experimental films

Get ready for a reverie: it’s Sergei Parajanov time

The visual poet of cinema produced such haunting masterpieces as ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ and ‘Ashik Kerib’.

Very few filmmakers are able to give the sensation of truly original images and produce a feeling of newness at the level of conscious perception. At the same time, at the subconscious level, they produce déjà vu, the feeling of having seen the image before, thus sending the spectator into a state of reverie. Sergei Parajanov was one such filmmaker who was, through his poetic approach to literature and the image, raised cinema to the level of purified graphic art.

The Georgian director of Armenian descent (1924-1990) differed from the state-approved film in the former Soviet Union that was “national in form, socialist in content”. He instead focused on visual elements to distance the viewer through the process of ostranenie, or estrangement. Art for him was a means of experiencing the process of creativity.

Parajanov’s early work showed his interest in taking archaic subjects and tracing them back to their religious sources. His popular success First Lad (1958) used Socialist ideology as a form of mass entertainment. Ukranian Rhapsody (1961) was his first attempt at producing formalist cinema through its sophisticated approach to flashbacks, like in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Flower on the Stone (1962) continued a refinement in his approach, through competent use of wide-angled lenses and expansive camera movements.

A Soviet poster for First Lad (1958).
A Soviet poster for First Lad (1958).

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) represented the first engagement with the personal-mythic instead of the historical, which transformed viewers by psychologically destabilising their consciousness. Parajanov used repeated visual compositions to create what James Steffen would call “visual rhymes” in order to capture the lives of the nature-loving Hutsul people of Ukraine. Although the film was critically acclaimed, Parajanov was accused of being an “egoist”, which he countered by pronouncing the Soviet authorities as being “afraid of art”.

Play
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

His masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (also known as Sayat Nova) was completed in 1968. The film was revered by such filmmakers as Federico Fellini, who pronounced Parajanov “the magician of cinema”. Jean-Luc Godard declared that the film would satisfy even those who had walked for 10 miles to watch it.

Influenced by the miniatures of Georgian folk artist Pirosmani (on whom he would make a documentary sketch), the film was based the life on the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Instead of making a traditional biopic, Parajanov captured the world inhabited by the poet through a characteristically graphic style and tableaux. The cutting of the silent films of Georges Méliès equally inspired the film replete with antiquarian images, as did the modernist Godardian jump cut.

Play
The Color of Pomegranates (1968).

The Color of Pomegranates, with its distant compositions and asymmetric soundtrack, was also inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s materialist cinema, in which cinema was taken back to its material basis i.e. film stock, which was matched against the density of the images and sounds. For Parajanov, what remained important was to capture the childhood sensuality that informed the history of the Armenian people. Like in the films of Orson Welles, the Georgian maestro’s films intermingle past and present and lead into the future, whilst at the same time creating a sense of rapture.

Although Sayat Nova was a critical success, Parajanov was later arrested by the Soviet state in 1973 on trumped-up charges of “ideologically harmful opinions”, “politically illiteracy” and homosexuality. He had already been accused of stealing Hutsul antiquarian objects from a local church for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. In other words, his behaviour was thought to be of anti-Soviet character.

Sergei Parajanov featured in an Armenian stamp.
Sergei Parajanov featured in an Armenian stamp.

In the meantime, Parajanov worked on several unfinished films, such as Confessions, on his childhood memories through a form similar to the approach used by Fellini in ‎8½, and The Slumbering Palace, on the poems of Alexander Pushkin. After he was released from prison in 1977, he was exiled to his family home in Tsibilis and barred from making films. He would later describe his experience in prison as being “worse than death”.

Parajanov’s next film, The Legend of Suram Fortress, was produced in 1985 a few weeks after his exile ended. The movie was based on the 1860 novella Surami Fortress by Daniel Chokandze, thought to be the most important Georgian literary work of the 19th century.

As always, Parajanov, through the use of the epic style (like in the films of Ritwik Ghatak), translated the literary basis into a more poetic approach with his trademark tableaux compositions, which were more like still-life paintings than moving images. Like in the films of Robert Bresson, each shot formed a whole, with montage (juxtaposed images) being a combination of shots, each of which had their own logic.

Play
The Legend of Suram Fortress.

His last film Ashiq Kerib (1988), based on Persian miniatures and shot in Azerbaijan, was more playful and formally inventive than his earlier works. With his later movies, the master engaged the moving camera than in The Colour of Pomegranates, recalling his experiments with camera movement in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Although derided as a film that encouraged the West’s fantasy of the Orient, Parajanov transposed a philosophical sense of the unveiling of the narrative that created an unusual film aesthetic – somewhere in between the worlds occupied by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Ashik Kerib (1988).
Ashik Kerib (1988).

In addition to making films, Parajanov also produced artworks. These alluded to visual puns that transformed mundane object into experiences of perceptional beauty, often using post-modern devices such as self-parody.

Condemned as a secessionist by Soviet authorities, the master produced a transnational cinema, influencing such diverse filmmakers as Derek Jarman, Makhmalbaf, Emir Kusturica, and the music videos of Tarsem Singh. He was often criticised for transplanting the ethnic basis of his roots and destroying their historical basis. His use of color takes the place of drama, allowing the film to be melancholic and meditative at the same time.

In Parajanov’s masterpieces, one notices a special interest in the relationship between man and nature and the resultant production of art, creating a singular resonance between sound, image and cumulative form.

King Heracle on the throne, by Sergei Parajanov.
King Heracle on the throne, by Sergei Parajanov.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.