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Sant Tukaram ( The Movie) Part II

Sant Tukaram ( The Movie) Part II-- Gayatri Chaterjee


Interestingly, the very beginning of the film seems to be fully employed in creating an ambience so the audience is immediately drawn. It is as if based on the assumption the audience is capable of being very still and attentive—meditative even The first segment is made up of three shots: i) a still shadowy silhouetted image of the actor, over which run the credit titles; ii) a full frontal shot of the deity Vitthala (or Panduranga, along with his consort Rakhumai) standing straight, looking into the camera as if it were; and iii) an image of Tukaram, sitting on the ground cross-legged, at a slight angle to the camera. These are iconic images—having past histories rooted in the cultural and pictorial history of Maharashtra. It is apt the film begins with iconic images. It is interesting that such iconic images have been produced by camera lens. These shots are of very long duration; particularly, the Tukaram image, which remains on the screen for over 2 minutes  (206 feet).[1]

Normally, it is considered difficult to gaze at a static shot in a film for a great length of time—and here we have (after the credits) two static-shots where nothing moves within the image and the camera is static too (except for a slight track-in at the end of the first). But, we have no problem gazing at these images, as the images are accompanied by a song panduranga dhyani panduranga mani—an original abhang composed by the seventeenth century saint poet. Without the music it perhaps would have not been impossible to engage the interest of the audience for such a long time—even if they are habituated to gaze quietly at their favourite idols at home or in the temple. The real-life habit of gazing still and long at one’s adored God has been ‘borrowed’ here in this medium of cinema. There is no other instance of a film where this element is so well and persistently used. Interestingly, the verse underlines the above aspect of adoration and worship; Tukaram sings how he is engaged in dhyan (meditation) and manna (introspection). There is a reciprocal stance both the God and the devotee adopts and the term here is tatastha. Vitthala or Panduranga stands ramrod straight, arms akimbo placed on the hips.

This is a term used in the Natyashastras and it means: when one is looking at a performance one needs to be fully immersed in what is going on in front and at the same time one is sufficiently detached. Ashok Kelkar explains: tatastha is to stand by the bank (tata)[2] of an ocean or a river—looking on, taking pleasure but not taking the plunge. It is as if, the verse signals our own stance for viewing this film—any film, for that matter—a stance of full absorption but ultimately analytical and objective. So, let us embark upon some deeper understanding of this ‘marriage’ between a former tradition and the new medium of cinema that is creates this tremendous possibility of appreciation here.

One etymological meaning of icon is ‘resemblance’. The image of Tukaram resembles our mental image of a sant. Though the identity of the man is not yet established, we immediately know him as a devotee or the principal protagonist whose name the film bears. We must ask, there must have been before this image a tradition of image of Tukaram—and there was. A litho print accompanied most books printed in the first decades of the previous century (and well into the forties and early fifties as well). It seems this image was the model before the silent film, Tukaram (1921) directed by Ganpat Shinde (but often attributed to D G. Phalke—perhaps Phalke was consulted).[3] Importantly, Vishnupant Pagnis bears a striking resemblance to the actor of that film.[4] Now, there was another film Sant Tukaram (attributed to the director Patankar) made the same year and we wonder what its actor Baba Vyas looked like. The actor of Rane’s Sant Tukaram aani Jai Hari Vitthala was Shukla, from the play by Rane. We need to carry out full research as to the acting and singing of these actors, if we want to fully understand our appreciation of the Damle-Fattelal film. But let us return to the fact that it begins with iconic image—those that only the moving image and the audio-visual juxtaposition of the medium of cinema can create.

An iconic image is where narration—story, information, and discourse—meaning and feeling rest frozen. Icons belong to specific traditions, and one must know the tradition in order to properly recognize and absorb the image. An icon stands for something known to the audience a priori. An icon is suspended in time—it is meant for us to gaze at, admire and contemplate upon. To use of iconic images in the beginning of a narration is in keeping with the literary practices of the period: to start novels with iconic figures—not exactly illustrations, but images that introduce or leads a reader to the world of narration and representation. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), we see the same phenomenon in the magic lantern shows called shambarik karolika in Maharashtra. Before the mechanism in the magic lantern moved its images, there would be first a still-image (the show ended too with some still-image). So traditionally, a still image moves and thereby initiates and sets loose the process of narration (discussion/discourse), as if it were; and with the end of narration, the image becomes still again—a tradition several Indian films have adopted and here it is carried out particularly well.

Next, we observe the first image of the God is placed in a full frontal manner (looking out straight in front), while in the second, Tukaram figure is positioned at a slight angle to the camera (or to our eyes). As a result of the two images coming one after the other (joined through the process of editing), they give rise to a triangular spatial arrangement. They create a space to be filled in or occupied by a third person—the audience then looks at the God, at the sant and their very special relationship. This too is a time worn convention in the Bhakti literature.[5] A devotee forms and shares a closed world with an adored God; but when this relationship is narrated, sung or represented, there is a third—a spectator looking on at both. So, here is a cinematic creation of a traditional positioning of three characters in a triangular relationship: the bhagavān (the god), the bhakta (the devotee) and the audience.[6]

The two shots are joined by the process of editing; the iconic images are created through the medium of cinema—mise en scene and editing. If the filmmakers had composed the two images in full frontal manner or followed the rules of eye-line matching of a classical shot counter-shot, that would have established the bhakta looking at the bhagavān. The camera would then take up each viewing position; the audience, in turn, would alternately take up the position of Tukaram and Vitthala. But that is not the case here.[7] Additionally, the two shots are composed in different ways—the image of the God has no background, while that of the devotee is placed with recognisable objects of farm and home use. Which means Vitthala and Tukaram are not spatially connected—but connected through our relationship with them.


[1] What is highly interested here is: we say this is coming from a religious-performative tradition; but let us note that such uses of long held immobile or static shots are used in very avant garde European films.

[2] The first ‘t’ is dental, while the second one is formed when the tongue hits the palate.

[3] It is quite possible that our filmmakers had seen the film made by/under the supervision of Phalke. The personnel of Prabhat Studio knew Phalke very well Phalke had visited Maharashtra Film Company, when he was still an established filmmaker. The Prabhat personnel had donated to the fund being raised to help Phalke as they celebrated 25 years of cinema (Phalke was in a state of penury then). A. V. Damle (dada-Damle to us) informed me of these events (also mentioned in Film India).

[4] One real of that film is preserved in the National Film Archive of India; but the name of the actor is not known today.

[5] Norman Culter has excellently discussed this in his book on Tamil Bhakti poetry, The Song of the Road.

[6] Perhaps this had already become quite an established practice in the Indian studios by the 30’s; an exact recreation of this triangularity occurs in Vidyapati of the New Theatres made in 1936.

[7] The directors, I suggest did not want the audience to take up the position of the God.