On Tuesday December 3rd, we are pleased to welcome filmmaker Daniel Schmidt (DIAMANTINO) back to Spectacle for a special presentation of Kamal Amrohi’s MAHAL (1949) alongside James Kienitz Wilkins’ short film SPECIAL FEATURES (2014). The screening is part of a multi-venue series organized by Schmidt, with companion double features at Light Industry and Metrograph. Schmidt’s last visit to Spectacle was nearly four years ago, when he and filmmaker Alexander Carver presented João Pedro Rogrigues’ O FANTASMA alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini’s LE MURA DI SANA. Schmidt describes his latest series, ALIENATING RESURRECTIONS, as follows:
“There are few dreams I am able to recall years later. Dreams that persist, despite their inherent evanescence, outliving the very memories of waking life which scientists hypothesize they’ve been conjured to reinforce. Dreamy dreams – whose ornamentations are surely boring to anyone besides me. But I wonder if others share a similar grouping of remnants. They are united by their common inhabitants – intimate relations from my life who have departed from theirs. Here they are alive. The circumstances of their resuscitation are never clear, nor is it clear they ever died – but there is something deathly about them. While in life our relationships were often strong – my memories of them loving – in dreams it is the vitality of these relationships which are now paradoxically faded. Aunts who were like mothers, a mother who was like a best friend, a best friend who was like a lover – reappear defamiliarized, of uncertain allegiance – often aloof, sometimes possessed. They gravitate towards some second death, wounded in some obscure, unknowable way. Physically intact, yet spiritually wraithlike, their motives and sense of self are opaque to me and perhaps to them. Often, they seem like imposters who have forgotten the reason for their disguise. They are both alienated and alienating. I awaken similarly disoriented. Always mesmerized by the opportunity to be in their presence, but estranged by who they’ve become.
I do not experience lucid dreaming. I remain without awareness, and without capacity to make decisions. I only just learned you can train yourself to develop this talent – would be cool to try. For now, it is only in waking life that I can stray into such liminal realms. Namely while making and watching movies. Through these collaborative actions I find I am able to at least consciously participate and orient myself to the phenomena of dreams – and engage the elusive revenants within.
Here I’ve gathered eight films that have allowed just that. Films that explicitly and implicitly concern alienating resurrections. Most have at their centers – the emotional narratives of people who experience a sort of demise and a sort of revival. While some elaborate on their initial deaths – the central concern is of the problems and possibilities wrought by their rebirths – both for themselves and the living whom they encounter.
In contrast to predictable desires held by the undead populations of so many commodified fictions – the ghost seeking vengeance, the vampire seeking blood, the zombie seeking brains – these films are instead populated with phantoms who often lack direct motivations and are mired in existential confusion – perhaps seeking identity or freedom from it. They are lost amidst relatively earthly environments, usually in one or two simple locations, unburdened of the archetypal phantasmagoria. For some – like in my dreams – it is their personalities which are illusory. In the pop-sci lingo of oneirology their personalities are the “interobjects” – dreamed condensations of two unlike objects that could not occur in real life. The films’ shapes resonate around these characters with a generative ambiguity. Most, if not all, derive from this a vital sense of humor – ranging from mordant to whimsical, satirical to absurd.
Of course, this eight-starred constellation is merely a survey of a much larger, inexhaustible galaxy of art concerning such specters. Here, some personal favorites – four longer films by inspiring strangers, paired with four shorter films by inspiring friends. I feel each on their own and when grouped together exemplify what critic and programmer Dan Sullivan described as “cinema’s freedom to be a liquid medium—always something slightly other than what we think it is.” A freedom and flexibility that might stimulate similar openness to life and death, loosened from strict interpretations and the desire to define, while both awake and asleep.”
dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1949
165 mins. India.
In Hindi and Urdu with English subtitles.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 3 – 7 PM w/introduction from Daniel Schmidt
ONE NIGHT ONLY!
(This event is $10.)
A musical. An all-night metaphysical requiem. Hari Shankar, the son of a famous judge, arrives at a desolate mansion he purchased in a government auction and learns of its tragic past from a remaining servant. Thirty years prior, the estate’s original owner, an anonymous man of means, drowned in a flooded river while travelling back to home to his lover. With his final words he vowed to return to her in the next life. However, the lover, Kamini, soon after succumbed to the same fate – while searching the waters for him. Thereafter, Shankar discovers a portrait, presumably of the former proprietor, which bears a striking resemblance to his own. He readily conceives that he is the reincarnation of the drowned man – reborn to reunite with his lost love.
Profoundly disoriented – Shankar’s stunning interpretation evaporates moments later when he hears a woman’s voice wavering through his new home. Through a series of elusory encounters with the singer – he arrives a new belief: that she is the ghost of Kamini – and he, Shankar, is falling in love with her. She confides this is true, as is her undying love for him. To be united in the flesh – she proposes Shankar commit suicide and be reborn again with her. Then, fearing such a plan could fail, she suggests Shankar instead murder the servant’s daughter – so that she may inhabit the body for herself.
Who is reincarnated? Who is a ghost? And what might they carry from the past life to this one or into the next? To say more would give away the revelations best shared with these haunted protagonists. It might also overly emphasize the causality and chronology of a saga whose harmonic digressions are just as touching and touched by uncertainty and a longing to know and control.
In one such passage, the perspective shifts to that of Shankar’s unloved wife, Ranjana, via her written correspondence to her family. Within the letters she asks for counsel as she mournfully seeks to understand her husband’s despondence over the course of two unhappy years. Eventually, having learned of Kamini, Ranjana spies on her and Shankar. In a simple yet strikingly staged image – Ranjana eavesdrops by standing very close and very nearby their conversation, surely within view of their peripheral vision. Yet she remains unseen. Is this theatrical blocking or is Ranjana herself a ghost?
Vagueness permeates the world of MAHAL. There’s a lack of distinction between the infinite space of the mansion and a seeming eternity of twilight that surrounds it. The anonymous servants, who, as is customary, are reciprocally unaware of the wealthy identities of whom they serve; remain, often shrouded, to perform their roles in the mansion indefinitely. Obsession is the protagonist, ensnaring all in sinuous orbits. They spin, flickering between lonely oblivion and luminous passion, intersecting and then rushing apart again. A building and bodies, alternately possessed and forsaken.
MAHAL entranced its viewers as well – and was tremendously popular upon its initial release in India. An ouroboros film – it is also a provenance. Bollywood’s first gothic, and in a sense, first horror film. It was also strikingly the first Hindi film to feature ornate sets. As Amrohi’s directorial debut feature – he imagined someone beyond the famous performers of the day and cast Madhubala as Kamini in her first significant role, becoming an icon of sensitivity and tragedy at age 16.
Kamini, like the film, is mesmerically and ironically layered – at times authentic while veiled, at others chimeric while exposed. But amid these visions there was a second discovery – one of sound. Much as Shankar was first drawn to her ethereal singing, Mahal’s audiences, and the larger public who heard its songs on the radio – were drawn to this, unfamiliar voice – and insisted to know her identity. Bollywood relented and for the first time revealed the identity of a playback singer – it was Lata Mangeshkar. Thus began her 10,000+ career of recorded songs. Using nascent sonic techniques, Mangeshkar recorded a consonant, almost corporeal presence, within Madhubala’s Kamini. Standing in the corner of the studio, with the microphone in the center of the room – she moved towards it singing:
Time stands still,
The stars are silent,
The world is at rest.
Yet my heart is uneasy.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps nearing,
As though someone were
walking through my heart…
Most significantly, perhaps, MAHAL was the first Indian film to feature a reincarnation narrative. Fittingly, the film itself has been reincarnated many times over. One can see its dark reflection in remakes, homages and rip offs from Mumbai to the cinemas beyond. Woefully unrestored and underseen – it is at times lost, but now returns seeking old and new lovers with its melody of sound and image.
dir. James Kienitz Wilkins, 2014
12 mins. United States.