The road is a great paradox. It promises the fixity of a destination, of an end goal sitting with smug certainty on the map, while its ego craves for an eternal journey, indefinitely deferring the end. A road that does not go anywhere is no good, and a road that takes you somewhere too soon is not memorable. How like the perennial dilemma of man! To charge bullishly onward, resisting the ‘emasculating’ charm of stability, or to know when it’s inevitable to stop, because finding a destination – no matter how ‘unromantic’ an act – will always be greater than the sum total of all journeys.
Fellini’s La Strada (The Road; 1954) and Ray’s Abhijan (The Expedition; 1962) are both classic explorations of this essentially male dilemma, and the paradox of the road fuels the auteur’s vision in both. Though Fellini and Ray are both champion neorealists in a general sense, these two films are not immediate or obvious parallels. The former, borrowing from Italy’s well established commedia dell’arte tradition, is consistent with Fellini’s broad directorial vision, whereas the latter was directed by Ray as an accident (apparently to the rescue of a friend not skilled enough to tackle the script) and broke away from the ‘box-office-unfriendly’ image that Ray had unfortunately created for himself. (Among other deviations from Ray’s contemporary image, it featured a longish fight sequence, which the director later admitted was underdone.) Ray is also very much a realist in the De Sica mould, examining man and his habitat with equal keenness, while Fellini’s lens remains firmly poised on the individual, using the social context as a fast-changing tableaux in the background. Still, La Strada (LS) and Abhijan (AJ) are two remarkably contiguous films and work surprisingly well as complements. They are both epics played out against the unsettling exteriority of a changing world order. Even grander, they have both earned the reputation of being great epics of the soul, offering two different possibilities of redemption, but more importantly showing that redemption is possible. But is this an inclusive vision, something that really merits the distinction of ‘soulful’ storytelling? I think not. Like the great exemplars of the classical epic tradition, Fellini and Ray’s narratives in fact converge on the
uber-male ego and not on the asexual construct of ‘soul’, reducing all other human presences to function as feedstock. The illusion of an egalitarian world order is an unobvious but certain casualty in the process.
On the surface, love is a powerful force in the two films, glorified by the cathartic climactic shots. In the much-celebrated concluding scene of LS, Zampano sheds his street-hardened façade and gives way to primordial anguish, driven apparently by a conscience that has finally registered the twin lashing of lost love and guilt. In the parallel scene in AJ, Narsingh chooses love and moral values over success and leaves the frame (the ‘corrupt space’ inhabited by the Sukhanrams of the world) in a burst of ecstasy. The respective emotional contents of the two scenes are converses of each other – the compulsive and fiercely masculine showman breaking down at an existential level with no one watching him at his most vulnerable moment, as opposed to the morally reconciled Rajput riding into the night having won the biggest battle of his life – but the two frames are unified by one common absence: that of the ostensibly all-important female agents of the two spectacular redemptions. Let’s see what a close-up reveals.
As it turns out, in LS, Gelsomina’s absence and obliteration are in fact necessary for Zampano’s salvation. In AJ, though Gulabi is in the Chrysler with Narsingh (and Rama) in the end, the camera focuses on another male lead Joseph while Narsingh shouts out his victory cry into the darkness. It is not a stretch to imagine that Ray keeping the camera away from Narsingh effectively puts Gulabi out of the action. If any further evidence were required, in an unmistakable piece of symbolism, Narsingh throws his coveted lighter – a pervasive icon of male bonding in the film – as a parting gift for Joseph. The camera zooms out off Zampano, it zooms in on Joseph’s face illuminated by the lighter, while the audience is left to reckon with the miracle of love. We better not forget though that this is absentee love – Gelsomina dead and irretrievable in Zampano’s life and Gulabi perhaps anticipating a (metaphorical) purdah as a part of Narsingh’s. What do endings like this convey about the power structures endorsed by these films? In my view, they establish the lineage of the films in the long tradition of classic sexist romantic storytelling, in which the triumph of love and the (implied) loss of female agency coincide more often than not.
To see whether this reading holds any water, let’s just invoke that eternal climactic phrase from immortal love stories: “…and they rode into the sunset/lived happily ever after”. While both partners exit the narrative space and cross the finish line together, the reins of the steed are always in the firm clasp of the charismatic lover. Ending a story with this image lends an unshakeable finality to the total control of the man actually doing the riding, as the gentle (and effeminate) redeeming power of love is rendered all too feeble before racy male bravado. Now compare this with Narsingh’s imagined transformation into the charismatic horse-whipping Rajput that he has always longed to be as he accelerates in his Chrysler to rescue Gulabi, and lo! We have a perfect match!
Love’s labour does not end there. In the very next frame, Gulabi asks her breathless lover “Kahaan jaiba?”/”Where are we going?”; “Ghar, Gulabi, ghar!”/”We are going home!” he responds, having finally tamed his fear of rest and stasis. Although ‘home’ is ostensibly the realm of love (as opposed to the road, which is the realm of conflicts and violence), the lovers’ homecoming has radically different connotations for the man and the woman. As long as they are both homeless wanderers, Narsingh and Gulabi are equal masters of screen space, he a corruptible loner, she a desperate seductress. Out there in the road, value judgments are unnecessary and survival is an animal art. It’s a space where Gulabi can both indulge in and rebuff Narsingh for sexual gratification without commitment. At ‘home’ though, it is difficult to imagine Gulabi not ceding at least a part of this self-certainty and authority. Did this loss of agency drive Narsingh’s first wife to leave home? Notice that the verb used in relation to this completely invisible woman is always “bhaagna”, she “fled”, conjuring a sense of freedom, the very antithesis of what Gulabi is coming home to. Gulabi will now fill in the vacuum left behind by this unseen but powerful force in Narsingh’s life, and in due course, she will turn invisible herself. Narsingh on the other hand has his “service” to start and will continue straddling both worlds, leaving Gulabi to play out the inevitable fusion of love and obscurity.
As noted before, the ending of LS is just the opposite of the fairytale climax of AJ. There is no convenient homecoming for Fellini’s hero, and the appearance of true contrition is also more pronounced in Zampano’s case. At first viewing, it is difficult to attribute his breakdown to anything but remorse. And that’s where we need to pause momentarily and question whether one desperate (and drunken) expression of guilt is really enough to negate all precedents of ruthless chauvinism in the film. Remember that Zampano (like Narsingh) too already carries the history of an ‘absent woman’ when he buys Gelsomina off her mother. This is Gelsomina’s sister, who probably died of the same neglect and hard-hearted rejection that claims her own life in the end. Zampano is a man clearly paranoid of losing his exaggerated masculinity, of lapsing into the kind of “weakness” that he suspects in some of his audience members while he creates a spectacle out of pain in his shows. Think of the scene in which he finally abandons Gelsomina in snow and solitude. It is not so much her insanity he flees from but his own demon that threatens him with the spectre of emasculation at the hands of love and perhaps a more domestic existence. Sure enough, it is easy to imagine that right after abandoning Gelsomina, he would purge his bike-cart of all her signs as well, given that she had converted it into a veritable home with her pots and pans and her general delicate presence. (Narsingh too imposes apartheid against women entering his coach, though he is willing to let go of his objections for a price.)
Zampano’s insecurity (strange how in this world love is equated with insecurity and apathy with strength!) is directly responsible for the tragedy of the two women in his life, and his cry of anguish in the end appears to me like a selfish appeal for absolution rather than the result of love blossoming, however belated. In the neorealist scheme, forgiveness is high virtue. This is precisely what makes it a double-edged sword, because it can be all too easily used to demand sympathy for characters that little deserve it. Martin Scorsese says that the magic of LS lies in its ability to extract compassion for even someone like Zampano. I agree. Left to himself, Zampano does not deserve compassion. It is the narrative framework that earns him this delicate emotion from the audience by forcing a suspension of more hostile reactions. Gelsomina poignantly sums up this undeserved tolerance when she decides to put up with him in spite of all his cruelty: “Who will live with you if I don’t?”
When seen in combination, La Strada and Abhijan seem to be two films unmistakably in dialogue with each other, their exchange deeply sexist in tone and content. Both films subjugate love to the more virile and ruthless ideals of ambition and success. Sex without any sentimental trappings on the other hand is seen as the trophy for this ambition. The vagaries of the road in both films call for callous masters, and Zampano and Narsingh are just that. Zampano abuses the trust of the nuns who give her shelter, while Narsingh uses Neeli’s friendliness to score points with her brother Joseph. Both heroes are at odds with the world, and their personal tragedies end up getting centrestage at the cost of the collective fate of a woman forced to prostitution and two pushed to death. Blinded my machismo, the heroes constantly look out for ‘weaker’ opponents to vent their angst. Zampano takes out his frustrations on the Fool, while Rama bears the brunt of Narsingh’s futile rage. They are also both journeymen heroes, fiercely possessive of the one trade they are good at and which palliates their ego. Women are bought and sold, but they are better off in the road than at home: Gelsomina and her sisters starve at home, and though Zampano brutalises her, she is happy that she is at least seeing the world with him. Narsingh’s wife runs away from home, and later Neeli flees home with her lover. Men drink to drown their angry weariness, while women seek to placate them with their bodies, and then with their lives.
In the final analysis then, it amazes me to think that in the melee of so many tropes indicating a partial vision, the prevalent critical discourse chooses to highlight the films’ redemptive tracks and not the cost at which such redemption is bought. Fellini and Ray are both great humanists, and this sketch is not meant to hold them guilty for non-existent crimes. These are filmmakers who also gave us classics like Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria; 1957) and Teen Kanya (Three Daughters; 1961). If anything, this is just a bid to propose that precisely because they were such great chroniclers, they could not have remained insulated from the entrenched patriarchal realities of their times, not the least in these their most successful and popular works. Acknowledging this would be a greater tribute to their complex cinematic idiom than consigning the matter to critical oblivion.
Published article here: http://dearcinema.com/la-strada-and-abhijaan-the-sexist-road-to-redemption-124/