By Anees Aref.
We all are sometimes weak and sometimes strong. I wanted to express how a moment of weakness can shatter your life.”
Written and directed by Bijaya Jena, Abhaas (1997) has recently been restored after an initially challenging run finding distribution upon its first release. Set in 1950s India, in the state of Orissa, the story concerns the inhabitants of a wealthy estate in the countryside, namely the landlord Ray Sahib, his wife, adopted brother, and Kokila, a distant cousin to Ray who is given shelter after her widowhood, played by Jena herself. A moment of lust between two key characters becomes the central event of the story, whose ripple effects carries unpredictable and tragic consequences for all involved. The film’s story and style play as deceptively simple on the surface though rich with meaning and thematic complexity underneath.
I talked with Jena about the film’s themes and influences in a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from classic cinema, literature, Hindu philosophy, and India’s folk storytelling traditions. We began with the film’s difficult road to distribution, particularly in countries like Iran, where Jena had served as a film festival juror.
The title now, Prologue (Abhaas), almost takes on an extra meaning. I think it was the prologue to getting seen twenty-five years later. I’m surprised you had trouble getting it released in Iran, though, because they have a very rich cinema industry…even the style of the film reminds me of some Iranian movies, the simple storytelling, almost a neo-realist approach. I think you did your share of jury duty over there, too.
In fact, in 2007, when I was on the jury, we gave the award to The Lives of Others, and after that it got the Oscar. They have so many really beautiful films, and still doing well. I don’t know about the distribution issue.
It could be business reasons or any number of things, who knows.
But unfortunately, in India it was ahead of its time. Because in 97’, 95 percent of the films [in India] had Bollywood parameters of songs and dances. When I showed my film to the distributor, he told me, “We cannot release it in a theater unless we get a tax rebate.” So, I went to the government seat for tax rebates and they said “there is no strong social message here,” and whatever is in their policy, so they cannot give me a tax rebate. So, I offered the film to our national television as a premiere… that’s how I got back my money. If it had theatrical release, even in a small theater, then it would perhaps have gotten a more mileage. And while I’ve been fighting with the Indian government, Channel 4 in the UK, and a lot of other countries, promote cinema. If Channel 4 did not promote UK films, then American films would’ve taken over the UK film industry, and it’s how you see some really good films in the UK. When Netflix came into India, they picked up some films. In the beginning they bought some indie films, but now they’re not doing very well because of some fiasco….
I’ve noticed here in the U.S. that Netflix shows a lot of old Bollywood films.
They are there, but what I’m trying to say is they’re taking only star-driven films, typical Bollywood commercial… So, it’s not a platform for indie filmmakers. You were saying the Iranians are telling their stories, but how do I tell my stories unless I have some kind of a star and do that kind of thing, within Bollywood parameters? Fortunately, there is a boutique entity coming from America which will specifically show films by women for women. And also films on women by men. I’m in talks with them to be their content advisor. But you can count very few women filmmakers in India.
Well, that’s become a very important issue in America, these last few years…. But I think people miss out, because even though they haven’t gotten as much attention, there have been some great women filmmakers.
But as far as feature filmmakers (women), I think France has the maximum, or Europe has much more than America. I’m thinking of Penny Marshall: I was competing with her in a festival with my first film Tara (1992), Katheryn Bigelow, and Jane Campion, who of course is from Australia, but even in America you have very few. And of course, there’s Sofia Coppola… [but] I don’t have any backing, and I’m from the East, from Orissa. In my state, I’m the only woman filmmaker who has got a president’s award. But still my state is responsible to promote you. There is one state, Karela, in India, a southern state, where the women are very, very progressive, and the government has now declared a fund for women filmmakers. They will allocate a supplemental fund and will choose four scripts. That’s fantastic.
That’s like in France, where the government supports the film industry a lot. You don’t hear about that in the United States very much, it’s all private…maybe a tax break.
Cinema in most of Europe comes under the Culture Ministry. Cinema is culture, synonymous with culture. Right? Though it’s a hundred-year-old art form; it is culture like music, painting, drama. These are thousands of years old. Cinema is a new art, evolving, and requires patronization. So, if you do not call it culture…then you’ll have Marvel movies, as Scorsese has said. So, cinema should be part of the culture and promoted like paintings in the museum. Museums belong to the government. There should be cinema theaters owned by the government. In my country, we call cinema “entertainment.”
The whole idea is to intrigue the audience with unpredictable situations. Once the audience is involved with the main characters and you don’t meander from the characters, time would flow seamlessly.”
If I can ask you more about Abhaas, about the religious and philosophical aspects of the film, in terms of how the story is told and some of the themes woven in, such as Hindu philosophy, Karma, a “moment’s weakness” by the characters….
As per Hindu philosophy, there are two forces which control the nature of our lives: preordained, which is called destiny, and the other is present KARMA/Deeds. In Abhaas, Chandra suffers for an action which he has not committed but takes his jail term as his destiny. He is at peace with himself in the jail and writes Sufi poetry. He looks calm when Ray meets him in the jail. That baffles Ray and you can see the expression of Ray of anger. How can a man be so calm even in jail and the man who committed the crime is free but haunted by his guilt?
I had mentioned the simple nature of the storytelling, and how through editing and pace, time seems to flow freely throughout the narrative. From one cut to another, or one scene to another, it could be months, two years, five years etc.
I follow the simple story telling method which I have heard in our epic Mahabharat, Arabian Nights, and our folktales. As you know, Sherzade had to tell stories every night for 1000 nights to escape being killed by the king. She had to devise interesting stories with unpredictable situations. And the same is true for our folktales since [a] thousand years. A storyteller in the village would narrate, enact the characters with basic percussions, and one string instrument.
The whole idea is to intrigue the audience with unpredictable situations. Once the audience is involved with the main characters and you don’t meander from the characters, time would flow seamlessly.
Your influences include Satyajit Ray, neo-realism and Iranian films. Could you also describe your other influences from literature to Hindi folk storytellers? You mentioned the characters Abhaas trying to survive at certain moments, like Scherzade in the Arabian Nights....
As a teenager in a film school, I was exposed to world masters including Ray, Bunuel, Fellini, Bergman, Wajda, Renoir, Kurosawa, and Melville. Rashomon left a great impact on my mind. I realized there is no single truth but many views of an incident.
In Abhaas, an incident happens but nobody knows the truth. People make their own stories about the incident. They would never get to know the real story and, hence, its titled Prologue/Abhaas. Its like just getting a glimpse of the incident you get in a novel preface.
I am highly influenced by Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. I reread Crime and Punishment before writing the script. That’s how I made Ray haunted by his guilt. We all are sometimes weak and sometimes strong. I wanted to express how a moment of weakness can shatter your life.
I love Sufi poetry. We also have poets who are called “Bhakti” (devotional) poets like Kabir, Mirabai. It’s similar to Sufi poetry. The whole idea is to be in love with the universal force/God like in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and Rumi’s poems. Chandra, the budding poet, writes such poems in the jail and spiritually evolves.
Why did you set the story in the past, the 1950s?
Anything which is set in a different time always fascinates me. We can always interpret it in different ways. It’s more romantic. That’s why I have set my two more scripts in the past.
What is coming next for you?
I have written a script set during the Goa liberation in the 50s with a multiracial cast of Portuguese, Indian, British. It’s to be in English with Portuguese fados, serenades. I have a few Oscar winners attached to it. It would take time, as it’s a big budget film. I will [also] do a very small budget film set in my home state Odisha. Again, its set before the cell phone era when people wrote letters to each other and sent telegrams, or trunk calls, once in a month. Life was not as easy as it is now with instant communications. People waited for letters from loved ones and cherished them. I think we are losing the art of letter writing now. This is about migration, ambition, and roots and culture.
I said a storyteller should be like Sherzade who should intrigue/hook listeners as if their lives at stake. That’s how I devise the pace of my storytelling. Polanski does the same thing. Every scene has intrigue. You never know what’s going to happen next.
Abhass (Prologue), celebrating its 25 anniversary, has been restored and is planning to be programmed in classics sections of film festivals.
Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.