardly walk. Siddhartha rushes forward and supports the sinking man in his arms. This is the prince’s first encounter with pain and misery. There is clear surprise that such things exist, pain and compassion on his face.
As he looks up, he sees a funeral. The sight of misery, old age and death, changes the whole course of Siddhartha’s life and forms the crucial, dramatic point in the story, is resolved in two or three shots. In fact, the funeral is shown in one long shot, as if the man (Siddhartha) who looks at it for the first time is not certain of the phenomenon of death. And yet, the impact is there.
At the end of the sequence, we see a fairly big close-up of Siddhartha, full of cunfustion and sompassion, set against a a cracked wail. The symbolic use of the cracked wail, as backdrop, is effective, yet quite casual.
Again, in the concluding sequence of the film, we see Buddha, after his Enlightenment, preaching the serom to a group of herdsmen. In a long shot, we see Buddha, hands raised upwards, dressed in ascetics rags, talking to the crowd. We never see his face, only the movements of his hands and the curious crowd. In contrast, in Passolini’s film that I mentioned earlier, Christ preaching and converting men and women to the new faith had been shown in an almost endless series of shots, thus dissipating its total impact.
Much of this film holds its own against time, a film belonging to a period which gave us Battleship Potemkin, Mother, Joan of Arc, and Greed. I cannot help reflecting that if our film-makers had followed the trail blazed by Light of Asia, the shape of Indian cinema would have been decidedly different - perhaps even distinctive.