The Second Trip to London
It wasn’t as he had planned. It wasn’t as he had planned at all. The white gentleman greeted him as he passed by. He seemed bothered too. They were calling it the Great War now. Mr.Hepworth seemed reassuring though. He almost always was. In fact, these last few hours of discussion at his house seemed as optimistic and as contrasted to this walk down the road from his place, as was his warm reading room by the fire and this droopy, chilly London street with this June drizzle. The newspaper boys were the only ones around who seemed to be making something out of it. He didn’t know what to do next. Did he still have the resolve, like he did a couple of years back, to fend off all the discouragement that Mr. Cabourne had fired upon him and eventually prove him wrong? It hadn’t been an easy journey so far. But it had been an enriching one for sure. All these oppositions, all the pessimism appeared petty compared to his love for his motherland. His tributes to Hindoostan were unique, and he knew it. He wanted to give back all he could to his culture—the greatest ever, he thought. But yet, there were so many obstacles. Was this really a path of the fallen, as so many would say? Was this still not Indian enough? And if he was on the right track, why was there this grand new obstacle now? All these plans of showing the West how great his country’s culture was seemed to have been working too. There was very little that could have stopped him.
And yet, here it was. He knew the difference between temptation and the right path. He did not settle down here, even though so many of these British producers were insisting on it that he does. He loved his country way more. Without it, there wasn’t much meaning to what he was doing. Besides, he had chosen the path of righteousness, and like Harishchandra, he would stick to it. But weren’t the gods supposed to aid him all along? Why weren’t they? The only one who really supported him all this while was Saraswati, his Taramati. He wouldn’t know what to do without her. If only she were there to help him with this obstacle at hand now. Were these obstacles supposed to be a warning? But what if these obstacles were like a test—Sita’s Agnipariksha, probably? It was funny how he thought of himself as Sita just like he would hesitantly ask Salunke to think of himself as Taramati. He would also fancy himself as Hanuman. If Europe was Lanka, his films were like the tail setting fire in the box office of the theatres, leaving a trail all across the continent, he chuckled to himself. And, all these obstacles were only adding fuel to the fire. In fact, his resolve to make a film on one of the two great epics could be his response to these obstacles. Maybe that episode itself? His teacher, his mentor, the great Raja’s depiction of the burning of Lanka and the glorious Hanuman flashed before his eyes. Such a beauty! All his paintings would inspire him. But weren’t these images setting a limit to the imagination his countrymen were capable of? He remembered asking the Raja once. Besides, this form and medium of the West were polluting their indigenous culture, were they not? The Raja had always been a patient listener and would always reply as if he was a wise sage. “The imagination of the mass is already being corrupted by the West, Govind”, the Raja had said. “Don’t you see how the mass and especially the elite regard our art as inferior and theirs superior? The West has imposed their tradition on us already. We need to show them that we have a richer tradition. And we can show them that only if we beat them in their own game”. Back then, this argument had seemed half as convincing. There were so many doubts. Why did we have to prove something to them? Personally, he had always liked many of the stories and artworks of the West. Almost as much, if not more than he liked the stories, myths, and fables of Hindoostan sometimes. After all, thematically, how different were the stories of Raja Harishchandra and that of Sophocles’ Oedipus? Why should Man be punished for what he did unknowingly? He never admitted that to the Raja, of course. He thought the two could meet without trying to prove one’s superiority over the other. He got reminded of his English professor’s declaration “East is East, and West is West, and the twain shall never meet”. And it was strange how the same sentiment was shared by many of his patriotic Indian friends too. But it had all seemed so wrong to him. Every time he would hear the phrase, he had this unease and felt like amending the “never” to “forever”. The idea of different nations declaring themselves the best was so confusing.
Besides, the faces that the Raja was assigning the Gods, what if they became definitive? “That would only help the ignorant”, the Raja would smile. He would have the indomitable urge to argue back that the ignorant were sometimes more capable of imagination than he would like to imagine. But propriety wouldn’t allow that, and he would nod in agreement. And now, after all these years, it was strange how he was following in the Raja’s footsteps. Maybe he had matured over these years? Or was he made blunt by all the experience and the years? Either way, he was a different man. “This War will make the world a better place”, this poster read, as he passed by. Maybe any great action had both sides to it. The person responsible for taking that action had to be responsible. Man should be ready to be punished for what he did unknowingly. Would he be mocked at, as a person who limited the scope of the cinema in Hindoostan, or would he be called the founder of the cinema in the country? The worst would be if he was forgotten, or worse still, his work forgotten. Memory was such a funny thing. Every time he tried to recreate a mythological setting he’d feel that way. What was the point in trying to achieve perfection, when they would always be affected by the contemporary anyway? All forms of Art in this country all these years had proudly accommodated the contemporary in their imagination of the past. This cinematic medium was different though. It would retain things as they were. Or did they? He never got to ask questions like these to the Raja or Hepworth sahib. The Raja would be too immersed in his quest for perfection. Or whatever he thought was perfection. But the works themselves were so magical. Maybe they had an independent thing about them, despite being burdened by all the allusion. Wasn’t he himself trying to do the same with his own art now? And coming back to his thought, he seemed more resolute in his plan of making a film about the great epic, Ramayana. Somehow, without him knowing it, the visuals of what he wanted had become clearer in the meanwhile. He knew what he wanted. He would call it Lanka Dahan and with it he would do shanka dahan of all those who doubted him. Maybe even his younger, doubtful self?
Image courtesy: Soumyadeep Roy
This story is a fictitious account based on Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s second visit to London in June 1914.