In 1953, French filmmaker Ado Kyrou published ‘Le surrealism au cinema’ (Surrealism in Cinema). It locates surrealism at different moments of cinema, from its early beginnings with George Melies (creator of A Trip to the Moon among other works) to Kyrou’s own contemporaries. In the book, Kyrou writes that “cinema is, in essence, surrealist”, that the experience of witnessing a film unfold in a crowded and darkened hall, or the remaking of life on screen itself is an exercise in surrealism.
Several definitions and non-definitions of the concept float around. There is often a slippage in popular language between the surreal, fantasy, and magic realism. However, this article will attempt to move away from this ambiguity. This is not to reinforce traditional elitism but rather to engage with a robust and enriching dialogue that historically existed amongst surrealists.
Louis Aragon, French writer and poet, called surrealism a “horizon [that] is a relation between the sensibility and what it will never attain”. Aragon co-founded a surrealist literary magazine called Litterature, in 1919, with another French writer and poet, Andre Breton. Breton believed cinema to be “the only absolutely modern mystery”. Its machinations along with a palpable ‘lyrical substance’ revealed to him how the rawest of emotions can be concretized on screen. Jean Goudal, in his 1925 essay ‘Surreal Cinema’, wrote that cinema “constitutes a conscious hallucination”. That movies demand delusion from the audience to suspend their belief was proof to Goudal of the surreal powers embedded in cinematic techniques.
There has been a long legacy of writers and artists in India embodying the surrealist spirit, but it has had sparse presence in Hindi cinema. Kamal Swaroop’s Om Dar Ba Dar (1988) and Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking (2007) immediately come to mind as examples of full-fledged explorations of surrealism. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1957 showcase Musafir, written by Ritwik Ghatak, literally houses surrealism in the structure of a rented house. The title hints to the possibility that it is the house that travels across the lives of three families, thus combining an artificial experience with a poetic resonance. Early Bombay cinema too, adhered to its theatrical roots and veered away less in form even while experimenting in genre (daring action sequences, innovative comedic acts and melodramatic romance to name a few).
Amongst contemporary Hindi filmmakers, Abhishek Chaubey has imbibed the spirit of surreal thought through his filmography. If Breton’s guiding meaning is taken, the surreal strives towards “[encompassing] the whole psychosocial field’. It tends to “lack [the] sense of time” and replace “external reality by a psychic reality”. Chaubey’s craft has, since his debut as a co-writer in The Blue Umbrella (2005), contained slices of this thought. At times he has troubled his own narrative by hinting at confused realities.
The Blue Umbrella instilled a sensation of aliveness in the object of the umbrella, swiftly cutting through the sky to land at the feet of the film’s child protagonist, Biniya. Chaubey was a co-writer for Kaminey (2009), and we again see traces of the surreal through the scrupulous and gritty Charlie (Shahid Kapoor) and his dream sequences. His dreams of hitting it big take on an almost larger than life form and are played out to the audience momentarily as if they were real. Another project as co-writer with stalwart Vishal Bhardwaj, Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola (MKBKM, 2013), infuses physical reality with the psychic one. Only ten minutes into the film, Harry (Pankaj Kapoor) jumps into a swimming pool, and what follows is a slowed and fixed gaze onto him falling and rising underwater. The depth of the water is utilized in the film to signal Harry’s floating and his unstable grip on reality. It shapes itself into a gateway between the real and the surreal. Harry’s recurrent hallucinations of a pink buffalo plunge us into the rural recesses his mansion cannot escape, one that he is involved in displacing to make way for a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, in the region. Close-ups of his face take us into the hallucinations in the first half of the film. As rain pours down and lightning-thunder crackle in the second half, the pink buffalo has left the house and is now following Harry as he stands staring out at farms and fields, promising Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), a politician aiming to line her pockets, factories and ruin. Later scenes bring out multiple pink buffaloes, but as a ploy by farmers who have strategized to make Harry think he’s hallucinating even when he’s not.
Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola (2013); Fox Star Studios
Udta Punjab (2016), co-written by Sudip Sharma and Chaubey, echoes MKBKM’s use of water as a gateway between real and surreal, although not incorporating the latter’s suspenseful background score in crucial scenes. Mary Jane (as Alia Bhatt’s unnamed character is referred to) has her sights fixed on a hoarding for Goa when an insert of a syringe appears. The next thing we see is a close-up of her widened eyes — Mary Jane falls down an abyss and splashes into water. Unlike in Harry’s scene, this isn’t a fixed camera which the character moves in and out of frame of. The camera keeps up with Mary Jane as she swims towards the right half of the frame filled with light defusing the darkness that she is submerged in. With an outstretched hand, we see her reach for the light. The replacement of her physical situation and violent environment by a visual excavation of her psyche and interior life makes for a compelling and surreal moment in the film. This is heightened by the following shot where a wide-eyed Tommy Singh bounces out of a pool in the centre of the frame with a torchlight on his forehead. Illusions translate to reality when Mary Jane once again swims in the final scene of the film, but this time safe in Goa, having caught hold of the light she so desperately wanted.
Udta Punjab (2016); Balaji Motion Pictures, Phantom Films
This manifestation of the interior takes prominence in Chaubey’s most recent feature, Sonchiriya (2019), again co-written by Sharma and him. The film takes the psycho-social dilemma and conflict between the self and society to explicit heights. It punctuates action and designed schematics with the almost-real thoughts of primarily Lakhna (one of Sushant Singh Rajput’s finest performances) and Maan Singh (the indelible Manoj Bajpayee). Water looms behind in the foreboding valley. Maan Singh cannot wash out the figure of the little girl from his eyes whom he first (in the scope of the screenplay) sees a haunting image of, as he sits across from what is seemingly the Chambal river. Floating in that same water, Lakhna sees her open-eyed bloodied body merely seconds before, as he tries washing his hands. Her hallucinations, a surreal depiction of Maan Singh’s own existential crisis and guilt, ultimately lead to his demise. I personally read the girl dressed in white blood-stained clothes as the sole survivor of the tragedy that occurred at the hands of Maan Singh and Lakhna, rather than a ghost tailing them. She becomes a visual reference of their inner turmoil. This is one of the points where the film turns the traditional bandit plot on its head and throws it into a surrealist chaos. The surreal is ever-present in the atmosphere of the vast landscape that is Chambal. Immersive and exhaustive, the terrain, along with an older lens as Chaubey spoke about in an interview with MAMI, utilised in the film, lend easily to a drowsy sensation of haze and blurriness. Mirages are hyper-realized in their surreal environment. Lakhna imagines himself inhabiting a better life — riding a camel, wearing clean clothes, a groomed face complete with a respectable moustache, and the glimpse of a smile. Again, the slow tracking close-up. We are gently thrust into the interior world of Lakhna. Whether this is hope or an acceptance of death remains unclear. The figmented Lakhna acknowledges the actual bandit from atop his camel, breaking the distance between their realities. Unlike Mary Jane, Lakhna cannot – in his realm of the Chambal Valley and caste violence – achieve his unconscious desires.
Sonchiriya (2019); RSVP Movies
Chaubey’s works wouldn’t necessarily fit neatly with purist understandings of surrealism. However, surrealists have for long attempted to identify the dialectic of thought and interplay between light and dark in cinematic language. Breton once wrote on the sleeping body’s dream-state, where “the agonizing question of possibility arises no more”. Limitlessness even within constraints and bounds are teased out with the spirit of surrealism. This spirit evokes in Chaubey’s filmography a considered technical feat dedicated to exploring the sublime. How else would one think to explain Tommy Singh falling asleep in front of the Goa hoarding Mary Jane swam into?