The View from Afar

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

“If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” — Amir Khusrau

Hindi filmmakers can always milk a successful formula for just a modicum more. Even if they make us believe it’s eternal, love onscreen doesn’t have to look original.

Last week saw the release of “Gerua,” a sweeping ballad from the highly anticipated film Dilwale. Once again, Bollywood’s beloved duo, Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan, find themselves in each other’s arms.

Director Rohit Shetty shot “Gerua” in Iceland. The dramatic atmosphere overtakes us, drowns us in geological formations too stunning to seem real. If love means forgetting the world to see the one we love (“duniya bhulake tumse mila hoon”), then “Gerua” gets as far from society as the South Asian cinematic imagination allows.

Nadya Agrawal writes, “I still refuse to believe that Kajol and SRK aren’t married.” But can’t we imagine that they are — just one more time? Let’s pick up where we last left them.

To be clear, this isn’t about nostalgia. Sure, my adolescent memories of films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham will never pale in comparison to this season’s updated treatment — but that’s not the point.

What “Gerua” does, then, is stretch beyond the limits of its frame, bordering on self-referential, even self-reverential. It tries, unsuccessfully, to reify in our imaginations a love story that can last a lifetime.

But “Gerua” frustrates me because I know it doesn’t matter how far we travel. We see a glimpse at our own futile expectations, our own desires projected against a screen that’ll go dark after the credits roll.

Shetty picturizes “Gerua” in that hyperbolic, melodic style that filmmaker Yash Chopra immortalized with romances like Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Silsila (1980), and Chandni (1989). And in 1995, his studio produced Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the film that cemented in audiences’ minds to this day the Kajol–SRK ideal.

Gerua Screen Shots 1

“Gerua” finds life in what’s commonly dubbed the “Cut to Switzerland”. As NPR-critic Bilal Qureshi writes, “Chopra’s films introduced the over-the-top visual presentation of courtship that made Bollywood both iconic and way too saccharine for most Western audiences. His heroes and heroines would unexpectedly break into songs and be magically transported from India’s cities into the Swiss Alps. Starlets in chiffon saris, completely inappropriate for Alpine climates, would flutter in the wind against breathtaking backdrops… heroes would emerge from behind pine trees to sing of a love that would last lifetime(s).”

But what’s noteworthy is that “Gerua” references the hold of Hindi cinema on audiences — and its desperate attempt to cling to an idealized aesthetic. It promises that some stories don’t have to end, that change isn’t real. It encapsulates a Bollywood that knows no beginning, no end without Kajol and SRK lighting up a movie hall.

So what does the color of this monumental love look like, feel like? What even is gerua?

Amitabh Bhattacharya penned the song’s lyrics, referring to the Sufi trope of coloring a beloved in a sort of pink-yellow-red-orange hybrid. This saffron–ochre mix signifies the soil (seen in Iceland’s cliffs), but more poetically, gerua is the dust that coats the bodies of jogis and fakirs — the men, both wise and mad, who’ve abandoned the world in search of the one they love.

It’s the thousands of colors spilling across Kajol and SRK’s bodies and backlighting their silhouettes during the song’s sunset (rise?) scene.

Gerua Screen Shots 4

On Sunday, SRK tweeted that for Sufis, the shade of the sky at both dawn and sunset is the same. The beginning and the end look like one another, and “in between the two lies enlightenment.”

One line sums it up: “Ho tumse shuru… tumpe fanaa.” This story embarks with them, extinguishes with them. SRK and Kajol, and the films they star in, are what we desert the world for — and our own nation.

Tristes Tropiques (1967) is a memoir that the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss envisioned as a subtle critique of travel. He rails against the travelogue’s message — that anyone can heroically leave home and expect to discover something about himself by encountering strange new cultures, untouched and pristine, previously unknown to Westerners. Lévi-Strauss, fed up with this self-aggrandizement, instead turns the lens back on himself after returning from a short fieldwork stint in the Amazon.

An early chapter in Tristes Tropiques entitled “Sunset,” a scene Lévi-Strauss observes in precise, lyrical detail as he’s approaching the Brazilian coastline, offers a lens to crack my frustration with “Gerua.”

Lévi-Strauss struggles to locate words for the pure sunset that can “communicate to others the character of an event which was never twice the same.” He aims to freeze the fleeting tableau and unlock the secrets hidden in the mystical sunset unfolding before him. Sure, his prose shimmers with Proustian recollection. But it’s not enough — he writes, “Many years have passed, and I don’t know if I could recapture that early state of grace.”

One verse in “Gerua” recycles familiar Sufi tropes: “Main karvan manzil ho tum, jata jahan ko har rasta” (I’m the caravan and you, the destination where every path leads).

But does going there to represent the unfamiliar do what words cannot? “Gerua,” like Tristes Tropiques’ sunset, is revelatory. How, then, should we interpret the feelings it colors us in?

Beauty isn’t simply a form to behold, but a force — a vehicle that teleports us.

The Greeks used the same word for dawn and twilight. Beginning and end are the same. Gerua is the hue of “dawn robed in saffron,” to use Caroline Alexander’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. It’s what Lévi-Strauss calls “shrimp-pink, salmon-pink” — colors so indistinguishable, fragile, and ephemeral, they belie rigid start and end points.

As the sun dances before us, either we pay attention to when it all begins or ends — itself a pointless exercise — or we let Kajol and SRK’s silver-screen enlightenment wash over us.

Gerua Screen Shots 5A

“Dhoop se nikalke, chhaon se phisalke…” As the pair emerges from the sunshine and slips from the shadows, their performance plays with us. They’re an illusion, a trickery of light.

“Only a few moments earlier they had been alive… now they seem set fast in a form as sad as it is unalterable,” writes Lévi-Strauss on the ephemeral colors as they dispersed across the sky. That’s the trouble with holding onto a memory that gives us pleasure, with preserving change.

Tristes Tropiques is fitting to read next to “Gerua” because it’s a fatigued conceit. Written only a decade after the end of WWII, it reflects on the unfathomable capacity of humans to enact mass destruction on their own kind. Lévi-Strauss laments the obliteration of South American tribes at the hands of European settlers and explorers who’ve gotten there before him. Despite his heroic voyage, he knows he won’t find the world’s last paradise or salvage some lost vision of humanity. Exasperated and forlorn, he discovers only a world already laid to waste.

“If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” The Mughal emperor Jahangir recalled these words of 13th-century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau when he beheld the Kashmiri landscape. Every summer, the entire royal court traveled to Kashmir’s lush valleys, escaping the heat of Delhi’s plains. Even if Khusrau was referring to some other place, as scholars have argued, the image of Kashmir as paradise on earth has stuck, and countless films in the 1960s and 70s captivated a nation with its vistas.

Military tension and insurgency in Kashmir, however, made it difficult to shoot scenes in the region after the 1980s, and so directors like Chopra packed up their film crews westward, outsourcing paradise to the glamour of the Alps. By transgressing national borders, the Cut to Switzerland shut out India’s mundane, noisy inconveniences for a few hours. Audiences learned to find paradise not in their own country, but seek it out far away from their polluted cities. Switzerland became a “mediascape,” to use Arjun Appadurai’s word, one that gave form to a young nation’s sense of what it meant to be modern — an aspiration India’s couples sought on honeymoons. A movie ticket is to this day a poor man’s passport.

And so, a sense of disappointment lingers on after I close my YouTube tab.

“Gerua” — an ode to Hindi cinema’s power to transport us and inspire us — clings desperately to our memories and reveres them as unspoiled. It only reinforces how futile basking in the exotic is or expecting that heroic shots on precipitous mountaintops will satisfy us. No matter how far we scour, our search is met with melancholy.

Durga Chew-Bose writes that “everyone thinks they’re left speechless by sunsets but really it’s its afterglow.” “Gerua” gives no afterglow. No enlightenment. Just disenchantment.

I remember wailing as a child when my mother would finish reading even a mediocre storybook to my sister and me before bed. I guess I should’ve learned. Sometimes “the end” really is enough.

Share.

About Author

Leave A Reply