Reflections on films and mortality: no yesterday and no tomorrow  

‘This book is not on cinema as such but on reflections on life by a star who was always human as he shared parts of his life with a much younger friend,’ says Nag of his book ‘Murmurs’

Reflections on films and mortality: no yesterday and no tomorrow   
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Amitava Nag

'This book is not on cinema as such but on reflections on life by a star who was always human as he shared parts of his life with a much younger friend,' says Nag of his book ‘Murmurs’ based on conversation with Soumitra Chatterjee, who passed away in November 2020 at the age of 85

Reflections on films and mortality: no yesterday and no tomorrow   

It is an old story about a wealthy merchant in Baghdad, who sent his servant to the fruit market to buy fruits for the evening. Soon the servant returned panting and huffing.

"What happened to you? Why do you look so pale?" asked the merchant.

The young servant shivered, "Master, in the market I came face to face with Death. He was tall, weaning a long flowing robe that covered him completely. But I saw his eyes fixed on me. I have served you for so long with my utmost dedication, Master. Now I beg you to lend me your best horse so that I can ride away fast and quick to Samarra to avoid Death."

The merchant lent his servant his best horse, and the servant mounted it, and galloped out of Baghdad. Still unsure of his servant’s apprehensions, the merchant went down to the fruit market to find out for himself. He roamed around for a while and finally could spot a slender, tall figure draped in a black robe.

He went closer and asked, "So here you are, Death. Why did you frighten my servant a while back?"

Death replied, "That was not a threatening look at your servant but of utter surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

first heard this story from my cousin who is a doctor. He heard it from one of his patients, Taradas Bandyopadhyay, writer and son of one of the finest novelists of Bengal of all times, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay. My cousin, for whom Tarapada Babu had more affection than just a professional acquaintance, assured him of his imminent recovery. Bandyopadhyay however knew deep down that his body was giving up. That is when he told the doctor the story of Death.

"The soul is willing, the spirit reaches for the stars, but the flesh is weak." Soumitra-babu once told me as he described how he fell twice in succession.

"Every month for several years now, I hear about the passing away of someone or the other. I can’t take death anymore. I don’t visit grieving families. I don’t find the mental strength to face grief."

I am stretching my legs in the evening. This is the end of March and there is a nip in the air. Winters in Kolkata these days have sadly been shortened. I have just completed reading a very intimate essay on Max von Sydow, the Swedish actor who is famous as Ingmar Bergman’s main face for decades. Sydow passed away in March, 2020 but I couldn’t gather myself to write on him.

We were at Soumitra Chatterjee’s den, reminiscing about cinema and Sydow. He had watched quite a few of Bergman’s films, definitely The Seventh Seal which has the remarkably contentious sequence of the Knight (played by Sydow) playing chess with Death.

Knight: Who are you?
Death: I am Death.
Knight: Have you come for me?
Death: I have walked at your side for a long time now.
Knight: That I know.
Death: Are you prepared?
Knight: My body is afraid, but I am not.

Later, shortly after this encounter, the Knight’s squire Jöns enters a church and finds a rather strange man painting a mural to remind people of death in order to scare them since, according to him, a skull is more interesting than a naked woman. Only when one is scared that he starts to think, the painter tells Jöns.

Bergman is my all-time favourite along with Andrei Tarkovsky. Both speak of reflections, foresee death as an extension of unfaithful desire. Dangling between departures and returns, life brushes off with death – of the spirit and then the body.

I have recently listened to one of Sydow’s interviews on Youtube where he mentions how he was an atheist at the time he played the role of Antonius Block, the Knight, with such conviction and then as a medieval landlord whose daughter was raped and killed in The Virgin Spring.

Sydow recalled, "Ingmar Bergman used to tell me that you won’t believe in God and the spirits but let me tell you that there are things beyond our comprehension, but they do exist, and I will communicate with you when I will be no more." The lanky figure of Max von Sydow drooped, hanging his unusually stone-walled face and half-closed eyes – "Yes, we have communicated after Bergman died. But I will not reveal to you what we discussed."

Soumitra-babu folds his legs back, the muscles on his face stiffen up a bit. "These are individual beliefs. But yes, I do remember Satyajit Ray often. Not a day passes when I can’t but think of a conversation, discussion or advice that I received from him."

Throughout his better films Bergman challenges God, questions Death and talks of transcendence to life from death and the immanence of God. Because, even though Death sets out to hold us captive, it is in life that we may escape him through our soul.

When asked what about death he feared the most, Soumitra-babu said he didn’t wish to leave at a time when his family is going through a critical time. I hear him pause, look aside, clear his throat and say, ‘And the most, that I have to be dependent on others for each and every need and wish. That will really be quite pathetic.’ One of the finest actors that the silver screen has ever seen feigned a smile.

After all, death is but a nostalgia of the young, and nostalgia is the death of the old.

(Extracted from the book ‘Murmurs’. The author is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette Magazine. He is the author of 'Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines' and 'Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee' and now of Murmurs)

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