– The dance of Alarmel Valli
July 5, 2005
On March 30,
a 30 minute documentary film "Pravahi – The Dance of Alarmel Valli" had
its premiere show at Sree Theatre. This was done under the auspices of
"Lights on" a new forum initiated by Sathyam Cinemas in collaboration with
Prasanna Ramaswamy, Nina Reddy and a few others. This was the first of
the monthly series of the "Lights On" programmes. The idea is to curate
very good documentary and non-documentary films by renowned filmmakers
on creative artists, which would otherwise not be available for public
viewing in the normal film circuit.
"Pravahi" means "a flow" and is considered by the filmmaker as an apt title for his subject Alarmel Valli’s dance. As Valli is a dancer famous for her dance which is never static, but moves and moves at a great speed, this title probably captures the spirit of her dance and personality. Madhu Ambat, the well known cameraman has done the camera work for this film. The film has been funded by the Films Division.
The film started with great promise – the image of a hand in muted light showing various gestures. It aroused expectations of an abstracted presentation of the dance form and the danseuse through the devices of fragmentation and distanciation. But as the film progressed, it turned out to be a linear, narrative style documentary more on the dancer than on the dance form. The dancer as well as the filmmaker are free to take up any structure and style they choose to, however, this documentary, of monologues interspersed with fragments from the classical dance form tended to give an unsatisfied feeling with regard to the film as well as the representation of the dance form. As far as the film form goes, there was no innovation at all. It was a straight presentation of facts and performance bits by a static camera with wide angle and close-up shots. As far as the dance and the autobiography of the dancer goes, it did not shed any additional lights on her particular style of dancing, her contributions or innovations to the Bharatanatyam repertoire or even the rationale behind the choice of the particular items, fragments of which she chose to highlight.
True, it showed images of her as a student, a performer, a teacher, and a choreographer. But the images themselves were fleeting and never gave any permanent impression on her personality, style, origins or personal beliefs as a dancer. As a result, one was left with a feeling of having watched a very ordinary documentary film on a famous dancer.
One did not expect this of the filmmaker, Arun Khopkar. Especially those of us who have seen his film "Sanchari" on another famous Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson. There, the emphasis was not on the dancer, but the form itself and the space that it occupies. The difference, Khopkar himself explained, was that in Sanchari he had used a moving camera, while in Pravahi, the camera was constantly static. For both the films, the filmmaker did not use multiple cameras, because he feels that there is only one perspective in one film with regard to a dancer and that can be neatly and adequately dealt with one camera. While one does not have any quarrels with this one perspective theory or using only one camera, one has to question the use of the camera kept at one position throughout the film, especially when the film is about dance, the essence of which is movement.
Balu Mahendra, well known film maker pointed out during the discussion that followed the film show, that the camera is taking the exact position of the viewer during a concert. Does the viewer move here and there to get the dance from all angles? The dancer does all the movements. The camera has to only capture her movements as she presents them. The camera does not have to move in order to capture the movements of the dancer. This argument is not very convincing, because while the eye of the camera placed in one position is really static and cannot move, the eyes of the viewer sitting in one position can constantly move and therefore capture the dance in its fullness even though there is no obvious physical movement on his/her part. Besides which, when the camera is placed in one position, it only captures the frontal view of the dancer’s movements and the result is a flat view of the dance. As the dance is a three dimensional medium and the film is two dimensional, it has to use other devices at its disposal, such as depth of focus, overhead shot, dissolve etc to capture the entirety of the dance. In any case in a film is one hoping to replicate the experience of watching a live concert or is the film trying to use the multiple facilities at its command to capture certain other aspects of the dance not obvious to a viewer in a language which is very specific to film? As Balu himself pointed out, in some respect, through the film one can have the closest view of the dancer’s face and movements which is not possible while sitting even in the front row of a performance hall.
The distancing between the dancer and the audience, which is an inevitable element of the live process is bridged through the process of film which has the ability to document through close-up and mid shots, the actual process of dancing. The expressions on the face are clearer, the movements also are better seen, so the essence of the dance is better captured in film. All these arguments are valid, but if the film only tries to capture the feeling of attending a concert, with a few additional autobiographical elements, why have the film at all? Can't we get most of the impact and feelings from the performance itself? If the film does not, through its own specific language, offer us a better, changed and improved vision of the dance, the film cannot be rightfully called an innovative or experimental film. The function of the filmmaker is not only to capture the nuances of the dance through the dance language, but offer another view of the dance through another language, that of the film.
Probably the maker of the film as well as the subject of the film did not want it to be highly innovative. All that they wanted to do was to document the life and dance of the subject for archival reference. That is all right. But, as archival material also it lacks the seriousness and depth a researcher or a dance lover expects from such a film. The written information before each dance was sketchy and uninspiring to evoke any real interest in the intricacies of the form. They seem to be parodying the announcements which Bharatanatyam dancers use before each item in their programme. One would have expected a more in-depth, imaginative summary of the significance of the item in the repertoire itself. This is the same with all aspects of the film. Valli has been working on Sangam poetry for the last ten years. But, the way in which her experiments on Sangam poetry has been introduced in this film does not give any idea to the viewer on her concept or perspective on Sangam poetry or how it can be adapted to dance. Again, what is the speciality of the method used by her Gurus who belonged to the Pandanallur Bani? What extensions or improvements has she made on the form? Or, how exactly did she compose her jatis or teach her students? These are important to the researcher who uses the archives. So, from a historical point of view, this film does not offer the context or ideology of the dancer and therefore falls short of research material.
There are only two questions remaining. Has Valli done justice to her form, namely dance and her new contributions or new perspectives? She is the protagonist of the film; she is its main actress. But, has she revealed her significant other (that which is not known to an ordinary viewer of her dance) either as a dancer or a human being? She says things like she is passionately interested in this form of dance from childhood onwards and quotes the example of how she chose her performance at Theatre de la Ville against her own final school exams. But, does this necessarily show her passion towards dance? One would have wanted the bits of dance that is shown in the film to reveal her passion rather than her talking of it. Were she honest she would have mentioned that in each of the Bharatanatyam movements which are very precise, geometrical and has a flow of its own, she adds her own little bit of "extra" movement through a jerk of her hand or body? She would also have admitted that she has to work a great deal more on the "Sthayi" Bhava of all emotions expressed through facial and body movements. The anguish of a Sangam poetry heroine, separated from her lover is not just stuff of imagination, but actual experience, felt and crying out to be communicated. Instead, she has chosen to give rather "tame" and stereotypical explanations on these live experiences waiting to be transferred into dance. Perhaps, instead of she talking, if a voice over or some other device had been used it might have been more effective.
Similarly, saying that her Gurus gave her a great deal of freedom and allowed her to explore the sensuality of the medium, she could have or a scroll could have informed the audience the specialty of the Pandanallur style as opposed to Vazhuvur style or Kalakshetra style, and how she herself has added on to that style. These are just some of the examples to show that she had touched only on the superficial aspects of her dance and life and not given in-depth insights into her persona and form. Valli is a vivacious person in real life. I wish she could have transferred all that vitality and vivacity into film or Arun could have inspired her to do the same.
Talking about Arun's part in the film, I have found a reason for his using a still camera for capturing Valli and her dance. Since Valli specializes in an excess of movement, if the camera also moved following her movements, the film would have been chaotic. Instead he chose to have a static camera and make the best out of her movements. But, this does not solve the problem of the frontal view of dance and the resultant flatness which has come into the images. He could have probably abstracted or fragmented the movements and through imaginative editing and juxtaposition added a new quality to the movement. He could also have avoided the rather prosaic and simplistic explanations in between the dances. Many a time even Valli's words in reminiscence, such as dark, shadowed or shaded have been shown through literal images which also jarred. Again, his passion for the subject's specific form of dance, were not transformed to the celluloid. All he was interested in doing was documenting a slice of life of Valli, the dancer and Valli the person. Very few personal or meaningful insights have been shown throughout the film. So, a discerning viewer feels somewhat disappointed at the technique used and the totality of the film.
As with all my recent reviews, I have to confess that I am one of the few who feels this way about this film. Many have accepted it and praised it. Then, why do I persist in bringing out my views on this film. I feel that as a sensitive viewer and an intelligent and forthright critic, I would not be doing justice to myself or the reading public if I was not truthful about what I felt. It is this feeling of doing my job in as truthful a manner as possible that is prompting me to research and argue in the above fashion.
Are we allowed
to make a plea with the readers? Then, it would be, please understand that
I am not doing it as a measure of self propagation or out of an impulse
to be different. I feel passionately about dance and film and get disillusioned
when half-hearted measures are made on these two fronts. So, I have to
divulge my anguish publicly and seek some kind of release or redemption.
Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject "Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala". She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.