Tag Archives: White Nights

Film Saawariya (2007) and Art: Carl Krenek, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Dulac

19 Mar

“I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”

Carl Krenek (1880-1948), A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willos, blossoms, tempera on paper, 14,3 x 17,3 cm, c 1900s-1910s

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve first seen the Hindi film “Saawariya” (2007), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I still find myself captivated by the songs and the setting of the film. What is especially interesting about the film’s plot is that it is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights”, which was published in 1848, rather early in the writer’s career. In the story, the nameless narrator is a lonely and dreamy young man who lives in Saint Petersburg. One night, whilst wandering the cold, winter streets, he meets a pretty young girl called Nastenka who is also lonely. Of course, he is a dreamer and suddenly Nastenka is hope personified for his lovelorn, lonely existence. The two start talking but Nastenka makes it clear that she doesn’t want romance, and eventually she returns to her lover. In the film “Saawariya” the young man Ranbir Raj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is the nameless narrator and the Dreamer from Dostoyevsky’s story. Raj’s Nastenka in the film is a young Muslim girl called Sakina (played by Sonam Kapoor) whom she meets one night. But Sakina is in love with her grandma’s tennant, a man called Imaan. Raj is also a musician and he spends a lot of time with the local prostitutes, trying to cheer them up and brings some hope to their sad lives, so he is a warm and kind-hearted man. That aspect is diffent from Dostoyevsky’s story, but the ending is, sadly, similar. Sad for the Dreamer that is.

Scenes from the film “Saawariya”

Now, another thing I love about the film was the aesthetic. The nocturnal, fantasy setting is gorgeous, with no real indication of time, place or the passing of time; a truly dream-like setting for the story because it is told from Ranbir’s memory. One of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is from the song Masha Allah when Ranbir and Sakina encounter each other at night; she is frightened and alone, her veil falls off and the moonlight reveals a beautiful face and Ranbir is instantly smitten and proclaims: Masha Allah! The scene, like the film itself, is bathed in indigo-blue light, and the two are gliding on a boat adorned with flowers over a lake and pass under a bridge where, for a mere second, Rabir can get close to Sakina. The light of the lanterns and neon signs on the buildings is showing them the way. The boat, the water, the bridge, all made me think of Venice and the nocturnal scene really has a magic about it. Here is an interesting commentary on the film’s aesthetic, from an article “The socio-political mutation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in Hindi Cinema through the ages” written by Eshan Parikh here: “Bhansali created a real dreamscape, one that seemed to exist in a timeless space and was inspired by Indian and European architecture. There is no sense of day/night and seasons. There are shots where you see the dome of a Rajasthani fort like building inside the arch of the replica of Champs-Élysées. There are walls with graffiti in Urdu and shops with English names which were reminiscent of Colonial India. No real year is mentioned where this story may have been set and even the way people dress up is a mix of modern urban styles and more vintage styles of the Colonial era.

This scene from the film captivated me so much that I started looking for similar examples in art; paintings whose mood and motif fits the mood of the scene in the film, and I found three. The first one is a tempera on paper called “A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willows, blossoms” by an Austrian painter Carl Krenek. The intense blue and green shades are absolutely stunning! In the foreground of the painting there is a row of semi-abstract flowers which look really groovy and behind them is the vibrant blue lake. I especially love the strokes of lighter blue on the dark blue background; they are so flowing and free. In the middle of the lake is a couple on a boat, gliding towards infinity. We can even see a little bit of the sky – the starry night.

Scene from the film Saawariya (2007)

Now, here is a lovely passage from Dostoyevsky’s story where the nameless narrator talks about himself and his relationship with Nastenka:

I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experiened.

I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.

I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled with me, resolved all my doubts.

(…) If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness that you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?

The second painting which made me think of the scene from the film was Maurice Prendergast’s watercolour “Feast of the Redemeer”, painted in 1899. I have already written a longer post about it here, but esentially what reminded me of the film was the nocturnal setting, the dark waters, the magical ambience created by the plethora of lanterns and the the boats of course. I can imagine Ranbir and Sakina on one of those boats; he is mesmerised by her beauty, she is daydreaming of her lover, both are enjoying the fleeting dream-like moments while above them is a dark cloud of unrequitedness and an inevitable separation and ending.

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

The third and the final painting I found is Edmund Dulac’s watercolour “The Fisherman – The Nightingale”, date unknown but probably early twentieth century. The watercolour shows a nocturnal scene with a fisherman in his little boat gliding on the waters of a river or a lake. The blueness of the water is kissing the blueness of the sky and it is hard to tell the line between the water and the sky. Instead of a fisherman I imagine Raj and Sakina on that boat. The crescent moon, half hidden by the tree branches, is a romantic touch, and I also really love how the trees are almost imposing their way into the painting, forcing their branches into our sight. There is ever so soft light of the moon falling on the water but it is subtle detailing such as that one that bring magic to the scene.

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets.”

(Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale)

Edmund Dulac, The Fisherman – The Nightingale, no date

New York Stories (1989) – Life Lessons: Artist and his Muse

24 Jun

I am currently rereading Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” and her vivid descriptions of growing up in 1970s and early 1980s New York made me fantasise about the city that inspired so many artists and bands that I love, from Jackson Pollock and Velvet Underground, to Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, ad Public Enemy. Drawn by the title alone, I decided to watch again the omnibus film “New York Stories” (1989) which consists of three shorter parts, three different little stories, each showing a fragment from the city’s busy life.

Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie

My favourite short film is the first one called “Life Lessons”, directed by Martin Scorsese. I tells a tale of a middle aged painter Lionel Dobie (played by Nick Nolte) and his beautiful blonde twenty-two year old assistant, ex-lover and muse Paulette (played by Rosanna Arquette). At the beginning of the film, Lionel is madly infatuated with Paulette, but she doesn’t want to be his lover anymore, and decides to stay living with him only to gain some artistic advice and direction. It’s killing Lionel to think that she might leave him, and this turmoil is further deepened by the fact that his big show is in three weeks and he doesn’t have inspiration. Lionel begs her to stay, saying: “You stretch canvases, run a few errands, you got your own room, a studio, life lessons that are priceless, plus a salary.” But of course, he isn’t just interested in things being beneficial for her, they both take advantage of each other; Paulette sees Lionel as a way of getting into posh art circles and a way of learning how to paint better, and it’s obvious why Lionel would benefit from having such a hot young chic around his studio.

Although Paulette returns to live with Lionel in the beginning of the film, she admits that she had an affair with a performance artist. She is now heartbroken and homesick, and she feels her life and her art career aren’t going anywhere. Although he is at first angry at this betrayal, Lionel soon starts to feel how this wild range of emotions; anger, jealousy, uncertainty, longings, frustrations, are all fueling his creativity. And this is where the exciting part comes in; Lionel painting on his huge canvases. Although it isn’t stated, I think he would be an abstract Neo-expressionist painter. He is filling the lonely white empty space of his canvases in abstract shapes and swirls, painting in bold colours and impasto layers which seem like it would take them ages to dry. The close-ups on the colour, all bright and tangible, yellow, red, blue, filled me with ecstasy! Watching those scenes made me finally understand why Vincent van Gogh would eat his paint out of a tube. I wanna lick that paint of the canvas when I see it on the film. I wanna touch it, smear it, leave it everywhere. What an ecstasy it must have been then, to see Jackson Pollock paint his masterpieces!?

I love it how whenever Lionel’s frustration reaches its peak; for example when he hears Paulette talking on the phone to someone, presumably some young man, or when he sees her wrapped only in a robe and making herself a cup of tea in the kitchen, so when his jealousy and passion that he has to tame are at their peak, he goes into his industrial looking studio, puts on a cassette, which is covered with paint flakes just as the cassette player is, and the super groovy soundtrack begins… he is standing in front of the canvas while the music plays “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. Like a wild shamanistic process which purges him from negative emotions, frees him from the miseries and translates them into the language of the colour and patterns on the canvas. Here is a video with shots from the film and Rolling Stones’s song “Paint it Black” as a background music. You will see here the shots of him painting and you will understand quite well what I am talking about here, it’s something that you just gotta see.

The story was loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s tale “White Nights” first published in 1848. In the story a nameless narrator is telling us about his lonely life in Saint Petersburg and his encounter with a pretty young girl whose lover had abandoned her. He is a dreamer, and she is naive and heartbroken. They befriend, but in the end the girl’s lover returns and she goes with him, leaving the narrator’s hopes for love broken. The story ends with the narrator getting a letter from the girl who is informing him that she is getting married. He is devastated by this news, but remains happy that at least he had a a few moments of bliss and companionship in his lonely miserable life. One can see the connection between Dostoevsky’s story and “Life Lessons” but I think the nameless narrator and Lionel are totally different men; while the narrator’s spirit is broken and he is devastated when she leaves him, Lionel needs a younger woman to inspire him, but he can get a new one any time, it isn’t about Paulette, it is the whole cycle of possessiveness, jealousy, passion and unrequited element of his love affairs which fuels his creativity and ultimately inspires his chaotic art.

In the end, here is Paulette, who is an aspiring artist, with her painting which I quite like! The two figures look like they belong to some other world, the paler one is taking the other by the hand and perhaps leading it to some better place, like Orpheus taking the Euridice from the underworld… and ultimately failing.

I also want to share with you the words that Lionel told to Paulette when she questioned him whether she is any good at painting. He had little comment on her paintings after she showed them to him and so she asked him:

“Tell me if I have any talent or if you think I’m just wasting my time. Because sometimes I feel I should just quit… because… Just tell me what you think.”

And he tells her something which I think all struggling artists should hear: “What the hell difference does it make what I think. It’s yours. I mean, you make art because you have to, ’cause you got no choice. It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it. Are you any good? Well, you’re 22, so who knows? Who cares? You wanna give it up? You give it up and you weren’t a real artist to begin with.”