Spirituality in Cinema
‘Stalker' (1979), a film by Andrey Tarkovsky
“I was a hidden treasure, and I wanted to be discovered, so I created creation that I might be known.” (Hadith-e-Kudsi)
In Sufi philosophy, this particular verse is taken as foundational in understanding and interpreting the relationship between Divinity and humanity. The relationship between Divine and human is a symbiotic one. Divine and human feed off of each other, through human consciousness, through the consciousness of the universe, through our sensory organs ready and equipped to experience life, we the little facets come into consciousness, in order to enable the Divine to feel and sense itself.
However, we don't experience the universe fully. Humans, with our fractional sensory perceptions are not even able to experience the different shades of light and wave lengths of sound that already exist in this universe; then, how do we expect, with this fragmented existence to comprehend and articulate the Divine fully?
“If you split open your breast in search of a thought or idea and take it apart bit by bit, you won't find any thoughts there. You won't find any in your blood or in your veins…for they are without physical quality. You won't find them on your outside either. His control of your thoughts is so subtle as to be without trace, then consider how subtle and traceless He must be who is the Creator of all this!” (Rumi, Jalaluddin, Signs of the Unseen)
The feeling which flow in our heart, the emotions we enjoy and suffer from everyday is the workings of the Divine. If human heart is polished through submission, devotion and permanent acts of love; if the sense of separation from the Divine shed tears from the devotee's eyes, the mirror of heart is washed clean, ready to reflect the face of the Divine.
Creative impulses are extremely valuable because they come from divine inspiration, they deliver mysterious meaning and senses, pouring down into the human heart, whispering factions of the ultimate knowledge, glimpses of absolute beauty. The purpose of art is a constant search for the ultimate truth and absolute beauty. After coming into human existence we have been separated from the unity of being with the Divine. This sense of incompleteness runs through our bodies; a cry residing within, flapping its soft feathers, creating a source of permanent melancholy in the human heart. Emotions that derive from the impossibility of union with the Divine pulsate through our existence and create a burning hollow of longing and questioning. That is where creative impulses and art come from, to mediate the complex question of human existence,
“…the goal for all art, unless of course it is aimed at the 'consumer,' like a saleable commodity, is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question” (Tarkovosky, Andrey, Sculpting in Time).
Unfortunately, in today's world, there has been a price tag put on every piece of art. It has become extremely difficult for artists to survive and create art purely for the purpose of 'posing the question' of human existence. Cinema, one may argue, has suffered the plight of consumerism more than any other form of art. First of all, making a film involves large groups of people, complicated hierarchical structures, elaborate-time consuming arrangements and to ensure all of that, a huge amount of cash flow. Thus, it becomes almost impossible for a filmmaker to create his/her art in solitude, purely for the purpose of self discovery. A film maker must think ahead and make plans to distribute and market the film, to write pages of babbles to communicate and sell his/her creative art, and to finally pay off the producer's debt.
There is no getting around the web of investment and profit; however, at least there is scope to reflect back on the concept of cinema as a medium of art, to realise that there are certain implications to cinema's origins, cinema's crafts, cinema's unique form of self expression, that can help us locate new definitions and significance to the attributes of cinema as a medium of art.
There are two types of filmmakers in the world. The first group are those who are fascinated, taken a back, overwhelmed by the technicality, gimmicks, stylization, power and glamour attached to the world of cinema. Then there is a second group of filmmakers, readily the example of 'Rittwik Kumar Ghatak, who looked at cinema simply as a medium of self expression, “[C]inema for me is nothing but an expression. It is a means of expressing my anger at the sorrows and sufferings of my people. Tomorrow, beyond cinema, man's intellect may probably rear something else that may express the joys, sorrows, aspirations, dreams and ideals of the people with a force and immediacy stronger than that of the cinema. That would then became the ideal medium” (Bhattacharya, Sandipan, Dasgupta, Shivaditya, Shakkhat Rittwik)
Andrey Tarkovsky, for example, says problems of technique are child's play, one can learn it any day. What is more important in cinema making is, “thinking independently, worthily…[N]obody can be forced to shoulder a weight that is not merely difficult, but at times impossible to bear; but there is no other way, it has to be all or nothing.” (Tarkovosky, Andrey, Sculpting in Time)
The creative individual, therefore, is doomed. S/he has to carry the cross, bear the burden, to polish the mirror of heart, and be finally ready to be delivered with the truth and the absolute beauty. This is where responsibility of an artist comes in. When one creates art to be consumed by an audience; there surfaces the responsibility of bearing a superior consciousness, and delivering not just whatever the artists feels like or whatever is going to get him profit, rather following truthfully and faithfully the traces of Divine that has dropped into the wine cup of human heart.
Cinema makers need to be completely responsible for their creation because cinema as a form of art is extremely potent. Cinema has the potential to create a parallel universe, a make believe reality, a journey into the lives of unknown people, tastes of alien emotions though images, sound, colours, motions, faces, words; a complete fragment of time for us to live in, to experience an(other) life in a dark cinema hall. This potency of cinema is also its downfall; because, banking on this strength huge industries have been created around the world to sedate human beings, numb them, allure them into a world of desire with the flashy images.
A boy residing in a slum goes to watch 'Slum-dog Millionaire' and experiences the unreal reality of success. Cinema flashes human flesh, mutilated female bodies to choke men with sexual desires, to keep them on leash like panting dogs, running after unlimited impulses to indulge. The commodification of human bodies in the media has been accepted as social norms. Men and women are comfortable today watching women dancing with almost no clothes on in sexually charging postures. Even little children are inspired to imitate those gruesome dance moves through television shows and competitions. What is sexually appealing or not, what constitutes female beauty, what constitutes manhood is today defined largely by the media.
Media plays a very important role also in the construction of nationalism, culture and identity. Media today, significantly regulates the flow of information in the world, thus contributing to the construction and trajectory of world politics and realms of thoughts. Because of its unique way of constructing parallel reality, cinema plays a central role in media politics.
I guess what I am trying to get at is: cinema is powerful. It has to be handled with care and fragility. It cannot and should not be taken as a form of entertainment. If one looks at the history of cinema it becomes clear that from the very beginning there were two approaches to cinema: one is spiritual, an approach that has been ignored and bypassed; and the second is commercial and entertainment oriented, an approach that has largely survived and given meaning to what we understand by the term 'cinema' today.
There is an alternate history of cinema that we don't usually come across. We are taught that Lumiere brothers invented cinema. The first image recorded was of a train coming into a station. The impact of a moving image, the recoded passage of time, the possibility of re-playing a bygone time totally fascinated the world audience. People went to cinema to see something wonderous and miraculous, as one would expect from a circus. Interestingly, before the Lumiere brothers, there were experimentations by 'spiritualists,' feminists, and other marginalised groups with the technology of cinema. These interventions were spiritual in nature, as they aspired to use the technology of cinema to connect to a world of spirits; to create a passage way between the Divine and the human. This bit of history is little known,
Parallel to the ingress of capital in the development of cinema, were other mysterious catalysts. 'Spiritualists,' black magic practitioners, planchette experts, Madam Blavotsky and Colonel Olkot's international patrons played an important role in the development and expansion of cinema. Cinema is not a trade. It is not, as influential theorists define itthe so called 'seventh art:' Cinema is a tantra. (Rahman, Ebadur, Cinema Tantra)
Now, if cinema is a tantra, and not a trade, then what could be said about 'cinema's destined role?’
to be continued…
Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent writer and filmmaker.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009