Some of my favourite films are those that cleverly combine crime with humour. Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, for instance, a witty story about a man whom everybody seems to have been wanting to get rid of. Or—one of my favourite films, regardless of time and language and genre—I Soliti Ignoti, about a bunch of horribly inept thieves. Charade, How to Steal a Million… and, the latest to join the ranks, the Russian film Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm), which is about a man with an arm wrapped about with diamonds. And other gemstones, and gold.
This work calls itself a ‘screen novel’ and consists, as do so many novels, of not just the main body of the novel, but a prologue and an epilogue as well.
The prologue is a brief one. In a narrow street in Istanbul, two dodgy-looking guys stand in the doorway of an apothecary, and hand over a cane with an ornate handle to a man in a car. This man we see next sitting down in a public area, placing the cane carefully beside him—from where it is swiftly and surreptitiously switched for a replica by another, who rushes off with it.
I remember watching a fair bit of Soviet cinema as a child. This was back in the late 1970s and 80s, when India and the USSR were bosom buddies. Soviet children’s literature filled our bookshelves and the occasional Soviet Film Festival meant that even before I turned 10, I’d already seen English-dubbed Russian cartoons. Later, when we got a TV, we saw several classics—Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and the like—on Doordarshan. Those, sadly (yes, literally sadly!) left me with a lasting impression of Soviet Cinema = Moroseness, Morbidity, Unrelenting Angst.
It struck me the other day that that couldn’t be all. So I set out to see what I could unearth, and I discovered several films that I liked a lot. Devchata (The Girls) is one of them.
Frequent readers of this blog have probably realised I have a soft spot for ‘real life’ stories: Gladys Aylward, Dr Kotnis, Changez Khan, Shahjahan: I’m game. Of course, I don’t always end up with films that bear any resemblance to the life of the person in question, but there’s no harm in trying.
So, another. Afanasy Nikitin was a horse trader from Tver in Russia, who came to India in the late 15th century, having started off from Tver in 1466. His travels took him down the Volga River, through Persia, and then via dhow to India. He is believed to have disembarked in present-day Maharashtra; over the years that followed, he travelled through a large part of peninsular India, including Bidar and Vijaynagar. He died in 1472 in Smolensk, on his way home; his travelogue of India, however, endures: entitled Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray (‘The Journey Beyond Three Seas’), it describes in detail all that Nikitin saw of what was to him a wild, exotic land like nothing he knew.
Years ago, when I was a child, Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin) was shown on television. I must have been about 10, perhaps 11—but no more than that. Five minutes into the film and I got bored of the grainy, jerky picture (this was an unrestored version) and the lack of dialogue. A silent film? And that too about a mutiny? Um, no.
For some 25 odd years, that remained my only memory of Bronenosets Potyomkin, even long after I’d discovered that it’s regarded as a sort of cult classic.
An omission, I realised, that needed correction. It was time to dust off Sergei Eisenstein’s magnum opus and see what it was really about.