A couple of days ago, I watched a film called Samsara and read a novel by Philip Roth called American Pastoral. Samsara is a film in Tibetan and Ladakhi languages about a monk who believes that he should experience life before forsaking it. Samsara is the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. While the book is a classical tale of the American Pastoral (Pastoral being defined as charmingly simple and serene) degenerating into the American berserk. The break down from the idyllic to the deranged is a story told through the life history of the central character Swede Levov.
Both the book and the movie, which I read and watched in the same week, examined the attrition that life forces on us. The books maps an entirely different world and so diametrically removed from the life of a Buddhist monk in an entirely different continent, culture and values. Yet, they both focus on the human cogitation about life, its trials and tribulations that life leads us through. The Monk who was sent to the monastery at a precocious age and despite undergoing three years of fasting and meditation is seduced by the charms of women and yearns for the life of a house holder. His reasoning being that even Lord Buddha had indulged himself in the sweet pleasures of life before forsaking it. The point being, how can he give up something he is never had. A similar though different ambition is Swede Levov's to have a perfect world with a wife he loved and a daughter he cherished. Both these central characters are on a quest of protection and discovery which defines most of human life.
The movie Samsara was on the International Movie circuit since the year 2001 but got a theatre release only this year in 2006. The movie has been highly acclaimed and gathered accolades from all corners of the world. It is shot in the beautiful pleatue of Ladakh, a land which resembles Tibet, in all its forms from natural landscape, culture and religion. The sheer majestic ness of the landscape and the ugly barrenness with the mighty and clear blue sky makes Ladakh a photographer’s paradise. It would take a lot of effort to actually come back from Ladakh with bad photographs. The over arching beauty of the land is a central part of the film and to me it signified the desolateness of life amidst which we humans conduct ourselves within our limitations and aspirations.
The many awards garnered by the film is a reflection of the West's fascination with Tibet, where anything resembling Tibet or Tibetan culture is highly valued irrespective of its quality and the further 'commodification' of Tibetan culture.
In Samsara, a monk who despite years of meditation seeks to leave the monastery to become a householder. The monk finds a girl and lives as a resident son-in-law in the household partaking in the simple pleasures of life like running household and breeding children. In this process the monk goes through the basic emotions known to man such as anger, lust, violence and more obviously boredom. Finally the monk decides to forsake his householder life and go back to the monastery.
On his way back, he is visited by Buddha (I suppose so!) in the form of his wife who remarks on his selfishness and who voices the feminist concerns regarding Buddha's sudden desertion of his wife and kid to search for enlightenment. What if Siddhartha's wife had decided to leave the household and search for enlightenment, wouldn’t she have been accused of neglect of her wifely and motherly duties but the man's sacrifice of the same duties were eulogized as that of a man who sees through the illusion of life. The point so true of eastern or let me say Hindu and Buddhist faith that have for long subordinated the woman to domesticity while the men search for enlightenment.
Philip Roth, the author of American Pastoral is probably the biggest and the best writer of this generation of Americans. Roth is an extremely verbose writer with a complex narrative technique which has left me more confused then enlightened. I have read just two other books by Roth which are, The Dying Animal and Portonoy's Complaint. American Pastoral has three essential narratives; the first is the narrator who grew up in the shadow of Levov's legendary reputation. This first narration is an awe inspiring introduction and build up to Levov's reputation. Levov, is a super jock but a kind, humble man inherits the glove factory his Jewish father build up with his hard labour and marries a catholic ex-Miss Jersey. The pretty couple and Roth's amazing characterization is such that despite emphasizing their superficial beauty he actually builds a kindred and humble soul in the couple. This part of the narration titled, Paradise Remembered, has a lot to say about ageing, memory and how we examine nostalgia. It is the next two narratives which were are central to the book. The first titled, The Fall, is the narrative of beautiful Swede Levov and his rather human ambitions. The final and the crucial narrative is titled, Paradise Lost, which tells us Levov's daughter Merry's tale.
Merry was a troubled child, mildly obsessive and Levov traces it to Merry watching five Vietnamese monks self immolating during the Vietnam War. It is through Merry that Roth creates the machinations by which the post-second world war idyllic pastoral rural world of Swede Levov passes into the berserk. Merry shows signs of being obsessed about particular objects, events but she also grows out it. With the flower generation taking roots in American schools through the 1960's and protesting French action in Algeria and American action in Vietnam, Merry joins the movement and accuses her father of being a immoral capitalist. To cut the story short, Merry bombs the village's postal office and ends up killing a person to disappear and then re surfaces as a Jain, the svetambara jains who don’t wash for fear of killing insects and eat to a minimum in their efforts to die of starvation. Thus devastating, Swede Levov who lives with the affection for his lost daughter and the guilt of her being a murderer and he is further devastated when his wife on her way to recovery from Merry's disappearance starts having an affair.
The movie, while not being decidedly brilliant was important enough for me to write about it because it’s a remarkable movie to have actually made it to the theatre’s in Delhi. It was also important to me due to the fact that my leisure affords me enough time to actually consider and think about the issues that might have plagued Buddha’s mind and to an extent plagues us all in our disappointments that life offers. Is life worth it? How do you handle the pressures that surround us, laying bare one of the core dictum’s of Buddhism, that all life is maya or Illusion? In our fateful journey in life so far we have all expected love, ambition, material comfort, peace of mind and in our quest for security in various garbs we have all been disappointed, most in failure and some even in success. Under such extenuating circumstances, when the modern urban existence is merely a rat race, the thought of escape to a more natural environment and with just the ‘thought’ of leaving it all, appears extremely illuminating. It was so to me and a few of my friends. But remarkably all these friends of mine had leisure time on their hands to actually think of these options. The people, who were in the rat race, either didn’t get the time to do it or well, never mentioned it to me. Samsara also added a dimension to it self with the feminist perspective or interjection that the film accorded in its closing moments, sometimes, I think as an after thought.
The lead actors of Samsara are all borrowed; Christy Chung is a Hong Kong actress and does a remarkable job as the ex-monk’s wife. The lead actor, Shawn Ku, is some sort of an American and doesn’t do to bad. But the movie in an older reading is a classical marketing of the exotic east intermixed with liberal doses of nudity and one sequence of what I suppose was tantaric sex. Pan Nalin, the director of the film is an Indian and most of the supporting cast was from the Ladhak region in India. Pan Nalin’s new film, the Valley of Flowers, had its opening show in the Osian Film festival in New Delhi on 15 July’ 2006. I failed to procure tickets for it. Pan Nalin has made it to the newspapers these days and he goes on and on about the ghettoisation of Hindi films (the song and dance musical that the Bombay film industry gives us. Samsara would be in Indian parlance categorised as an 'art' film and non mainstream for its linguistic choice as well as subject matter) abroad. He says that Hindi films abroad are mostly seen within the NRI ghetto. Partly, I think he is right, but only partly. Because there actually exists a vast swathe of land east, west, north and south of India which are ardent followers of Hindi cinema even in its mediocrity. The other day, someone mentioned to me that he met an Ethiopian family in the US of A which was crazy about Hindi films. A lot of Nalin’s criticisms are very true and especially the way he compares Hindi films to other Asian cinema but Nalin should keep in mind that his movie and more specifically, Samsara is a ghettoisation of a worse sort wherein, anything remotely Tibetan gets acclaimed for a number of reasons irrespective of quality or value.
Back to the topic, in a similar way Swede Levov’s effort to preserve and protect his world was something which was very tender in its portrayal and something identifiable to a householder. The fact that his world gets in the way of the American berserk through his daughter is also reflective of the breakdown of idyllic America to the current America. The books strength’s lie in its sensitive portrayal of Swede’s humble ambitions despite his genius and in its tale of the break down of the post-war boom world illustrated through the Levov family. And Levov’s struggle as a man, is also about how the life of a worldly man is full of its share of sufferings and how being a monk would have been so much saner. This thought while not reflected in Swede Levov’s character is something which I think flitted across the author’s mind and it is in this scheme of things why Roth lets Levov re-discover Merry in her new avatar as a Jain monk.
I enjoyed both the experiences. While the movie, precociously moves through its pace in the land of the broken moon, Swede Levov's story is told at break neck speed by Roth. The narration jumps back and forth covering aspects of American life we sometimes glimpse superficially in American cinema. There is Levov's Jewish father mocking the drunkard and neglected wife of one of Swede's neighbours, there is a character who claiming to be Merry's friend and confidant blackmails Levov and ultimately wants him to make love to her. I decided to write about the book and the movie together because their essence was similar to the way I received both of them. The fateful or accidental impregenation of a egg by a spermatozoa, nursed for nine months and after a few years the little life grows up to shoulder the responsibility of an individual tying himself in knots in the process of his/hers life, in relationships, ambitions, duties and not to forget the sheer boredom and mechanical nature of life in some phases. The story of the monk and Levov meant the same struggle to me, just the flip side of a single coin.