Ahead of ‘A Moment of Mishearing‘, an audio-visual show featuring Amit Chaudhuri and his band at King’s Place on 6th October, the musician and novelist speculates on the inexplicable beauty of close-up shots in Hindi films, with their radiance and subtle gestures, and explains their connection to the classical music of India:
By close-ups in Hindi cinema, I don’t mean movies today (though these aren’t necessarily excluded), but primarily those of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. In other words, films made in the midst of, marked by, and contributing to the music renaissance, the golden age of film songs. Many of us know that the close-up is not one of filmmaking’s respectable undertakings, and is looked on with almost as much disdain by trained filmmakers as the zoom shot is. Yet why did it possess such transcendental beauty in Hindi movies?
Part of it has to do with the untranslatable quality of the Indian face, particularly the Indian head, and its range of expressions and gestures, both fleeting and recurrent. I use the catch-all term ‘Indian’ because Hindi cinema, located as it is in Bombay, occupies the borderline of North and South, of Karnataka and the land further below, but also of Gujarat in the West and then further north into Punjab – not to speak of the impact of migrant Bengalis. And so one notices a gamut of cranial movements in Hindi films – not pan-Indian movements, but a collage of shakes and nods from different parts of the country – that may be richer than its counterpart in other parts of India, however compelling popular cinema (and its faces) in, say, fifties Bengal might have been.
There’s no denying the complexity of the codes that inform moving the head from side to side in this country. The arc or swivel from left to right, or right to left, or left to right to left to right, have all sorts of registers here, and only one of them means ‘No’. I recall standing early one morning in Gloucester Green, the central bus station in Oxford, waiting with my wife and mother for the bus to Heathrow. As usual, my mother found herself in the middle of a conversation with a young woman, a Japanese student, who, like her, was also going to India, although she’d be visiting it for the first time. She was very soft-spoken, but at one point, amused by some thought, she started laughing, and leaned forward, at the same time, to explain to my mother, who began to smile too. When I asked my mother later about what had caused laughter, she said, ‘She is a bit nervous about going to India, because she isn’t sure she’ll understand what people are saying. She has heard that Indians say Yes by shaking their head from side to side.’
It’s undeniable that the straightforward nod exists in India, an urgent, vigorous indicator of agreement. Urgent, vigorous – but frugally used; because other head-movements are employed more commonly to signal agreement, but in a more emollient, tender manner. There is the sideways shake of the head, which in other countries mean No; confusingly, in India it means No too, but one can also, in the right context, infer absolute, unqualified agreement from it. Then there is – often seen in Bengal but perhaps not exclusive to it, and especially used by Bengali girls – the tilting of the head to one side. This gesture, in England, would be accompanied by the eyes following the same direction the head is tilted towards, to suggest ‘Look at that.’ In Bengal, the head is tilted gently, but the eye contact with the interlocutor is immovable; the tilt is the most ingenuous gesture available to imply agreement, assent, even complicity – ‘All right’ (thhik ache), or, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’ (hain, korbo). Further south, people are apt to make doll -like movements with their head: not a shake of the head, but quick tilts on either side; almost, but not quite, a cranial rotation. Again, this, notwithstanding its wobbliness, is essentially a genteel, unintrusive gesture, meant to convey agreement and camaraderie without starkly emphasising and reducing these to a single unambiguous movement, as a simple nod does. That the nod and the shake of the head, with their conventional global significances – of agreement and disagreement respectively – are also a part of this vocabulary of gestures, brings home to us the sweet contradictoriness of Indian emotive life.
This emotive life and its gradations and paradoxes are nowhere as clearly on display as in the life of the face and the head of both the listener and the artiste during a North Indian classical music performance. The most reliable integer of a listener being touched or moved by a phrase that the singer has just rendered is the movement of the head from side to side – what in most contexts means denial or disagreement. Here it means astonishment, delight, and also, incongruously, stoic resignation. All three – astonishment, delight, and resignation – are components of wonder, the wonder that accompanies revelation. But why resignation – denoted so fully, to the brim, by that shake of the head? Is it at the fact that what might have seemed implausibly beautiful has somehow been made possible, without us quite knowing why or how? Is it because, given the partly improvisational nature of Indian classical music, that the moment will not return again, in a future performance – unlike a piece of Western music, where it can be reproduced almost verbatim? Is it just that a vague crystallisation of the fact that life is at once mundane and sublime that occurs at that instant, leading to that bewildered shake of the head? Sometimes, a simple, predictable component of a raga – like, for instance, the downward glissando from the upper tonic to the flat ni (or, in Western notation, ti) in Khamaj, will produce that gesture; a chromatic sequence there, including both the normal and flat ni, will only exacerbate and intensify that emotion.
Much of the time the head, during the performance, is relatively still (punctuated by occasional oscillations from side to side), especially in comparison to its behaviour in African-American music, although, in contrast to a Western classical music aficionado, the expression might be less focussed than faraway – on both the singer’s and listener’s part. This is because both singer (or instrumentalist) and audience are listening; listening, even more than performance, and certainly more than composition, is the principal raison d’etre and gravitational field of Indian music. Long ago, I remember a piece of research was reported in a British newspaper saying that Western classical music was conducive to workers, and functioned well as a prompting to action; while Indian music had the opposite effect, of slowing down work, seducing the worker’s attention, and retarding his regime. It’s the old story of the Lotus Eaters, of which there are several variations in Western culture; it’s instructive that Indians have no comparable parables, since that slowness appears to be so integral, historically, to our response to the classical arts.
There are other reasons why the head is relatively still during a music concert in India, to do with the fact that our enjoyment of rhythm (unlike the Afro-Caribbean’s) is uniquely cerebral, despite, or because of, our time signatures being so difficult, and Indian rhythmic improvisation so sophisticated. But now I must come to those close-ups, which, during a film song, reproduce the experience of listening as no other tradition of cinema does. The close-up during a song is an arrested moment; the effects are minimal – backlighting; a breeze unsettling the hair. The breeze, as in Kalidasa, is a metaphor for the faraway and the invisible, and its sudden closeness: ‘The breezes from the snowy peaks have just burst open the leaf-buds of deodar trees and, redolent of their oozing resin, blow southward. I embrace those breezes, fondly imagining they have lately touched your form, O perfect one!’ – a metaphor for sound and melody, then, which are always invisible, and arrive from elsewhere. The song, and the close-up, is a hiatus, during which the story is set aside and the universe revolves around the head or the face, which is singing, or listening, or doing both simultaneously. The actors who ‘sing’ the best songs – Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna – will make potentially silly movements with their head to convey the uncontainable emotion they feel on hearing themselves (or the playback singer, who is them, but in a transient, disembodied sense). The beloved, who might be singing too, will stop in a duet to listen to her partner; as Sadhana does in Abhi na jao chhodkar, with a curious expression, which in another kind of cinema would signify sex or love, but here denotes the listener’s peculiar ecstasy. In Hollywood, the close-up attends to visual clichés of fear, the orgasm, pain, and feel-good denouements to do with winning – a race, or a fight with cancer – and is, as a result, properly discredited. In India, the close-up frames the pleasure, the surprise, of registering the loveliness of melody – Waheeda Rehman woken up from sleep by Guru Dutt singing in Chaudhvin Ka Chand, her expressions ameliorating from startlement to surrender; the husband stealthily creeping up on his wife at the piano in Anupama, singing ‘Dheere dheere machal’. His charged, almost bewildered, face records the discovery of an unlooked-for surplus.