That cold, crisp Saturday afternoon, nearly a decade ago, will ever remain sharply etched in memory. That was the day I came face to face with Pudovkin - one of cinema’s most creative and versatile minds.
Frankly, we were all slightly overawed by the mere fact of his presence amongst us, and no less by his towering personality and intellect. His face glowed with some inner conviction as he spoke about the cinema in his country. The prime purpose of film in Russia, explained Pudovkin, was to portray the life of the community. It particularly sought to illustrate and analyze their problems and to suggest ways of overcoming them. Since the raison d’etre was the people, the finished product was meant to exemplify their creative genius. Concluding on a very enthusiastic note, the great director waved his arms and eloquently described film-making as a continual creative process, ‘a process of borning’, as he insisted, breaking spontaneously from Russian to a rare sentence in English.
Pudovkin’s fame (which squarely rested as much on his two remarkable books as on his many films) had long preceded his arrival in India. There was hardly a cineaste worth his salt who had not heard of Pudovkin, and had not richly drawn on the fund of knowledge that was concentrated in the two slim volumes, Film Technique and Film Acting. These books brought to the art of film-making a code of principles and a rationale that marked the medium’s analytical ‘coming of age’. Prior to this, film technique was more or less a hit-or-miss affair and any knowledge that existed was for the most part fragmentary and conjectural.
More often than not, the ‘experts’ who wrote their treatise on the theory and practice of cinema had never touched a foot of film in their lives. Pudovkin was the first real practitioner who wrote about a medium he could claim to know inside out. At all times, it was the practitioner speaking and not some woolly headed theorist. He grappled with specific problems of film craft that confronted all film-makers. That is why what he said had such an authoritative, almost prophetic, ring to it.
He was the first to declare, that ‘the foundation of film art is editing’. Lest it be misconstrued, let me clarify that by the word ‘editing’ Pudovkin neither meant the mere juxtaposition of shots in their proper time-succession, nor the alternation in cutting of longer and shorter strips of film to achieve fast and slow tempo. Here, in fact, we may profitably turn to Pudovkin himself:
To the film director each shot of the finished film subserves the same purpose as the word to the poet. Hesitating, selecting, rejecting and taking up again, he stands before the separate takes (shots), and only by conscious artistic composition at this stage, are gradually pieced together the phrases of editing, the incidents and sequences, from which emerges, step by step, the finished creation, the film… I repeat that editing is the creative force of filmic reality, and that Nature provides only the raw material with which it works. That, precisely, is the relationship between reality and the film.
The meaning of Pudovkin’s statement is made abundantly clear in a sequence of his film Mother (1926), based on Maxim Gorky’s famous novel. Incidentally, it was during the production of Mother that Pudovkin wrote his two practical manuals on film-making.
'What India should produce is something full of its own particular variation on the universal themes. It is a creative task. But you must forget everything you have seen outside India - follow your own vision, your own people, your own landscape.'
We see Pavel, the son, in prison. Suddenly a note is passed on to him stating that the next day his comrades outside would free him. Naturally, he is happy. But how does one express it in filmic terms? The mere photographing of a face beaming with joy would have been flat and ineffectual. Pudovkin, therefore, showed the nervous play of Pavel’s hands, then a close-up of his face, the corners of the smile. These shots were cut with other unrelated shots of a turbulent brook swollen with the rapid flow of Spring, the play of sunlight on the water, birds splashing in the village pond and, finally, a laughing child. By the conjunction of these unrelated shots, Pudovkin succeeded in conveying the ‘prisoner’s joy’.
Although in direct opposition to Eisenstein’s shock montage, Pudovkin used a linkage method that extended far beyond Kuleshov’s (it was Lev Kuleshov who drew Pudovkin to cinema) ‘brick by brick’ theory. In this way, Pudovkin tried to affect the spectator, not by the psychological performance of the actor but by what he termed as plastic synthesis through editing.
Eisenstein, commenting on Pudovkin’s method, said: ‘In his films the spectator’s attention is not concentrated on the development of the plot, but on the psychic change undergone by some individual under the influence of the social process…His films act directly through their emotional power.’
In his film The End of St.Petersberg (1927), Pudovkin again touches us greatly by methods analogous to those in Mother. At the beginning of the film we see a downtrodden workman who understands nothing of his true destiny. The great October Revolution is explained to us by that one central figure, by that one man who suffers and rejoices. In Storm Over Asia, Pudovkin’s sovereign skill in interpreting oriental folklore and ancient customs came into full play. The film, set in Mongolia, is the half-heroic, half-ironic story of Bair, a hunter, who brings a rare silver fox skin to market, where an English trader protected by the occupation forces cheats him out of it. When Bair protests, he is threatened with death as a punishment. He escapes and joins the partisan detachment.
On some offence committed against the detachment, Bair is captured and executed. Among his effects, a silk piece of cloth (which Bair had acquired by chance) is found, identifying its wearer as a descendant of Genghis Khan. The body of Bair, who is not quite dead as yet, is hurriedly recovered and patched up. He is used as an impressive front against the partisans. In the end, Bair rises against his ‘protectors’ and the film ends on a symbolic storm with the Mongolian army uprooting the interventions.
Pudovkin handled his material with a brio and an impetuosity that left the spectator at once enchanted and breathless. He showed a great flair for faces and the contours of the oriental, ‘moulded by time and worn by grief and toil’. Pudovkin’s other outstanding films were Deserter, Victory, Suvorov, In the Name of the Fatherland and Admiral Nakhimov. Unfortunately, only a few of these films ever reached India. Of them, only Suvorov was shown publicly during the Second World War. It was a biographical-historical film marked for its warmth and humanity. Catherine the Great’s General Suvorov becomes an obstacle to the pride of her heir, Paul, until the fear of Napoleon forces the empress to recall Suvorov, who defeats Napoleon’s armies in Italy and in the Alps.
Writing of Soviet Cinema in general and Pudovkin’s work in particular, Maurice Bardeche and Robert Brasillach, in their Histoire du cinema, recorded:
In all these poetic documentation, men could less than the four seasons and the eternal earth, the collective effort, the beauty of the world. They have put new life into the Sunday School lessons because they have become a matter of life or death for these people; because they believe in them.They have carried us back, innocently, to the first age of the world and to the Adam digging the fruitful earth and this is the most extraordinary adventure that has befallen the cinema.
During Pudovkin’s stay in India, which lasted for just over a month, he visited quite a few of our studios in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, saw many of our films and addressed a number of meetings organized in his honour by our technicians and artists.
In a parting message to Indian film workers, Pudovkin advised:
What you want to make is films of ordinary people in their natural life, not just film stars in an artificial story. Of course, the film may contain a story, a drama. But the most important films are those which, fundamentally, deal with a whole people, a whole way of life, not just an individual. What India should produce is something full of its own particular variation on the universal themes. It is a creative task. But you must forget everything you have seen outside India - follow your own vision, your own people, your own landscape.
Prophetic words from a true prophet of the cinema.