France, India, United States 1951
Directed by Jean Renoir
Running time: 99 minutes
The first technicolor film to be shot on the Indian subcontinent. The first of Jean Renoir’s color pictures. The first time arc-lights, generators and other specialized production equipment crossed Bengalese borders. The film that united Desi auteur, Satyajit Ray, with Jean Renoir, ultimately resulting in Ray’s first film, the masterful PATHER PANCHALI (1955). These are a few of the firsts manifested during the production of THE RIVER. Every first is a kind of transgression. An event that flies in the face of the feeble lines drawn by history. An invasion. A colonizing.
It is tempting to read THE RIVER as an “exotic,” preternatural appeal to the Absolute. To see in its intent a plan to titillate pre-feminist, pre-globalized audiences with the paradoxes of Eastern values. And, in our snide and contemporary mode, it is tempting to see Renoir’s choice to install an array of white Western characters at the film’s narrative locus just to pander to American wallets. Oh, those xenophobic ‘50s! The film had to sell, after all! But I think this is a finger trap of the most vexing order. THE RIVER is not about the mystical totalizing effect of opposites or the exoticization of the East. It’s about the walls, veils and boundaries between sides. It’s about the diyas (oil lamps) that line the gates, steps, and hulls during Diwali. It’s an enshrinement of the liminality between peoples, elements and classes. With a superfluity of the faintest strokes, the fictions people devise for themselves and the combinatorial realities to which they are blind cure one on top of the other. (“I’m trying to be kind.” “But you’re not kind.”) Beginnings and endings, like the work of Jean’s father, Pierre-Auguste, are sequential. Birth does not replace death. But, separated by some of the film’s most painterly sequences (the Holi festival of colored paints gets its three-strip treatment; the flowering Banyan tree’s leaves bleed a mango hue), it does succeed it. As it does in RULES OF THE GAME (Renoir, 1939). These are the endless twirls of performance and being. The eternal space between the gypsy’s monkey and its object of pursuit. And while THE RIVER doesn’t deliberate on the abject poverty and squandered lives that systematically surface in the wake of colonization, its inequities are writ plain and tragic, if colorful.
Our call today is Kali’s: a relentless pursuit of negotiated betterment where all voices (and I do mean all) rule out neither creation nor cessation in pursuit of tomorrow’s dance. So what is to be done? If Kali’s metaphor is dead and the world is in its optimal state, then contribution is enough. Otherwise, there are ills to be shook and flows to be stopped up. Then set Kali aflame and feed her to the Ganges. Until next year and we do it again.
02 August 2013