The following is an essay by Bob Mielke, Ph.D,, Professor of English at Truman State University:
My first encounter with the work of Radha Bharadwaj — film director for major Hollywood studios; author of screenplays, dramas, short stories and novels; actress — was on a typical night when I was grazing my premium cable channels before bedtime. The usual melange of car chases, R-rated adult gropings (thanks, Cinemax) and explosions cycled by, and then there she was. A beautiful woman with her black hair in pigtails, doll rouge on her cheeks, heavy eye makeup and clownish amounts of lipstick. Clad only in black bra and panties. Chased around by a spotlight and the pursuing camera to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” And the maraschino cherry on this evil sundae of objectification of the female body, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s very worst nightmare? The actress is nineties powerhouse Madeleine Stowe!
Stowe was a big deal in those days. Although she had real thespian chops and a largely untapped range (Robert Altman got her to do some outside-the-box characterization in Short Cuts, to say nothing of her brilliantly nuanced performance in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), overall Hollywood typecast her with a vengeance. It’s easier that way for the money interests. She was a highly sexualized, sometimes slightly naughty, damsel in distress in film after film: threatened by injuns and saved by Daniel Day Lewis’ Leatherstocking in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, a musician with newly restored sight in Blink, the Lord God’s acquiescent booty as the Virgin Mary in The Nativity. And speaking of such baby play, did she get fertilized by still-in-the-closet Doogie Hawser to compensate for her sterile husband in a twenties period piece? Yeah, that happened; the film was called The Proposition.
Now, because she had the bad taste to get older, she plays a heavy on the television drama Revenge. A victim no more, unless you consider Botox injections a form of victimization. I do, actually, when Hollywood’s involved.
But let’s get back to those black panties, shall we? My cable service was giving me Madeleine Stowe on the half shell, the apotheosis of these other intertexts (some of which were actually filmed later, but seen by me before this viewing — a sense of things to come?). I continue to watch, only to learn that Stowe’s character is a political prisoner being tortured. By the grace of my remote, I am in collusion with the camera as her torturer! I am watching a film called Closet Land, written and directed by Radha Bharadwaj.
The irony of my experience is that one of the major tropes in Bharadwaj’s work is a reversal of expectations caused by the gaze. The climax of her film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel Basil, as in the source, is a moment of voyeurism that bears unexpected results. Similar moves occur in her short stories, as we shall see (“Lord of Our Destinies,” “Strictly Verboten”). And one of the most powerful visual sleights of hand in Closet Land itself is when, to torturer Alan Rickman’s voice-over, we see shots of “innocent” children reconfigured with the uncropped image to show a child greeting Hitler, one at a Ku Klux Klan rally and a young gun-toting terrorist. By sheer serendipity, my initial encounter with Bharadwaj’s work illustrates one of her major thematic interests: things aren’t always what they seem to be. Good Hinduism, that: the veil of Maya which must be lifted.
Everything about Radha Bharadwaj’s first feature film, Closet Land, seemed auspicious — except, perhaps fatefully, its subject matter. The interrogation of political prisoners can seldom be parlayed into a date movie or box office gold. But as Jeff Goldsmith’s appreciative on-line retrospective piece delineates, Bharadwaj had a lot of support for the film. When she was a Nicholl Fellow at the Sundance Screenwriters lab, Altman protege — and fine director in his own right — Alan Rudolph told her “to stick to her guns” and insist on directing the film the way she wanted to do it (as opposed to relinquishing her desire to direct and/or letting Hollywood committees tinker with her original script). Oliver Stone shocked her with a phone call offering to help her connect with Imagine Entertainment producers Brian Gazer and Ron Howard (another sensitive director), who were currently helping Stone direct The Doors.
When rising thespians Madeleine Stowe and Alan Rickman signed on for the essentially two-person film, the movie had a green light. Two and a half million dollars and eighteen shooting days later in Culver City, Closet Land was a reality. The 1991 release got some mixed reviews, since the independent approach to American filmmaking had not quite reached the level of acceptability it got later in the decade. The film was too minimal for some tastes; its plot blended elements of the fantastic, allegory and amazing plot coincidences with its overall grim realism. It was a hard film to “place” generically (although I will do that shortly for you). Eventually it went to video and Laserdisc before becoming completely unavailable in the mid-90s except as a used item.
But the film has a curious staying power as well. It is utterly memorable, as so few films are. The intensity of the acting and the sharp writing in the script ensures that one viewing of the film will roll around in the mind for decades to come. Lively internet chat demonstrates the film is still much discussed. Kate Millett devoted an entire chapter to it in her sweeping 1994 study on political imprisonment, The Politics of Cruelty. Her enthusiasm almost makes the chapter a straight plot summary of the film (with a few brilliant exceptions to be noted). And since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we must duly note William Mallon’s convincing case in his honors thesis that Irish playwright and film director Martin McDonagh borrowed heavily from Closet Land to “Erinize” it into his 2003 play about a children’s author being tortured in a totalitarian state, The Pillowman.
Part of McDonagh’s m.o., it turns out: his play The Lonesome West owes a bit to Sam Shepard’s True West; connections exist between McDonagh’s In Bruges and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. I’m not intending to be judgmental here. McDonagh has great gifts and such appropriations have become common and standard practice in modernist and postmodernist texts, as they were in the Middle Ages and in Shakespeare’s day. Only the Romantics worried (up to a point) about being original. My own creative endeavors wear their influences on their sleeve. My point here is that plot elements of Closet Land persist in another narrative host body, another way in which this text persists and haunts (if you will) our culture.
Pinning down its cinematic genre might be helpful. Closet Land is in a sub-genre of the German Kammerspiel or “chamber-drama” film. First developed by stage director Max Reinhardt in 1906 for small-audience, intimate drama, Kammerspiel readily migrated into film. The most well-known of these silent-era works is probably F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, a strange rags-to-riches tale (Thompson and Bordwell 95). Cinema historians have noted the genre’s huge influence on Swedish art house director Ingmar Bergman.
Most relevantly for Closet Land, the Danish director Carl Dreyer made some Kammerspiel films. For the sub-genre of Kammerspiel that Closet Land belongs to is the intimate drama of interrogation, a subset of Kammerspiel that includes Orson Welles’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial and the most famous of such films, Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc.
The family resemblance of Dreyer’s and Bharadwaj’s texts is striking, although Dreyer works with a larger cast. Probably the best analogue to Rickman’s character in the latter might be Antonin Artaud’s tortured monk in Dreyer. Renee Falconetti’s performance as Joan in the silent film is an unsurpassable template for Madeleine Stowe in Closet Land. Dreyer shot Falconetti without makeup in extreme close-ups. She was so traumatized by the experience that she never acted again! For Stowe merely to evoke Falconetti’s work in the memory of the film aficionado is to pay the former the highest of compliments.
There are even some parallels between Welles’s film and Closet Land: both use animation to convey the more other-worldly aspects of their stories. The Trial opens with an animated re-telling of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law”; Closet Land uses full-color animation to show scenes from the children’s books written by the female protagonist.
I raise this genre issue because the Kammerspiel of interrogation is not the way to wealth. Only Carl Dreyer had modest critical and commercial success with the sub-genre. A little digging will show Welles got worse initial reviews than Bahradwaj for his efforts.
Kate Millet’s book shows that Bharadwaj did her research. Although the film and play is not set in any specific totalitarian regime (but English is spoken), it follows standard practices regarding interrogation and torture. Some of this is well-known, especially if you read writers like William S. Burroughs — or have been arrested! The old Good Cop / Bad Cop routine, for instance. One alternates being nice and nasty with the victim. A colleague of mine who got busted for a DUI still got this old riff in Kirksville in 2012: one cop tried to ease his way and get him released, the other tightened the handcuffs to a painful extent. Cop kicks. They probably alternate turns: “Today you get to be the good cop, Clem.” “Wait, wasn’t I the good cop yesterday?” Closet Land’s good riff on this is that the same interrogator plays both by disguising his voice, since the victim is blindfolded at certain key moments in the questioning. Alan Rickman’s “Man” even gets to pretend to be another victim as well.
Radha Bharadwaj shows us lesser known tropes of torture than this, however. For example, music is often used to supplement the agony of punishment. What could be more sadistic than attaching horrific associations to one of humanity’s greatest sources of pleasure? The Nazi concentration camps used marching bands to escort the prisoners to their labor; in Algeria the French played “popular songs of the day” during their torture sessions,according to detainee Henri Alleg (Millet 55, 87). We also recall Alex in A Clockwork Orange listening to Beethoven during the Ludovico treatment. In Closet Land they play Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz (in the screenplay) or “Hernando’s Hideaway” (in the film). to augment the agony.
Closet Land also reminds us that bored torturers like to invent original recipes for torture and give them somewhat innocuous nicknames. Kate Millett describes some Latin American innovations. For example, the “parrot’s perch” binds the prisoner’s wrists and ankles to an iron bar placed between two tables. When hung this way, they are subjected to further electric shocks and / or beatings. The “ice box” is a tiny, cold space for long periods of isolation punctuated by loud noises, bright light and bad ventilation. And the “dragon chair” is a metal chair for shocks which also injures the detainee by having an iron bar that pushes back, “causing deep gashes” (Millett 247).
Similarly, in the Closet Land script the male torture victim (as noted, a persona of the torturer) sinisterly inquires of the woman: “You’ve been barbecued yet? What’ve they tried on you? Cat’s cradle? The Arabesque? Touchdown?” (44). Except for the “cat’s cradle,” all of these torture techniques are eventually applied to the suspected subversive. “Barbecuing” is the application of heated skewers to the body; “Touchdown” is a free association word game with electric shocks for “wrong” (i.e., inappropriate) answers); the “Arabesque” forces the person to maintain that awkward ballet position (51, 54, 58).
In addition to the superb acting and accurate depiction of torture, the film / play makes a strong thematic point, perhaps at the cost of narrative probability. Spoiler alert: the man torturing the children’s author also repeatedly molested her when she was a little girl — in a clothes closet. This experience was the germ for her suspect manuscript about escape called, yes, Closet Land. Bharadwaj does not merely want to bring the narrative full circle — the torturer is the real-life origin for the “subversive” text (corrupt regimes breed their own enemies) — although she does do that as well. Her larger point is that totalitarianism infantilizes its subjects and operates in a parallel manner to child abuse, as the woman points out in a climactic speech:
It seems to be the same thing — organically, I mean. Shutting a child in a closet, and shutting a people away. you know what I mean? One is — sin. Sin in miniature. The other is sin. On a grand, operatic scale….If you can frighten a child into silence, you can frighten a people, too. And with time and practice, people, too, will shut their eyes and not scream –…I never screamed in the closet, did I?…And the people won’t scream either. And they will also go about, pretending everything’s fine, everything’s all right, while their neighbors disappear all around them… And then the — the people — become like children! Scared of Bad Men, the chopper that’ll chop off their heads….And that’s what’s so terrifying! Because children are so powerless, aren’t they? They make such — such easy victims. Such easy victims… (75).
I have to admit that I was creeped out when Barack Obama gave his speech in January 2013 about the new gun control initiatives. Although I support the actual measures, I found it disturbing the way he infantilized his audience. He read letters from various children present on the dais with the implication that somehow these kids were creating the new policies. By a sinister logic foreshadowed by this film, the notion of children-as-public (“the people”) ultimately diminishes the authority of the electorate and smacks of crypto-fascism. Obama fist-pumping kids, whether he or we like it or not, lines up alongside the iconography of such other avuncular chid-loving figures as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Probably Jesus himself was the earliest purveyor of this trope: “suffer the little children to come unto me.” How ironic that Bharadwaj’s children’s author exposes this nasty sign slide into authoritarianism! And even more ironically, such moves understandably (alas) make gun nuts even more paranoid. Like Yakov Smirnov says, “what a country!”
I mentioned above that Millett’s basic presentation of Closet Land is a loving plot summary with some additional insights such as the contextualizing of the text’s accuracy with regard to actual practices used in political detention and interrogation. Another interesting critical point she makes is that the ending is ambiguous. We see Madeleine Stowe’s character leave the room and go into a bright white light. She may be heading off to her death; but she may be going “into freedom, possibly” (192). I’ll confess this latter possibility never occurred to me after multiple viewings of the film — and I have to ask why not. I suspect it’s because (fortunately) I have little detailed knowledge of these practices, What Millett and Bharadwaj know — as did Franz Kafka and Mikhail Bulgakov before them — is that political imprisonment is first and foremost an existentially absurd experience. It can go any way those in power want it to go. Its victims have very little power to resist (but they have some, as Closet Land reveals). They cannot even guarantee their own — in some cases, potentially desired — deaths. So, yes, the woman might have been released. In any case, she has left that odious room for somewhere better — even if it is oblivion.
Six years later, Rahda Bharadwaj’s second film Basil was released. Even a second film gives us two points on a line that invite critical trajectory. We can now ask: what kind of a director is she? For directorial practice, as any student of film knows, can fall into “genres”: exploitation sleazeball, studio hack, the much sought-after auteur. And as with any genre, these lines can readily blur. Quentin Tarrentino prides himself on being an exploitation sleazeball and an auteur. The other critical activity one can begin to do is to look for symbols, habits, narrative tropes and such like that carry from film to film. In both regards, Rahda Bharadwaj offers an intriguing case. Because after Basil, the trail gets unusual, since she has not made a feature film since — in sixteen years as of this writing. Rather she has been publishing original short fiction. Consideration of the latter will allow us to trace symbols and tropes across the respective media, but we have only these two films to define her as a director.
With that caveat, I would nevertheless like to speculate as to what kind of director she is. I find most helpful film scholar Peter Corrigan’s notion of an “auteur of commerce,” which he distinguishes from another hybrid approach labelled by him the “commercial auteur.” The latter are directors who blur the distinction between director and acting movie star. We can cite many diverse examples: Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Woody Allen, Francois Truffaut, Spike Lee. (Corrigan even cites a director like Steven Spielberg who not only has an iconic visual presence but even shows up in movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember.) Curiously, although Rahda Bharadwaj is not that kind of a director as of yet, she has ambitions along these lines in future. She has expressed interest in acting in her future films (and no doubt those of some others); her website (www.closetland.com) contains a fascinating series of acting poses and glamour shots under the section called “Images” (to be considered below).
But for now, I see her more as an example of Corrigan’s “auteur of commerce,” which refers to filmmakers who attempt “to monitor or rework the institutional manipulations of the auteurist position within the commerce of the contemporary movie industry” (421). In his essay “The Commerce of Auteurism,” Corrigan’s iconic example is Francis Ford Coppola — who utilized many strategies, some rather unusual, to put himself out there as an auteur whose commercial efforts have gone beyond filmmaking into such areas as studio-building (Zoetrope) and wine-making. Timothy Corrigan notes the especial importance of the interview as an art form for the auteur of commerce, to be used to give a total picture “where the auteur, in addressing cults of fans and critical viewers, engages and disperses his or her own organizing agency as auteur” (422). Coppola also could use the follies and near-follies of films like Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart to create the drama of the risk-it-all high-roller director, a gambit also seen in Werner Herzog’s high-wire act of directing Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon rainforest. It is surely not a coincidence that both of these directors directing became the subject of feature-length documentaries released in theatrical distribution about the making of their edgy projects: wife Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness about Apocalypse Now and documentarian Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams concerning Fitzcarraldo.
Bharadwaj’s scale of operation is much more modest, but I would submit this is the kind of director she is — beginning with her granting of generous access to interviewers to illuminate the contours of her total project. In this context, her turn to on-line short fiction makes a great deal of sense. And the interviews establish her unusual position as an Indian woman from the subcontinent directing non-Indian themed films for major studios, a struggling outsider who has to use powerful alliances to battle these same studios to get her films out the way she wants them to be (with less success in the case of Basil, as we shall see).
With regard to emergent interests and motifs, our second critical gesture, the resultant patterns are palpable if not as overwhelming as they might be in the case of, say, Fellini. As I have already suggested, a moment when the gaze is betrayed is fairly central to Bharadwaj’s work, both cinematic and literary. And indeed the climactic moment of betrayal in Basil is such an event. Since this is in the original novel, it may have more to do with why this text appealed to her for filmic adaptation.
Secondly, all of Baharadwaj’s storytelling traffics in what the German philosopher Hegel described as the master / slave dialectic, the paradoxical power reversals that occur between those seemingly in charge and their apparent inferiors. The climactic scene in Basil involves such a transfiguration as well. The upper-class main character sees his middle-class sympathizer and confidante cuckolding him as he voyeuristically peeps on from an adjacent room. Again, this is in the original novel. But given the importance of the master / slave dialectic for postcolonial studies, this theme may be what characterizes Bharadwaj most readily as a postcolonial author.
Finally, a third recurrent theme noticeable here is the post-Freudian emphasis on childhood as a formative source for adult personality. This interest appears in all her works, and it no doubt was a factor in extending the childhood scenes a bit longer than they are in the source text.
Such a consideration leads me into remarking upon the extensive plot changes Rahda Bharadwaj made in her adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel. I will argue that they were all appropriate and justified. The one instance where the novel surpasses the screenplay as potential film mise-en-scene was undoubtedly undoable for budgetary reasons. Rahda confessed to me in an e-mail that she took great liberties with the adaptation; it turns out that this is fairly standard practice for adapting Collins to the screen. Here’s why.
First off, Wilkie Collins is not as well-known these days. He is the sort of Victorian novelist that one is really likely to encounter only in specialized graduate study, But in his day he was wildly popular. He invented the ”novel of sensation,” intense entertainments that read like Charles Dickens on steroids and / or LSD. The two writers were friends, fellow bigamists and touring partners giving public readings. I would argue that Collins influenced Dickens, especially in a later novel like Our Mutual Friend, more than Dickens influenced Collins. In addition to his current obscurity, Collins has suffered from some critical neglect because of his reputation as a writer of trashy thrillers which marginalized him in the canon before the explosion of critical theory gave us the tools to analyze him more even-handedly. A modern reader of Basil and the two novels he is most famous for — The Woman in White and The Moonstone — will be astonished at how easily Collins’ texts reward Marxist, gender studies and / or postcolonial analysis. For starters, one would be hard-pressed to find a more absolute divide between vice and virtue than can be seen between Collins’ most depraved aristocrats and his most virtuous middle class teachers and loyal servants.
My point here is that given his undeservedly marginal position in the canon of English literature — and no doubt another factor is the length of the Victorian novel which pedagogically edges him out in a survey course to make room for George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Dickens — Hollywood adaptations of his work prior to Bharadwaj’s film have never cared much about fidelity to the source narrative. Few would even notice; still fewer would care. And as hinted above, I suspect financial considerations were important for these rewrites. How can we capture the spirit of the book for less cost?
Case in point: the sporadically fantastic Warner Brothers film version of The Woman in White from 1948. What makes it so wonderful is Sidney Greenstreet’s masterful portrayal of Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins’ greatest villain. (Basil‘s Robert Mannion — John in the screenplay for some reason — comes close.) Fosco’s blend of urbane sophistication, quirkiness and sadistic depravity soars beyond standard Victorian fare and anticipates some of the better nemeses in the James Bond films. In any case, this film production saved a lot of money by having the action set in one country location, Limmeridge House, whereas the novel is also set at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival Glyde (the other major villain in the book), and numerous locations in London. There are other major alterations as well. For example, we see Count Fosco’s death in the film (vs. hearing about it second-hand) — and it is a murder for a different cause and from a different person.
Here then are some of the major differences between the novel Basil and Radha Bharadwaj’s screenplay, with some speculation as to the reasons for the differences:
Clara is a biological sister in the novel to Basil; in the screenplay she is adopted by the family. This choice adds some sexual tension as Basil awkwardly kisses her, a foreshadowing of his larger romantic folly with Margaret Sherwin. Margaret is named “Carla” in the screenplay to emphasize their thematic connection (the virginal sister and the dissolute love interest). In the actual film, however, the name of this character Is Julia — maybe to avoid the confusion that might have resulted from Clara and Carla?
Basil’s brother Ralph actually gets a local girl pregnant, which results in Ralph’s getting disinherited. In the novel things do not go beyond a slight infatuation. This has further ramifications, for….
The elaborate revenge scheme of John Mannion in the screenplay is motivated by the death from a self-abortion by the girl, who is his sister. In the novel Robert Mannion’s revenge is motivated by Basil’s father’s mistreatment of Mannion’s father — a more convoluted basis for the elaborate revenge which unfolds in the second half of the narrative.
The screenplay adds an adulterous liaison between Basil’s father and one of the servants. This addition provides an interesting dimension of hypocrisy to the harsh judgments of Basil’s puritanical father and a solid basis for a final reconciliation between father and son.
In the novel Basil first sees Margaret Sherwin on an omnibus and follows her home, becoming a kind of stalker before he can eventually arrange a meeting. In the film, John Mannion more or less sets Basil up with Julia Sherwin as a favor designed to make him more worldly — as well as in a deeper way to exact his revenge on the family through Basil. Here is the one instance where the novel is much more dramatic and interesting, even if the main character becomes less likable as a result of his strange and obsessive behavior.
I think the motivation for this change may have been economic. More daytime Victorian exteriors, extras and a period omnibus would have cost far more than the film’s interior scene.
In the novel Margaret Sherwin dies of typhus; in the film Julia dies giving birth to John Mannion’s child at Windemere Hall, Basil’s estate that he foolishly gave to her as a lover’s promise. This latter ending is obviously both more dramatic and symbolic. Basil’s willingness to raise the child afterwards shows how he has been ennobled by his betrayal and suffering. He is a chastened and improved man in the great Victorian tradition.
Such are the major changes; there are many lesser ones as well. But Bharadwaj maintains the central features of the tale: an elaborate revenge scheme that forces the reader / viewer to reconsider everything from the first half of the tale in a new light resulting from later plot developments, a narrative trick that expands upon the shocking discovery we make about the full relationship between the man and the woman in Closet Land.
As I hinted above, Basil was not as pleasant an experience for the director as was Closet Land. Despite winning several awards on the film festival circuit for the director’s cut, Basil was tampered with by the studio in some infelicitous ways. Unfortunately, this latter version is the only one available on DVD. With the cooperation of Radha Bharadwaj, I was able to see what she intended. I would argue that she made a better film than the studio released, and I hope that this discussion might lead to a release of her version.
The most dramatic difference is in the use of the musical score. Radha deployed the music as a symbolic set of leitmotifs, establishing thematic connections between some pieces and the narrative action. The replacement studio score by Richard G. Mitchell — who has done better work for other films such as Grand Theft Parsons — provides a lot of unnecessary garnish. It is both intrusive and generic (costume drama window-dressing). It’s as if the sound doesn’t trust the highly capable actors (Jared Leto as Basil, Christian Slater as John Mannion, Sir Derek Jacobi as Basil’s father, Claire Forlani as Julia Sherwin). For example, when brother Ralph first notices the socially inferior beauty visiting the hall, the composer provides what I would describe as pixie dust music, the same little flourish one hears on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow when we find out the value of an appraised item! This all-purpose sonic seasoning is used for kissing scenes and the like.
By contrast, the high moments of romantic passion in the director’s cut use Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, second movement. This music holds its own with or even overwhelms the visuals, but not in a distracting or intrusive way because it is used to make an important thematic point. Basil’s desire is more important as an engine driving the story than the actual object of his desire; the intense music reminds us of this psychological truth. One wonders why the studio did not trust Bharadwaj’s instincts here. Was it because this sumptuous Beethoven theme has been used in other previous films such as John Boorman’s Zardoz? In any case, the results of the choice are unfortunate.
There are other musical motifs in the director’s cut, in particular a descending theme which I associate with Basil’s fall from grace. It is heard in the aviary that is associated with Julia and when Basil confesses his transgressions to his father who pointedly tells Basil he has “lived down to [his]expectations.”
In addition to the altered music, there are a few other problematic differences in the studio version. The studio cut a brief scene where Basil and his father are approached by a prostitute during a carriage ride, which not only underscores the sexual paradoxes and tensions in Victorian culture but also serves to indicate Basil’s sheltered naivete in these matters — an innocence detected by his father which will lead to far more ruinous consequences subsequently. More subtly, John Mannion’s climactic suicide plunge off the cliff originally used non-continuity editing to stagger and elongate the moment (cf. Sergei Eisenstein’s manipulations in the bridge sequence in October). In the studio cut we get only one shot of his death leap edited for continuity, a more conventional gesture. Would Bharadwaj’s way have been so puzzling to a movie audience? All of these are little considerations, perhaps, but they add up to making Basil a slightly inferior film than the one Radha Bharadwaj wanted to put out.
Since the release of Basil, Radha has not directed a film, although several screenplays by her seem to be in various stages of development. She has been primarily writing fiction, several detective novels and a lot of short stories (some of the latter of which have won awards). In a recent interview conducted by Mia Avramut for the online journal scissors and spackle, Bharadwaj hints at some of the reasons for this career move:
Increasingly, the more interesting feature films one sees these days are derived from books (or real-life characters like Mrs. Thatcher or Ray Charles). I think it’s better — even as a filmmaker –to get one’s bigger Eureka ideas down as books first, for the film business then approaches the material and its creator with more respect.
She also notes that with books “you get to plumb depths (of a character, his/her world) better… than with a screenplay or theatre play” which is confined to “the spoken word” as opposed to characters’ thoughts, big ideas and the like. Perhaps an obvious point, but no doubt a sincere discovery for someone switching into this other medium.
So once again, we see both great diversity in her fiction and some emergent trends and tropes. Here I want to proceed with great caution as an explicator. Because she is such a gifted storyteller, she favors the O. Henry or Saki twist ending often, a proclivity also apparent in her film narratives. So I do not want to give away much of the plot of any of these works while commenting on their recurrent interests. In fact, the surprising plot move might well be considered the first apparent trope in all her fiction.
Secondly, we once again see tremendous reversals as a result of the unexpected impact of the gaze. For example, in “Lord of Our Destinies,” the main character Manja works for the Leader, a mysterious and charismatic political figure who entrances the populace by trafficking in imagery derived from American western films: white ten-gallon hat, dark glasses. As a result of Manja’s loyalty, he gets promoted from running small errands for the party to taking care of the Leader at his palatial estate. One night he wanders into the bathroom of the house:
The bathroom was huge, and the pale pink tiles on the walls gleamed like seashells. The tub was set in an elevated rectangle in the centre of the room, with steps leading up to it. Manja walked softly into the bathroom. There was a man in the tub, his body hidden by lather, head and feet jutting out at the two ends. The feet were worn and wrinkled, with bent toes that looked like the talons of a barn owl. And the head — it looked like one of the coconuts in the garden — weak, with tiny wisps of hair clinging to the fragile baldness. Manja could even see veins under the pale skin. The man’s eyes were closed, relaxed in folds of loose, clammy flesh. Manja thought of the young chicks he had seen in the village that crawled out of their eggs, their eyes covered by blue film, their thin bodies featherless, cold, and strange to touch. A similar emotion possessed him as he stared at the man in the tub — a morbid pull that kept him staring, mixed with revulsion at the thought of the pale loose flesh touching him. Then he looked at the foot of the tub and saw a white bathrobe with the coconut tree emblem [the symbol of the Leader’s political party], a white ten-gallon hat, shawl, and dark glasses all neatly laid out… (16)
Other plot turns follow, but this is the first shock to Manja’s worshipful illusions. He tries to maintain his fantasy when he sees the Leader on a television screen immediately after on the way home: “What if he is old and loose-fleshed? With a hat and dark glasses and a shawl, who can see his veins? One who can speak like the Gods can never die” (17). But he has had an irrevocable look behind the imagery of power.
Similarly, in the story “In Perfect Balance,” the main character Liam witnesses a moment of romantic betrayal very similar to the turning point in Basil. Or, in “Strictly Verboten,” Jeremy — a lonely child visiting Chicago who is neglected and mistreated by his film-acting mother and grandmother — makes eye contact with a strange man living in an abandoned building who turns out to be the Cluster Fucker, “a serial killer who targets groups of women”: an encounter that leads to fateful results. Voyeurism and gazing have a heavy price in Bharadwaj’s world, appropriately for a film director.
This child would suggest a third trope in Bharadwaj’s stories as well as her screenplays: the oppressed child. Another unifying dimension of her fictional practice is her willingness to transgress and present us unlikable and/or deranged characters. In interview she notes that she loves “protagonists who allow [her] to venture into the darkest reaches of the human heart.” Smita Ghosh in “The Rains of Ramghat” is an excellent example of same. Not only is she involved in an incestuous relationship with her twin brother and inclined to sexual imagery; she can be unbelievably insensitive to the underclasses of India. Consider her sightseeing when she drives through the urban slums of that “willing whore” Calcutta:
This time I saw a baby’s corpse being prepared for cremation while waiting for the light to change. Its mother — that’s who she must have been, a very young girl, not more than sixteen herself — decked the small stretcher with blue flowers. The baby’s face was wrinkled, like those of the very elderly or the terminally ill. A large dot of vermillion adorned the wee forehead.
The mother had tried to close the baby’s open eyes. Apparently not as simple a task as one would have thought — I mean, you think you can do what you want with at least the dead, don’t you? She kept pressing the open eyes — gently, as if the dead baby could still feel — but the waxy lids wouldn’t budge.
“What difference does it make? It can’t see any more, you illiterate moron,” I shouted from my car, my blood boiling at the sight of her useless effort. She looked at me with a sort of dazed shock, as if hearing my noise but not my words. The light had changed — angry honks from those behind me, eager to hurry up and wait at the next light. I obliged; I moved my car-pawn to the next square.
Smita is as flat affect a character as any one might find in the writings of J. G. Ballard or Bret Easton Ellis.
A final unifying feature of Radha Bharadwaj’s fiction is the cosmopolitanism of her settings and worldview. She moves freely from India to America and is careful to never include, unlike many other writers, unexplained inside information that would take the reader out of human universals into specialized subcultures. She explains this choice in the interview with Mia Avramut:
“These days I feel fully at home neither in India nor in the West. But rootlessness gives you wings. It’s liberating and freeing…. And that’s true to how I write, and to the sort of books and films I like. The universality of the human experience — not some coded puzzle that one needs buzz words to crack….Plus I get irritated at works from India (or any other place) where it’s clear that the writer/filmmaker is tailoring a whole culture/people to fit into what Western critics and reviewers like and want to see. Audiences and readers are a lot more open-minded in their tastes and acceptance-levels, and they’ll actually read and even like works that don’t fit neatly into ‘the immigrant experience’ category, or the “here’s how you, the western reader/viewer should view the masses of India/Africa/China” category. If, as an artist, you drop these labels and stop performing to please the exalted few, the screen lifts and the whole world is your playground.”
I am reminded of the words of Hugh of St. Victor which the late Edward Said was so fond of quoting about the three levels of traveler:
“The person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man [sic] has extinguished his.”
Radha Bharadwaj is this perfect traveler St. Victor and Said praise. Not only is she not tied to any particular place uncritically; she is not even bounded by genre, medium or cultural role. As a storyteller, she’s a complete chameleon, not an obsessive dwelling on the same themes such as Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, J. G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick (not that there’s anything wrong with this approach; they too have their place of merit). Isaiah Berlin in his famous dualism would peg her a fox, adept at many things, not the hedgehog who knows one dimension of existence down to its depths. It used to be easier for foxes in Hollywood: consider the careers of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. Since Stanley Kubrick left for England, it’s been harder for a fox to thrive there. Ask Radha Bharadwaj.
One last vision: go to her official website www.closetland.com and click on “Images.” You will find a series of film clips of Radha as a potential actress: looking menaced by an unseen force, embracing a child, lit by glamorous Hollywood classic lighting like Greta Garbo. You may want to connect these fragments into a narrative — which would turn out to be something like Maya Deren’s classic experimental short “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Maybe they’re a screen test for a potential Hollywood director — or Vishnu. Let their visual materiality linger in your mind, her captured beauty frozen in time and extended over the internet for your contemplation before you do something else on your own journey.
Avramut, Mia. Interview with Radha Bharadwaj. www.scissorsandspackle.com/august/rahda-bharadwaj.
Bharadwaj, Radha, director and screenwriter. Basil. With Jared Leto, Christian Slater, Sir Derek Jacobi and Claire Forlani. Lion’s Gate, 1997. Page numbers refer to the screenplay, courtesy of the author.
–.Closet Land. With Madeleine Stowe and Alan Rickman. Universal Studios, 1991.
Page numbers refer to the screenplay, courtesy of the author.
–. “In Perfect Balance.” The Writing Disorder Presents the Best Fiction and Nonfiction of 2012. Ed. C. E. Lukather. Los Angeles: The Writing Disorder, 2012. Pages 268-277.
–. “The Last Rite.” www.shipwrightsreview.com.
–. “Lord of Our Destinies. www.amazon.com/Independent-Ink-Magazine/dp/B004VW3BEA.
–. “The Rains of Ramghat.” www.shattercolors.com/fiction/bharadwaj_rains.htm.
–. “Strictly Verboten.” www.notesfromtheunderground.co.uk/.
–. www.closetland.com. Radha Bharadwaj’s official website.
Corrigan, Timothy. “The Commerce of Auteurism.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Eds. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Pages 416-429.
Goldsmith, Jeff. “Cinema Obscura: Closet Land: History Repeats Itself.” www.backstory.net.
Mallon, William. “When an author goes too far: An Examination of the similarities between The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh and ClosetLand by Radha Bharadwaj.” Honors thesis, GodardCollege, March 2010.
Millett, Kate. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. Third edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
— Bob Mielke