A dream swells through writing. Its surface stretches and becomes smoother, even as its depths are farther from that surface.
I was in a house in the middle of the mountains, and also in a house by the sea. I was not alone; at least three of my friends were around. The identities of those friends were confused in my head. They were a random selection from different groups that had been with me on two different vacations, one in the hill town of Mcleodganj and the other in the coastal state of Goa. The town of my dream was also a fusion of Mcleodganj and Goa. Somebody, I can’t remember who, told me that the sea had a bump, and that a team had been sent to normalizethat bump. I didn’t understand this till I looked at the horizon from a balcony. The sea had risen in a bell-curve, and two large poles were stuck on either side of it. These poles were lit throughout their length, like tube lights, and as I squinted I saw that there were dozens of boats struggling with the task of keeping these poles upright. There were ripples on the bump’s surface, made all the more pronounced by the shimmering of the poles’ light on them. This bump was a tsunami, I gathered, and it was coming towards us. Then, as sudden as a blink, there came upon us a darkness that brought with it a colossal silence as well. I could sense that a lot of water was flowing over the house, and I reasoned that the water was the cause of the darkness. I was in the garret (there was a garret), and the glass pane on the starlight creaked with the weight of all the water that was flowing over it. Things were panicky, and my friends scampered around the house. But no damage was done, no one drowned. The tsunami passed us by, so did the darkness, and soon the air took on the youthful qualities it acquires after heavy rainfall. We could have calmed down in some minutes, but before those minutes could elapse the house began to shake. An earthquake, it seemed. It was as if something large was striking the earth every second. And these strikes were getting closer. I came to the balcony again, in the company of my friends this time, and saw a hill town sprawled below us. Moving through the town’s tiny lanes was a giant horse mounted by a giant man, the horse trotting in the way horses do when they sense their riders in deep thought, and then the specter disappeared behind a high building after which it was lost to the dream. My friends and I looked at each other in dismay, but the dismay on my friends’ faces did not seem commensurate with the spectacle that we had just seen. On the other hand, my dismay, rather shock, was intense enough to force a dissolving of the scene. During its dilution, the dream repeated some of the images that it had already shown; as if its engine were giving away fits and sparks while cooling down. Perhaps this made me mark certain images as pivotal and enabled their memorization.
That night, before going to bed and dreaming as described above, I had seen the movie The World by the Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Made in 2003, the entire movie was shot in a real location called the Beijing World Park, where the Chinese have built replicas of the world’s most famous attractions. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc De Triomphe, the Manhattan skyline, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal – all are replicated here in miniature. The objective, of course, is to have Beijing-folk see the world without ever having to leave Beijing. The numerous shots of these fake constructions and shots of tourist interest in or around them – both are indeed put-downable as ludicrous, even vulgar. The movie leads you, subtly, toward a negative opinion of the collective desire that has made the construction of these fakes possible. But while the unnamable collective can be derided for willing the Beijing World Park into existence, it is also what feeds the folks who work at the Beijing World Park and maintain its many spectacles, who run the show(s) there, whose livelihood depends on the manifestation of a desire we have chosen to call execrable, and who are in turn quite easily identifiable through their own commonplace foibles and struggles. We are talking about performers, security guards, cleaners, et cetera. What is put in crisis is the import of their lives, set as it is against the faux-grandness of the setting around them and also its miniaturizing aspect. Are their lives especially important because they are set in a World Park? Or is it that their mediocre reality has merely become an object in sharp relief? More importantly, is Beijing World Park in some ways a symbol, a symbol for forces in conflict with each other, for the tension between the very personal (and very classic, like in, say, Chekov) concerns of these individuals and the globalized, modern aspirations –travel, adventure, seeing-the-world – each one of them carries in his or her heart? And then there rises another question: Are these behind-the-scenes folks, these folks whom we come to be intimate with over the length of the movie, also part of the collective?
As I said, the characters are sort-of Chekovian; they do carry that ability of getting lost in a crowd. Their emotional well-being is very clearly connected to their material well-being, which is in a state of crisis for most. Love is important as a sort-of anchor to their displaced lives (many of the main characters have migrated from the provinces to Beijing). However, love’s thrilling quality, with which it can subvert or subsume all problems, is completely absent. Where love is an anchor, it is also a burden of its own. To keep it is to provide for it, either materially or through sex. Sex, in turn, is difficult either because the drive for it is also in exile, or simply because the characters are provided communal housing and have no proper private place to have it in. All along there is this repressed desire for something adventurous, something immoral, something real enough to break through the surrealism of the surroundings. Sadly enough, only one of the characters gets out, a Russian immigrant woman who quits the Park job and becomes a prostitute.
The two main characters, Tao and Taisheng, are in a love story, their love beset by some of what I have described above. Tao is part of the mega Miss-Universe-like evening show the establishment arranges for its hordes of visitors. Taisheng is a security guard at the Park. He is a migrant from the eastern province of Shanxi and given to helping friends who reach Beijing in search of work. One of his friends, a recent migrant from Shanxi, takes up a job at a construction site in the city. In the urge to make it quickly, this friend chooses to work overtime and is subsequently killed in an accident caused by his own lapse of concentration. Taisheng, particularly affectionate of this friend, is the one who listens to his last words in the hospital. That night, because of his duties to this dying friend, Taisheng misses an appointment with Tao, who is waiting in the hotel room they have come to rent for spending some intimate time together. This hotel arrangement is by no means a regular one, and it is shown to have transpired only once earlier, which is the first night that Taisheng and Tao had sex. Even this first night took long coming, and happened only after Tao realized that the Russian worker Anna, a good friend of hers, had turned out to be a prostitute. Sex in a love relationship, one could posit, became necessary for Tao only after she confronted the horrible prospect of sex as livelihood. And that confrontation led to palpable changes in her character. That night when they made love, she asked Taisheng to promise that he would never cheat on her and also told him that he was her ‘entire life.’ Clearly, the stakes of her connection with Taisheng had increased manifold. After some days, she would even propose marriage.
But some days before their first night of love, Taisheng’s story deviated from the simple path of suffering, and getting over, Tao’s multiple denials. Sad as it may be, cheating of some sorts is underway. Taisheng has turned to the attentions of another woman named Qun, who lives outside Beijing World Park, running what looks like a successful sweatshop. It is Taisheng’s ill-luck, however, that even Qun denies his amorous advances. She is married and is trying hard to get a visa to join her husband in France, which is not without its sense of irony in this movie, France being the country where the real Eiffel Tower exists.
Of course, not all of the story’s intricacies can be revealed here, and I realize I have already labored enough. So I should come to what I really wanted to mention here..
It relates to Taisheng on one of his nightly rounds through the Park: Taisheng on horseback, the white horse’s bulging muscles aglow with a source-less light: Taisheng and the horse in the foreground of a monument I do not know the name of. On that horse he receives his first invitation from Qun: a text message. She invites him to visit his sweatshop. Till then, Taisheng and Tao have not had sex.
After watching the movie I thought at length about its ingenuity, and then took to generalizing the aspects that I believed made it exceptional. I had witnessed a masterpiece, and it was only natural that I was ruminating on the art form. Lying on my bed, awaiting sleep, I replayed the slow scenes in my head. Details that I had apparently missed came back to me anew, and through the linkages I made with other parts of the movie the import of those details established itself in my head. I also made connections with my own experience in the world and felt all the better for it. For example, the movie had shown a kind of large, super-effective thermos being used by the characters to keep water hot throughout the day, for sundry purposes, and this was somehow significant to me because these were the same kind of vintage thermoses that I had seen locals use during my numerous trips to the high Himalayas. My mind took me to the Mcleodganj trip I had made not so long back.
But there was one image that I could not make peace with, that I could not reconcile with the overall conception that I had by now constructed. This was the image of the horse. Why was Taisheng on a horse when he received the message from Qun? What was the import of him and the horse in the foreground of a monument in miniature? What effect did the director Jia Zhangke want from this image?
It is writing down that category of dreams that are eventful, dreams that have an absurd flow, dreams that are almost violently arranged, that is challenging. Their events are easily forgotten upon awakening, and this forgetting forces upon the writing a creative demand. To write down such dreams, to connect their events with real experiences in the hope to find an internal logic – that is an exercise in writing fiction.
Dreams are cinematic. This is so obvious so as to be able to carry only the tiny meaning-load of a cliché. In my opinion, dreams are novelistic too. They contain, and are often able to convey, information about that which is hidden or unclear within the dream, information that only an omniscient narrator, and no dream-camera, can know.
I shall illustrate the above two points with a single example, which is in fact a confession. In my dream, I am unsure if there was really no sea in my second viewing from the balcony. Maybe, beyond the large buildings that hid the horse and its rider, there was a calm sea. The vision is unclear to me. But blur or no blur, sea or no sea, I know that the town was a mountain town. And now I can say that I know that that town was Mcleodganj. Even as the cinema of the dream was unclear regarding that information, its novel could deliver it with ease.
Mcleodganj, a small town in the Western Himalayas, has beautiful views of nearby snow-capped peaks and is the starting point for a couple of medium-difficulty treks. It is also, in effect, a suburb of the larger city of Dharamshala, from where the Dalai Lama runs his Tibetan government-in-exile. Mcleodganj’s natural beauty, its political activism, its laxness regarding marijuana consumption, and the spiritual solaces of Buddhism that it readily offers, attract a lot of Indian and Western tourists. The milieu that one encounters in the town’s main square is always eclectic, and may consist of Tibetan monks buying groceries, dreadlocked Israeli youngsters looking for a weed seller, love-wearied French women discussing the many flavors of dumplings, turbaned Sikhs looking for a liquor shop, newly married Indian couples struggling with the conundrum of sex, et cetera.
One of my unemployed friends, also a writer, wanted to make a movie in Mcleodganj, about Mcleodganj. ‘The Untitled Mcleodganj Project,’ he called it. It was to be a movie about the elusive soul of the town, about the various forces that push and pull there, about how the town is at least a respite if not plain refuge. With such delightful, perhaps measured, vagueness, my friend had managed to get together a small crew of nine, members of which were at least amateurs or semi-pros in one or the other component art of movie-making. He wanted me to be the tenth member, for which I was reluctant, firstly because I was scared of the repercussions of skipping work for the entire eight days of the schedule, and secondly because I had no clue about movie-making and could not imagine myself contributing one bit. I passed days in indecision, sometimes imagining Mcleodganj from my cubicle, while over the phone my friend urged me every now and then to join the crew. He said things like, It’s a once in a lifetime thing, or, I need you to make this, or, You will contribute by helping me render my vision, or, You can even act if you want to. Compelled, not by any of his promises or offers but by simple curiosity, and also the desire to escape work for some days, I made my decision a day before the shooting was to begin. I took a morning flight to Delhi and then another to Dharamshala. In between the two flights I messaged my boss that there had been an emergency, and that I had had to rush to my parents. To lie further and concoct a more solid excuse seemed unnecessary at that time – the distance from Bombay had made me comfortable.
When I reached Mcleodganj I headed straight to the roadside café where our crew was already shooting. My friend came forward and hugged me. I am happy to see you, he said, but the expression on his face was that of anxiety. Behind us, on a table, a person from our crew was having a conversation with a fat white woman. It was being filmed, but I noticed how the lapel mikes on their collars were clearly visible to the camera. Is that intentional? I wondered. The woman was red in her face from too much talking, and our person was nodding blankly, as if he had no clue how to direct the conversation to something substantial, something that my friend, the director, might have wanted. It’s terrible here, my friend said, with a forced bass in his voice. Let’s have lunch. You must be hungry.
The two of us moved toward a restaurant farther down the road. I asked my friend if something was amiss. Everything will be alright, he said. The rest of the crew joined us some minutes later. I noticed a surprising lack of camaraderie in the group, something that I had not expected at all. Lunch was largely a silent affair. And then, on the pretext of showing me the way and giving me company, everyone walked toward the hotel and took the afternoon off. Clearly, no one wanted to shoot. ‘The Untitled Mcleodganj Project’ was already in trouble.
At the hotel I grabbed my friend’s arm and pulled him to a corner. At first he deflected my attempts at a conversation, saying that what I had seen was merely a case of jitters, which would subside as more time passed. But why was everyone here at this time, in their hotel rooms, I asked? Why weren’t people getting over their jitters by shooting? My questions became more strident, and my friend realized that he would have to tell me something. It is me who is having the jitters, he said. My mind is stuck at basic problems and it can’t seem to make any headway. We tried to shoot something meaningful the entire morning, but I couldn’t give any proper direction to the rest of the crew, and they are all frustrated with me. Coming to the hotel is a kind of protest.
I was confused at what I was hearing. But isn’t there a script? I asked him. He laughed at my question. No, there is none, he said. It is all in my head.
This was uncharacteristic of my friend, whom I had known as a diligent person. Surely there was an idea behind the scriptlessness of the thing. I probed him for the same.
What I wanted to capture was the essence of Mcleodganj, he said. To write a script and to follow it in shooting would be to overemphasize aspects that are already overemphasized in my head. The spontaneity would be lost, he said. There is a soul to this place, but that soul cannot be brought into relief through orchestration. All of us discussed this in the morning. Obviously, the next question was, Where do we shoot? Also, What do we shoot? When you go a bit farther from the center of the town, from where the mountains stare in your face, you can set any frame and be assured of its beauty. At first this excited me. The far-off snow covered peaks… their geometry alone was something to behold. But how far can such beholding take you? Soon I realized that this beauty was a stale beauty, even an archaic beauty. And as I looked at the rectangle on the camera, I saw that in capturing part of the monumental stillness of the Himalayas, my frame was also monumentally dead. To write characters and introduce them to this frame was possible, but what would these characters do? Because…to introduce any human drama to the frame would be to necessitate a rationale for the frame’s choice to the viewer.
I could only partly understand what my friend said, but I allowed him to continue.
And then we moved to the town center, he said, where things were completely the opposite. It was crowded there. I got rattled trying to find a frame that could capture anything at all. And then the problem of people not behaving spontaneously if they knew that the camera was gaping at them. The sheer surfeit of the action made it impossible to capture anything meaningful. When I say impossible, he said, I mean impossible for me. Our director of photography – he is a nice guy, you will see – had a bit of a quarrel with me. He was pained that none of this was making any sense, and that I was acting like a lunatic trying to grab things without any conception of what I wanted to grab. He actually made a dog-chasing-a-car reference. I’m sure that amuses you.
At this juncture, even though I had been listening to my friend, my mind had ventured to an image of the Earth from the Moon. How picturesque must Earth look from its satellite, I thought. How picturesque, and how dull, unless we work our imaginations and think of all the life, all the struggles and resolutions, all the stories, all the drama that that blue-and-white sphere contains on its surface. It is the anticipation of drama that makes the beauty of the picturesque bearable, I thought. But this anticipation alone cannot sustain the vitality in an image, and so I realized, sitting across my friend and listening to his basic troubles with movie-making, that an astronaut on a solo mission could die of boredom unless he used the solaces offered by his inner life.
To avoid the boredom of the picturesque, zooming in to something dramatic is necessary; it being another matter that zooming in and choosing a frame is a contrivance, and that inner lives, like that of the astronaut, cannot be zoomed into.
This is how I understood my friend’s conundrum – as a trade-off between the desire for spontaneity and the need for some drama, the latter necessitating a contrivance that he was ill-disposed to be at peace with. I had no solution, and there was no point in me trying to burden him with my understanding of his woes, more so because the words that I have put down now were not so well-formed in my head then.
But now, having thought of the problem further, I have come to believe that there is an abstract formula, simply that cinema has to find a way to combine contrivance and spontaneity. For inspiration it can consider dreams. A dream is contrived spontaneity, its first and only allegiance to the felicity of image creation. Isn’t it both contrived and natural when an astronaut inside a space station dreams of his wife, who in the dream appears as lying on his left side on their bed on dear Earth, her blue eyes open and looking at him with desire? Imagine a frame from this dream that captures only his wife’s face, that too from the level of the bed? Unlike an hyper-eventful dream, this dream derives from a very identifiable source, which is the love life of the astronaut as it is in his mind. But still, it knows precisely where to zoom in, doesn’t it? It renders the idea of an image to an image. Decisions are made regarding the idea and the image. The dream knows what frame to capture. It does, and even though that knowledge may appear to be a singularity, like an inscrutable rock, efforts can be made to at least understand that rock’s surface. In my opinion, the answer lies somewhere in the aphorism: Cinema is the language of dreams. A passable grammar can be derived, then, from the land of dreams.
So if there was any advice that I could give to my friend, it would be this: Write, at least vaguely, what you want. Cinema condenses through writing. Its surface gains texture and its depths give the illusion of accessibility. Then set your frames. Make characters do things. Or choose characters that do things. Don’t worry about the contrivance of the frames. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
The Untitled Mcleodganj Project failed. In the few instances that my friend found some inspiration, some or the other technical problem surfaced, and the desired image could not be captured to his satisfaction. The relationship between the director of photography and him soured further, and although I tried to play the pacifier, and sometimes even had to take the reins in my hand, not much could be salvaged. Quite simply, we were moviemakers who didn’t know what movie they were making.
All of this frustrated me no end, too. I had wasted eight days of my vacation here, and on more than one night I had dreamt of the dreadful treatment my boss would offer me on my return. I had not even had the time to really see Mcleodganj, for although we were without a rudder, our movie-making boat still sailed mindlessly, and throughout the day we shifted from one place to the other, setting up camera and sound and trying to shoot something that would make sense apropos Mcleodganj. Ironically, all that left no time for really getting at the soul of the town. We were constantly busy with our stupidities, like bees without a queen.
There were, however, some silver linings. Once, in what was a desperate move to make something, anything at all, I was made to come in front of the camera and interview a Belgian bookseller who had married an Indian woman and settled in Mcleodganj. Initially, we were both so mindful of the camera and the constant shuffling of its angle that my friend was forcing upon the DOP that our conversations remained stilted, traversing the limits of common decency and no more. But there came a point that the DOP took charge and asked my friend to leave the scene. Thereafter, the camera found its footing and settled down. And as I and the Belgian guy talked on, the camera came to be forgotten by us both, the net effect of which was that within no time our conversation veered toward an intimate discussion of books, which was an interest that both of us shared. We talked of Fernando Pessoa, of Franz Kafka, of David Foster Wallace, and ultimately of writers who died young and still left behind gargantuan legacies. Like the process of all developing friendships, a shared interest led to a sharing of personal details, and I talked to Yannick (the Belgian) of my French girlfriend who had left me without a rhyme and reason and Yannick talked to me of his divorce with the Indian wife. And then we talked of the chasm of cultural difference that our sort of love had challenged and failed to overcome. And then we talked of issues of race and racism, of how some French people still say ‘One less to the Germans’ when opening a wine bottle, and how most Indians automatically believe that all Pakistanis are bad people. Only once or twice in the half hour conversation did it cross my mind that all of it was being captured, that this beautiful conversation, shot in Yannick’s bookstore’s balcony, with the picturesque mountains as a backdrop, could be revisited. It gladdened me no end. When the DOP finally said CUT, both I and Yannick complained because it seemed that he had interrupted us.
And then there was the thermos. After we had finished shooting, an assistant at Yannick’s bookstore brought us a thermos full of tea, and with the camera turned off the three of us had our steaming beverage and Yannick told us that the tea we were drinking had been made early in the morning, and that the thermos was incredibly efficient and kept things hot for a very long time. I nodded in blank agreement, taking a moment to look at the floral design on its porcelain surface.
During the filmed part of our conversation, Yannick had remarked that I sounded like a creative man. I told him that I had written stories, and that I would probably end up writing a novel one day. But I am not a writer by profession, I said. I in fact have a job that most creative-types will find difficult, even end-of-the-world like. Yannick wanted to know more, so I told him that I worked in financial services. There is hierarchy, I said, I find myself somewhere in the middle of it, and I am used to that middleness.
Yannick didn’t seem satisfied. Why was I doing this job if I didn’t like it, he asked me. Does it at least pay well? It pays well, I said. But Bombay is an expensive city. The thing you work for is the year-end bonus. So your life depends a lot on your boss’ appraisal of your performance. Yannick wanted to know more about the exact process of that appraisal, and so I went on. Your boss scores you out of a maximum of six, I said. The scores are collected across the department and a frequency distribution is observed. The ideal frequency distribution is a normal distribution, also called a bell-curve. Which is to say that most people are supposed to get scores of three and four, a few are supposed to get scored two or five, and only the outliers – either in a good or a bad way – are supposed to get scores of six or one. More often than not, the boss’s initial assessments do not fit a bell-curve, but they have to be made to. Approaching the deadline, which is always kept too tight, the boss may just be tempted to alter the scores of some of the people under his aegis without even giving it a second thought. And so, in the boss’ desire to force-fit a curve, many subordinates may suffer or revel in the boss’ caprices, based at best on faint recollections, if any, of an excellent presentation made, or an ultimate blunder in an Excel sheet, or a stupendous idea for increasing product penetration in a key area, or a shoddily-explained absence from the office…
So mediocrity is inherent in the system, Yannick said, cutting me short. It cannot work if most of the people are not mediocre.
I laughed in absent-minded agreement; concerns regarding of my own appraisal had started to surface in my mind then. How would my boss react to my scarcely unexplained absence? Would I find myself in the middle of the curve, or would I be relegated behind that line that demarcates ‘Below Expectation’ performers. The camera had captured my reaction at that moment as a shadow of worry over my face, and also a general fidgetiness in demeanor, and now whenever I see that section of the short film that eventually came out of that conversation, I feel embarrassed, instinctively looking for a hiding place. In that scene I looked like a guy who worried about petty things, which is shameful because that is perhaps who I am, no matter how vehemently my creative work strives to deny it.
For a while, the failure in Mcleodganj put into tough waters my friendship with my writer friend. I blamed him for making me take risks at my work for a mere fancy of his. His defense, often vociferous on the phone, was that I had thoroughly enjoyed myself and had nothing to complain about. This was not entirely true. But anyway, ours had been long friendship, and whether my friend could be a movie director or not he would always be a good writer, and would therefore always be dear to me. So we made up; after a month or so we could even joke about the debacle. I teased him if there were other to-be-unscripted projects that he was brewing in his head. He threatened me with something way more sinister, and we laughed about it all.
The more important effect of the Mcleodganj trip for me was the kindling of an interest in movies. I began hunting for the best that contemporary cinema had to offer. I saw movies by Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Lars Von Trier, and others. I also saw adaptations of novels that I had read. I saw the magnificently made English Patient. I saw the terrible Midnight’s Children. That said, it was not till I came to The World by Jia Zhangke that I came face to face with a masterly rendition of the very problem that my friend had faced.
There is no doubt that Zhangke set his entire movie inside a picturesque location. The Eiffel Tower at the Park, although one third the size of the original, does light up in the same manner in evenings and does produce a similarly beautiful effect when framed. But Zhangke’s picturesque is not akin to the bland picturesque of the Himalayas; it carries in itself a political dimension, one that the Chinese censor authorities lamely missed. Zhangke’s picturesque is an artificial picturesque, its artificiality at once demanding a rationalization of its existence from the viewer, which rationalization when done by cultured viewers cannot be in any way kind to their notion of the Chinese people and their systems. But set against this backdrop is drama of the most basic nature, formed of the most basic characters whose gestures and conundrums and choices, whose very lives, put into jeopardy whatever generalizations the cultured viewers have established. There is simple love, there is simple jealousy, there is simple cheating, there is simple revelation, there is simple disappointment. The story of Tao, Taisheng, their friends at the park, Qun, et cetera, if told before the normal cityscape of Beijing, would be trite and uninteresting, no better than some of the dour French movies these days. Just as showing the picturesque monuments without any drama would soon begin to approach the boredom that a montage of high Himalayas is sure to provide. The choice of the Beijing World Park for shooting was a splendid one, and not without (political) mischief. But the choice of only the simplest drama to unfold before these fake monuments, to ground our interest in the very common trials of a relationship between a security guard and a performer, and through this provide a tense juxtaposition of background and foreground, is an act of pure genius. The World was contrived, The World was spontaneous, and with a power that I have never experienced in any other work of Art, Zhangke manages to convey the simplest of messages, that even if a society manages to bring spectacles home, it cannot rid itself of classic misery. In other words: in a world that has a surfeit of exceptional images, human life and its drama have remained as unexceptional as always.
The short movie of my conversation with Yannick has the natural background of the Himalayas. Our conversation seems to blend into that still background, and the effect is a soothing one, as friends who have seen the movie also say. Things are quite different in the feature film The World. The reality of the characters there appears warped because it takes place in front of (unreal) replicas of monuments. A water dispenser right in front of the fake Taj Mahal is refilled nonchalantly, a three-wheeler ride is taken with the fake Eiffel Tower as background (combined with beautiful background music, this is one of the most stirring sequences in the movie), a character slaps another in front of the fake Pyramids, two security guards have their daily lunch on the top level of the fake Eiffel Tower, a character enquires another of his salary in front of the fake London Bridge, two characters talk of their village in front of the fake Manhattan skyline… There is something surreal in all this, where the quotidian mixes bizarrely with the faux-spectacular. Such shots, comprising a considerable length of the movie, leave a strange residue in the mind of the viewer, something like a ripple of incongruity. But this effect reaches quite another level in the ‘horse shots.’ When Taisheng appears on top of a horse, he is doing something that is a daily routine for him, but for us viewers it is a bizarre image. Why? Because it’s not normal for a security guard to roam around on a horse, is it? Also because of the heroic, absolutely un-quotidian connotations that come into play when one sees on screen a man on horseback. The ‘horse shots’ don’t create mere ripples but big waves of incongruity. They form the kind of visual material that dreams get most interested in.
It was Taisheng and his white horse that had appeared in my dream, and I was part of their miniaturized background of Mcleodganj. What symbolism or signification this carries, I cannot know any further, except to utter plainly that this was a commingling of dreams and cinema. It was also a dream of great dread, which is interpretable from the simple fact that there were not one but two catastrophes in it. The first catastrophe is a bell-shaped tsunami, and the easy link with my fear of performance appraisals shames me to no end. The obvious metaphor between appraisals and tsunamis is soon lost and the word tsunami is then understood literally, which is to say that my dreaming consciousness establishes a link between tsunamis and earthquakes. An earthquake follows, and perhaps that is when the absurdity of the situation really strikes me. And because it is precisely these sort of revelatory moments that most dreams choose to respond with even more absurdity, there soon followed the horse and its rider.
But what about the sea in the dream? Did it exist only to justify a tsunami, or did it exist for some other reason whose relevance I am at my wit’s end to realize? There is a lot that is unexplained, which is fine to me, for I didn’t really commit to writing about my dream to make sense of all its ends. Even the ends that I have tied, the ones that I have made some sense of, they have the power to unravel and stare at my face with their inscrutability. It is not without error to say that I have projected my dream-projection onto my recent past, and then re-presented everything. A lot of translation has gone in, and so a lot of loss must have taken place as well.
As of now I am sitting in front of my large TV, ready to play Jia Zhangke’s next movie, which is titled Still Life in English. The title seems to carry a hidden message only for me, and I am imagining another flurry of very still frames inside which only the most basic drama enfolds. But what I am excited most about is to know the setting of this drama. What picturesque setting has Zhangke chosen now? Will that background have a tense relationship with the slow human action in front of it, like it did in The World? If so, will there be a shot where Zhangke willfully steps outside his schema? Will there be a horse shot in Still Life? Will it make me dream?
[Editor’s note: A short film of the conversation between the author and Yannick can be found here.]
Tanuj Solanki lives and writes in Bombay, India. He has been published in various literary magazines in India and outside, including The Caravan, Out of Print, elimae, Burrow Press Review, and others.