By Ashwini Malik
A few months ago, I did what I had been putting off for years: I read the Natyashastra, the ancient Indian guidebook of the performing arts. Interesting as it is, I must confess that as a manual of the performing arts, that text holds only a moderate interest for me. What I found fascinating about the Natyashastra were the two chapters on the rasa theory – I thought they were invaluable to cinema in general and screenwriting in particular. I had, of course, heard a lot about the rasa theory and how it has influenced all Indian performing arts, including Indian cinema, but I always saw a mere superficial resemblance between Indian cinema and what I understood about the rasa theory. Let me explain. The rasa theory, in brief, states that for a viewing experience to be complete and satisfying, a play must evoke in the viewer a variety of rasas or flavors or sentiments (from the following 8: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrifying, odious, marvelous). Of these 8, a play may have one ‘dominant’ sentiment, with several others present in smaller, varying quantities. (The original Natyashastra mentions only eight rasas. The ninth – shanti or peace – was added later, thus leading to the term Navras, meaning ‘nine rasas’. In this essay, I’m sticking with the original eight rasas. The word rasa, which means juice, has been translated variously, into, ‘flavor’, ‘sentiment’, ‘emotion’ and ‘mood’. I have used all these interpretations interchangeably, since the purpose of this essay is not to argue about semantics. I am less interested in the technicalities of the rasa theory and more in its core philosophy.)
It is a well-known fact that popular Indian films are a hotchpotch of ingredients: there’s drama, emotion, songs, action, romance, intrigue, comedy… all in generous doses. Yes, perhaps this can be attributed to the rasa theory of the Natyashastra. However, this sort of a simplistic, rather crude interpretation of the ancient text never quite excited me. Also, most popular Indian films have these ingredients by design, in almost precise doses, thus making the film seem artificially crafted. The ingredients do not mix into an organic whole but stick out awkwardly, resulting in a lumpy, unwholesome product. (It must be said, however, that the power of the rasa theory is such that popular Indian films continue to succeed despite this awkwardness and lumpiness.) So, as I said, I never did take too seriously the influence of the rasa theory on Indian cinema since I believed (and still do) that the popular Indian cinema has, by and large, abused the rasa theory to the point of making it irrelevant, at least to cinema. For this reason, I kept putting off the reading of the Natyashastra.
But I couldn’t put it off forever, could I? After all, I am a ‘teacher’ of screenwriting, mentor regularly at workshops, engage with students, Indian and foreign, every day of my life. So I read the Natyashastra. When I came to Chapters 6 and 7 – the chapters dealing with the rasa theory – I was, to put it mildly, taken aback. And humbled. Let me explain.
Taken aback. Because on revisiting in my mind the films that I had found great, films that had given me a complete, stimulating and satisfying experience, I felt certain that they all seemed to be following the fundamental principles of the rasa theory. And I mean films from across the world, across genre, across even divisions like art-house film and commercial film. From Casablanca to Charulata to Raise the Red Lantern to Before Sunrise to Pulp Fiction to 8 ½ to L’enfant, from Mughal-e-azam to Satya to Udaan, from Eric Rohmer to Bergman to Satyajit Ray to Ghatak to Majidi and Kiarostami and Cameron and Nolan and Loach and what have you. And though it is possible that some of these filmmakers were familiar with the rasa theory, it’s unlikely that all of them were. But their approach to screenwriting and filmmaking was evolved and holistic, and clearly resonated with the rasa theory.
Humbled. I had written an essay attacking screenwriting manuals that went hoarse advocating rules and principles governing screenwriting. I have always felt that such manuals tend to reduce screenwriting to a formula and lead to predictable, formulaic films, which are churned out by the dozen every month in Hollywood. And yet, here I was, awed by what is essentially a manual, with rules, formulae, principles and divisions and sub-divisions!
The truth is that I felt that if the rasa theory is understood and assimilated by writers and filmmakers, it could give us a new, organic, holistic approach for connecting with audiences through the movies.
So am I saying that if one manages to understand and assimilate the rasa theory, that’s all one really needs to write an effective screenplay? Not at all. What, then, is the value of traditional storytelling craft as reflected upon by the likes of Aristotle and Lajos Egri?
The craft is important, of course. An understanding of structure, creating complex characters, identifying the central conflict, are all extremely important in telling effective stories using the medium of cinema. However, I have always felt that there is far too much emphasis on the so-called ‘principles’ of screenwriting and not enough on the fundamental quality that makes us connect with a work of art: the feeling that the work has given us an experience that encapsulates life. Let’s call it the life-experience.
Life, as we know from experience, is a bundle of contradictions. Over a period of years we see and experience every conceivable emotion. It is this experience of life that art seeks to capture. What makes us connect with a work of art, in this case specifically film, is that in a matter of 2 hours or so, the film has given us this experience of life. In other words, it has resonated with our life. We have felt the pain and the joy, the frustration and euphoria, the passion and the anger, the fear and the relief that are a part of normal life. Often a single feeling or sentiment dominates a film. Love, fear, pathos, joy, whatever. Even in such cases, the film that connects with us succeeds in giving us a life-experience via the portrayal of other emotions as well. So the rasa theory works at two levels in a film: one, it helps the film become a microcosm of life by instilling into it emotions that we experience over extended periods; and two, it enables the film to capture life in the moment, putting into perspective the dominant emotion by showing us how the world continues to be awash with other flavors as well, even when we are preoccupied with our own specific condition. If, for example, at a certain point in life we are struggling to cope with the death of a loved one, it is the pain or sorrow of this struggle that defines that phase of our life. However, while this sorrow is the dominant feeling, the world that we inhabit, the world that includes us, continues to overflow with all kinds of flavors at all times. And yet, while all these flavors continue to exist, they do not overpower the dominant feeling of the sorrow at the death of the loved one. It is this ironical state that defines life. Life is an assortment of conflicting emotions. This is the essence of life and any film that manages to capture this essence is likely to connect with its intended audience, be it the glitterati at Cannes or city viewers in a multiplex or the peasants at a rickety cinema in an Indian village. (The Natyashastra has high regard for the audience, whose entertainment and enlightenment are its chief concerns.) The beauty of the rasa theory is that it transcends craft as well as form. It can enrich any kind of work, be it a mainstream film intended for a large audience, or a work that challenges conventional storytelling forms.
The Rasa theory
Natyashastra is an ancient Indian text in Sanskrit language, written between 200 BC and 200 AD. It is attributed to the sage Bharata, although it is likely that it was the work of several persons, and was written over centuries. This text encompasses all Indian performing arts – theatre, dance, music. Written in Sanskrit verse, Natyashastra is a detailed text, with divisions and subdivisions, and rules and principles for every little aspect. Like the Mahabharata, the Natyashastra too claims that what is not in it is not to be found anywhere else either. Chapters 6 and 7 of the treatise deal with the rasa theory, which essentially states that there are eight dominant sentiments or rasas that a play can evoke in the audience. These sentiments are evoked by the portrayal of eight corresponding states.
Sentiment evoked in audience via the portrayal of the state
1. Erotic (Shringara) Love
2. Comic (Hasya) Mirth
3. Pathetic (Karuna) Sorrow
4. Furious (Raudra) Anger
5. Heroic (Veer) Vigor
6. Terrifying (Bhayanaka) Terror
7. Odious (Bibhatsa) Disgust
8. Marvelous (Adbhuta) Astonishment
The rasa theory asserts that while every play must portray a variety of states evoking a variety of sentiments, all ingredients in equal measure are not present in life and therefore must not be present in a play. There is usually one dominant sentiment, though it is important to note that the rasa theory does not mention this as a rule. Perhaps it’s possible to have an organic mix of ingredients in a work without the clear dominance of one. We have seen this in many a film (The Godfather, for example. Or 8 ½. And closer home, Meghe Dhaka Tara, and more recently, Udaan), where it’s difficult to define the, if you will, genre, clearly, but it’s quite obvious that the film contains several sentiments. And when there is a single dominant sentiment, other (though not necessarily all) sentiments must be present to enrich it. Thus, a thriller becomes a more satisfying watch if it also has romance and comedy and drama, a love story is more enjoyable if it has organically woven elements of fear and horror, and so on.
The 4 levels of application
Let’s start with a fundamental, though regrettably pretentious, question: what is the purpose of cinema? For a moment, let’s put all the exalted purposes aside and look at it purely from the point of view of the viewer. The viewer wants to be engaged, entertained, stimulated, enlightened, occasionally challenged and provoked and disturbed, but finally, satisfied. How does one do this? By creating an experience on screen that is, a) interesting, b) convincing, and c) complete.
An experience will be interesting if it is unusual and/or dramatic. An experience will be convincing if it unfolds plausibly (and the viewer is happy to suspend his disbelief for an experience if it’s interesting enough). Finally, an experience will appear complete to a viewer only if it is meaningful in some way, either by giving him an insight into life or simply the general feeling that he is better off for having seen the film. So, to narrow it down a bit, for a viewer to be engaged, entertained, stimulated, enlightened, occasionally challenged and provoked and disturbed, what is needed is an experience that not only echoes life, but also makes sense of its seeming pointlessness and randomness. An experience that strives to capture the essence of life. But how does one capture this essence of life? Life itself is the product of all kinds of things, with a multitude of happenings and emotions jostling about in a manner that seems totally random. How then, does one make sense of life? Perhaps an understanding of the rasa theory can help us.
The Natyashastra often gives the analogy of a fulfilling meal that has several spices and other ingredients expertly mixed. In other words, the essence of life can be captured if the viewer is given an experience that contains an organic mix of several sentiments. The operative term here is ‘organic mix’. How does one create an organic mix, where different ingredients don’t stick out awkwardly because they have simply been forced into a work? The answer might lie, perhaps, in fusing the rasa theory with the very form of the screenplay.
There are 4 levels at which a screenplay is put together. (I’m proposing 4, in order to put forth my argument. Someone else might say 3 or 17 or whatever. It doesn’t matter.) The most basic level is the seed or the germ, which to translate into concrete terms, would be the concept of the story. The very concept must contain the potential to develop into a screenplay that can have various sentiments in an organic mix. The second level is that of character: who are the people that inhabit the story? Do they represent a cross-section of the society in which the story is set? The third level is that of the sequences or the incidents that are used to tell the story. As we know, the story in a film unfolds via incidents and a screenplay is nothing but a series of incidents strung together to make a whole. The very choice of these incidents must be such that they are able to capture the essence of life via a variety of sentiments. The fourth level is that of the scene. The scene is the smallest unit of a screenplay and can be seen as akin to a moment in the script. The moments that a screenwriter chooses to tell the story must be exactly appropriate, ones that, when seen together, reflect a variety of sentiments.
A question arises: is it possible to show a variety of sentiments or emotions in each film, without making the script seem contrived? It is not easy and if one were to attempt to do this consciously perhaps the contrivance will show as it does in most popular films, where things seem to have been forced in to give this so-called ‘complete’ experience to the viewer. However, if we can approach stories in an open, all-embracing fashion, we might begin to get somewhere. As writers and filmmakers, what we are effectively doing is creating a brand new world, which we hope will be true enough to resonate with the world that we know. This world that we create must be capable of coming alive and the only way that can happen is if it has everything that the real world has. The world of the story must have people, governments, roads, traffic rules, relationships, love, joy, pain, fear, sorrow… Everything. Not an easy task. While we can never really replicate the real world in cinema, the closer we get to it the truer will it ring.
Level 1: The Seed
There are two aspects to the seed. The first thing we need to look at is the feeling or emotion that is powering the screenplay. Is it deep enough and strong enough that the exploration of it will inevitably cover a gamut of sentiments? Like for example, the pain of betrayal and love that torments Rick in Casablanca. Or, the intense love and pain afflicting Tomek in A Short Film about Love. Or, Phil Connors’s frustration at being stuck in Groundhog Day. Or Charu’s intense loneliness in Charulata. If one looks closely at films that have connected, one will note that a profound pain powers each of those films, because, when it comes right down to it, it is pain that is the essence of life. In every phase of life, even in apparently ‘happy’ ones, the overwhelming feeling is that of life being a ‘pain’. Even if it’s simply a matter of traveling from one place to another, the traffic or the hurry or a rash driver will make the journey painful. And if the journey is not a pain then the pain will begin when the purpose of the journey starts unfolding. If we’ve gone to discuss a deal – business deal, property deal, any deal – there’s the pain of negotiating and putting up with an unpleasant or manipulative person. If we get the deal, there’s the pain of fulfilling the deal in a world designed to make things difficult. If one is in a situation of romance, of course, the pain becomes especially deep and delicious. In short, one is always struggling, some of us more than others, but no one is not struggling. Of course the struggle of maneuvering through a traffic jam is unlikely to power a hundred-minute screenplay but it certainly does contribute to the overall feeling of life being a struggle. Since cinema is limited in terms of time and cannot possibly show all our small and big struggles that give life an overall sense of struggle, a story zeroes in on a core of pain. Pain, therefore, is good for a script. Pain is what a script needs. Pain is what a script demands. The pain that Eva feels due to her mother’s neglect in Autumn Sonata is so deep and fierce that just a mother and daughter going at each other verbally makes for a riveting viewing experience. The pain of jealousy felt by Salieri in Amadeus is enough to power a play and a film to success and glory. Michael Corleone being forced to join the family business because of his father’s death leads to such anguish that we’re mesmerized as we watch his intelligence and charisma find an outlet in ruthlessness and extreme brutality. Malcolm Crowe’s pain at not being able to save his patient resulting in his life and marriage coming apart makes him a compelling protagonist. Alvy Singer’s pain at not being able to make his relationship work. The little boy’s pain at losing his sister’s shoes in Children of Heaven. The pain that women are going through to survive in the oppression of Iran in Jafar Panahi’s The Circle. I can go on…. No matter what genre a writer is working in, the core power of the story emerges from the pain or suffering that torment the protagonist or protagonists. If we can tap into this core it will give us a whole universe, which is exactly what each story needs. To put it bluntly: FIND THE PAIN!
The second aspect of the seed is more tangible. What is the story really, concretely about? A famous filmmaker, struggling to make a spectacular, big-budget film, escapes into memory and fantasy as he deals with director’s block, a lack of inspiration, a mistress and a wife, an edgy producer and a demanding star. (8 ½; 1963; directed by Federico Fellini; written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi)
Or, during World War II, a cynical bar owner in Morocco comes face to face with the woman he loved, the woman who betrayed him and made him a bitter man. She has a husband, a war hero, in tow and they need to get out of Casablanca and the bar owner, who has contacts in Morocco may be in a position to help. (Casablanca; 1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch; based on the play ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’, by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison)
Or, a teenaged boy in Poland falls deeply in love with a much older woman whom he watches from his apartment through binoculars. The woman discovers him, leading to complications. (A Short Film about Love; 1988; directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski; written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzystof Piesiewicz)
Or, an egocentric weatherman travels to a town to report on Groundhog Day. This is something he’s been doing for years and is sick of. After finishing his report he finds himself trapped in a time warp, reliving the same dreadful day again and again. (Groundhog Day; 1993; directed by Harold Ramis; written by Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis)
Let’s look at each of the above four plotlines and analyze their potential for creating a complete and fulfilling viewing experience by a natural incorporation of varied sentiments.
8½: While there’s no clear dominant sentiment here, except possibly the Comic, since that is the tone of the film, 8½ is perhaps the perfect concoction of all flavors, each one distinct, and yet each one blended flawlessly into the whole. The erotic comes into play with: the mistress; the beautiful leading lady whom the director’s mind insists on transforming into his muse; Guido’s memories of Saraghina; and of course his harem fantasy. Comic is the tone of the film. Pathetic is his actual condition, as also that of his wife and mistress and others who come in contact with him. The furious exists in his wife, his mistress, his producer, in himself, and just about everybody. And yet Guido remains a heroic figure, crazy enough to attempt an ambitious film without a script and without inspiration. The ramifications of his audaciousness are terrifying, so is his imminent fate, as he’s clearly going for broke. His life is full of the odious – his grotesque sexual escapades with his tawdry mistress, as well as the surreal memories and fantasies. In fact, in 8½, the erotic and the odious are two sides of the same coin, as they so often are. Finally, spectacle is an essential part of Fellini’s vision. It is not mere coincidence that Guido is attempting to realize every director’s dream – a film that is spectacular (Marvelous) and deeply personal at the same time. Something that Fellini accomplishes in 8 ½, spectacularly so. Fellini must have been familiar with the rasa theory!
Casablanca: Clearly, the dominant emotion here is love. However, let’s look at what all the plot line promises: since the situation is about betrayal in love, there is bound to be sorrow; since she betrayed him and they are now face to face, there is bound to be anger; since the protagonist has to engineer a daring escape, heroism and fear are part of the package; since he is a bar owner, there is scope for mirth as well as disgust; disgust in the hero is also directed towards the woman as a result of the deep pain that he feels at the betrayal. There seems to be no place for the Marvelous here but we have seen that the potential mix is already rather wholesome.
A Short Film about Love: Erotic is the dominant sentiment. With love comes sorrow. With a boy spying come disgust and anger. Because of the element of danger involved in spying, there is also scope for heroism and fear. The basic situation itself has comic possibilities.
Groundhog Day: The dominant sentiment here is Comic. And because the protagonist finds himself in an undesirable situation, there is sorrow. Heroism comes into play when the protagonist needs to escape the situation. The situation itself is potentially dangerous. Anger is the natural reaction of the protagonist and the magical element provides the element of astonishment. Since the protagonist is an egocentric and we’re dealing with a groundhog, disgust can hardly be avoided. Love, of course, is crucial to his transformation into a better man. That seems to cover everything! Is it surprising therefore that Groundhog Day is such a delightful viewing experience?
Admittedly, the plotlines of several bad films will have the potential for all sentiments to play out. Therefore, it is important that this potential is properly exploited at each of the other three levels, like in the above four examples.
Level 2: Character
Stories are about people, even when they are not, like in The Lion King (the pain of seeing your father killed and being blamed for it) or Finding Nemo (the pain of losing your child), which are about people in the guise of animals and fishes. The writer endeavors to create a complete world in his story and this world is peopled by, well, people. Obviously, we can’t have as many people or as many important characters in a film as there are in our lives. And yet, it is important to have a representation of characters that make it seem like the writer has a world of people in the script. How does one do this? Let’s begin with the protagonist.
The protagonist is whom the film is about. A character whom we identify with, who takes us on this journey through various sentiments, who becomes us in the story so that we soon find ourselves rooting for him, even when he does things that we may not want him to. Andy in The Shawshank Redemption (1994; written and directed by Frank Darabont; based on Stephen King’s short story ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’) becomes our guide through the story, whose life we live vicariously, via the film. For Andy to be capable of undertaking and eventually completing the journey that the story has envisaged for him, he needs to have certain qualities. He must have the motivation to, at first, survive and eventually, escape. These he gets from the injustice that’s been done to him by his wife and by the system (his pain). He must have the ability to outsmart the warden and Hadley, and he must have the ability to escape. He must be educated and clever because that’s the only way he can outwit the jail authorities as well as the other prisoners who are more powerful than him. He must be compassionate so he is able to form bonds within the prison community. He must be quiet and reclusive, because his eventual escape hinges on keeping a secret for several years. So, even as the story determines the character, the character in turn determines the story. Clearly, there cannot be a rigid process to this. Character and plot determine each other in a way that’s natural, even chaotic, and this is how it must be. Let’s continue with Andy for a bit. We’ve seen his heroic qualities, but heroic qualities alone do not a human being make. For him to be one of us, he must have weaknesses too. That’s what will make him Everyman. Every protagonist is an Everyman, just like every human being is. Each of us, in that sense, is unique and universal at the same time. In fact, the more uniqueness we can discover in our characters, the more universal they’ll seem. So, Andy suffers abuse in prison because it’s only natural that he would – he cannot be strong enough to avoid that or he’ll start alienating us. Andy’s wife was having an affair with another man, and one wonders if that was so because of Andy’s inwardness, his inability to express his love. The male perception of a man whose wife cheats on him (the cuckold) is of a weak man, a not man-enough man, or, if you will, a flawed man. Incorrect though that perception might be, it will still be entertained by the majority of the audience, men as well as women. All these qualities contribute towards making Andy a well-rounded character, with the motivation and ability to convincingly fulfill the journey that the story has in store for him, and weak or human enough to make that journey interesting. Here is a character that can take us on a journey through the sentiments. But this isn’t enough. Other characters too must inhabit the story, characters that not only serve the purpose of the plot, but also make credible the world that the writer has created. Let’s look at the other characters in The Shawshank Redemption.
There’s Red the narrator, kind, practical and resourceful. Hadley the guard, violent, merciless, selfish. Norton the warden, ruthless and corrupt. Bogs the rapist. Brooks, old, gentle, fragile. Tommy is young and hopeful and honest. Finally, there’s Rita Hayworth (and Marilyn and Raquel). And yes, Jake, the crow! That does seem to be a diverse enough assortment of characters to give the sentiments an open playing field and show their magic. A perfect cross-section in the world of Shawshank, a world that emerged because the appropriate seed was planted. No wonder then, that The Shawshank Redemption has turned into one of the most-loved films of all time.
Level 3: Incident
A screenplay basically comprises of a series of incidents strung together. These incidents, or sequences if you like, may happen close to each other in time or as far apart as the story demands. For a story to be told effectively, the appropriate incidents need to be identified. It is in the choice of these incidents that a potentially good screenplay can be ruined. The incidents must be such that they have the potential to unfurl the plot, as well as contribute towards giving us a life-experience. Of course, this can only happen if the right seed has been chosen and appropriate characters enlisted to populate the story.
Let’s look at the incidents that Satyajit Ray picked to tell the story of his masterpiece, Charulata (Charulata: The Lonely Wife; 1963; written and directed by Satyajit Ray; based on ‘The Broken Nest’, a novella by Rabindranath Tagore). Visualize these incidents and try and identify the sentiments that they evoke.
1. The film begins with the ‘bored housewife’ sequence. But just look at the moments Ray has chosen to convey her boredom and, more importantly, the depth of her character. Charulata hums, smiles, pulls out a book by Bankim Chandra, plays with an opera glass, running from window to window to look at a plump man striding ahead with an umbrella in his hand. The masterstroke comes when she looks at her husband, Bhupathi, through this opera glass while he walks past her without noticing her, so engrossed is he with himself. Later, she sits with Bhupathi while he eats (and she doesn’t) and finds a cure for her loneliness: he’ll ask Charulata’s brother who’s coming to work with Bhupathi, to bring his wife along. She also mentions Swarnalata, Tarak Nath Gangopadhyay’s acclaimed novel, which Bhupathi, of course, has no interest in. Look at the range of flavors that Ray has been able to capture in this very first sequence.
2. Then comes the ‘grand’ arrival of Amol, amidst storm and rain, while Charu is playing cards with her sister-in-law, Manda. We have also met Charu’s brother by now. He’s working with Bhupathi as manager and speaks of a horse going wild, among other things. Look at the imagery that’s being evoked. Not to mention the kaleidoscope that Manda is looking through, the view from which is the first shot of the sequence.
3. Then, Charu is in Amol’s room, singing. A hot samosa (a popular Indian snack) scalds his tongue. His shirt is torn and Charu makes him take it off so she can mend it.
4. Then there’s a debate between Amol and Bhupathi. While Amol plays the piano. The debate is settled with an arm-wrestling contest between the two! A contest that Bhupathi wins.
5. The Amol-Charu relationship progresses over literary discussions that induce snores from Manda. This, the central relationship of the film, progresses further, in a garden, with Charu on a swing, singing with abandon. She makes for Amol a notebook, he shakes hands with her and they strike a ‘deal’ that his writing is to stay between them. When Amol thanks her for the notebook, Charu sings ‘thank you, thank you’. Charu is clearly getting attracted to Amol and seems confused by this, and hurt when he tells her that he’s spending time with her at Bhupathi’s instance.
6. Much to Charu’s dismay, Bhupathi mentions a marriage proposal to Amol. He rejects it and Charu is inexplicably pleased.
7. Charu’s brother Uma says ominous things to his wife Manda, including – can you lie for me?
8. Amol sings and dances as a happy Charu watches. Until, she learns of his essay’s publication in a periodical. She’s livid at the ‘betrayal’, and locks herself in, crying. Bhupathi happens to arrive at this inopportune moment and Charu picks up a broom and pretends she’s hunting down a cockroach.
9. Charu writes with determination and anger and gets published in an even more prestigious magazine. She beats Amol over the head with this magazine, then throws away the paan that Manda made for Amol and makes one for him herself, asserting her rights over him. She does all this with defiance, confidence and her body language has a childish heroic quality that is disconcerting and affecting at the same time. She gives Amol a pair of embroidered slippers. Now she’s even, at peace. Amol can see something’s come over her. He praises her writing and she falls deeper and deeper in love, finally rushing to him and breaking down on his chest, leaving him utterly bewildered and shaken. This sequence itself is a riotous mix of flavors.
10. Bhupathi and his friends discuss politics and listen to a live music performance. Uma empties Bhupathi’s safe and absconds. Charu insists that Amol stay on to help Bhupathi. Amol is confused, disturbed. A desperate Charu tries to make Amol promise that he will not go away. Recklessly, she clings to him, physically. Amol knows things have gone too far.
11. Bhupathi tells Amol about the betrayal, leaving Amol feeling guilty.
12. Amol leaves, suitcase in hand. There is a finality with which he leaves, leaving a letter rather than saying goodbye personally.
13. Charu is devastated and furious. She immediately orders the servant to ‘remove his (Amol’s) bedding’ from Amol’s room.
14. The beach. Bhupathi and Charu are on holiday. Charu proposes a new paper, in which Bhupathi will deal with politics while Charu will look after the ‘other’ stuff. He extends his hand to help her up. She takes it.
15. Back home, Charu is unable to contain herself when faced with the finality of Amol’s departure. Believing she is alone in her room, she breaks down on the bed and wails: ‘why did you go away’. Bhupathi has heard, and knows. She hears him leave and knows that he knows.
16. Bhupathi is deeply hurt as he travels in his coach (we don’t see the ‘wild’ horse that pulls the coach). A heroic Charu tears up Amol’s letter, while in the coach, Bhupathi looks at the handkerchief embroidered with his initial by Charu.
17. When Bhupathi returns home, Charu extends her hand to him. He responds by extending his. But the frame freezes before their hands can touch.
It speaks of Ray’s expertise as a filmmaker that he manages to orchestrate this vigorous intermingling of sentiments into a film that is as precise as it is fulfilling. All the rasas are evoked with a confidence bordering on audaciousness. (In fact, Ray acknowledged the importance of rasa, which he described as ‘the interplay of moods as expressed by various characters in a work of art’*.)
Level 4: Scene
This may well be the most important level, since, of the 4 levels, this is the most tangible. It is the scene that we see performed, with action and dialogue. It is the scene that our immediate response is to, and our relationship with a film forged via. It is only in the scene that we experience the sentiments directly, by a naked contact with the film. Our sensory response to a film is really to a scene. If the first 3 levels are in place, the scene can become the difference between a good and a great script. In fact, several films become popular primarily on the strength of their scenes, because even when the story and characters are less than compelling, absorbing scenes can give the viewer an entertaining enough experience. With the first 3 levels in place, a brilliant script can use the scene to great effect. Let’s look at the first sequence – the entire wedding sequence – from The Godfather (1972; directed by Francis Ford Coppola; written by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola; based on the novel, ‘The Godfather’, by Mario Puzo).
The first scene itself seems almost consciously to be following the tenets of the rasa theory, in the way the sentiments are evoked. The erotic sentiment is evoked via Bonasera’s description of his daughter’s experience with her boyfriend, where he tried to take advantage of her. (Yes, the image is not a pleasant one, but unfortunately, even rape holds an erotic fascination for human beings.) Also evoking the erotic is Don Corleone’s reference to his daughter’s wedding. The comic sentiment is evoked by the way Don Corleone toys with Bonasera, finally bullying him into accepting Don Corleone as godfather. The pathetic sentiment is evoked via the experience of Bonasera’s daughter. The furious sentiment via Bonasera’s anger, as well Corleone’s at what he perceives as Bonasera’s insults. There’s the heroic sentiment in Corleone’s love for justice, albeit of a primitive kind. His persona, emphasized by the respect that he is shown by other men in the room, too drips heroism. Corleone’s power and manner evoke terror and the act of Bonasera’s daughter’s assaulters is odious. Other than astonishment, all the other seven sentiments are evoked in the first scene itself! Now let’s look at the rest of the twenty-six minute sequence, sentiment-wise.
Erotic: The conversation between Michael and Kay; Sonny and his girlfriend making out against a door; the wedding itself.
Comic: The mirth of the wedding; Johnny Fontane’s song; Luca Brasi and his fumbling dialogue with Don Corleone.
Pathetic: Sonny’s wife’s sorrow; Kay’s situation on discovering Michael’s family; Johnny’s situation vis-à-vis his sinking career.
Furious: Sonny and the FBI; Sonny and the photographer; Don’s reaction to Johnny’s situation.
Heroic: Michael’s uniform; Don’s dispensing of justice; Michael telling Kay that he is not like his family; Michael pulling Kay into the photograph.
Terrifying: Don’s power as a criminal who controls judges and politicians; the realization that a criminal can be so powerful, charismatic, and ‘respectable’.
Odious: Sonny thrusting in a vulgar manner, as he has sex with a woman against a door; vulgar dancing and drinking; Michael’s story about brains on a contract and the offer that cannot be refused.
Marvellous: The astonishing cake and the general spectacle of the wedding.
As is obvious from the above, the sentiments have been given a glorious opportunity for display by a seed (a combination of the pain of a man forced by circumstances into joining the mafia and the saga of a powerful criminal family) that has given rise to a world peopled by varied and interesting characters. Again, is it surprising that The Godfather continues to be a thoroughly satisfying viewing experience?
So then, is it possible to actually apply the rasa theory and make our screenplays richer? Perhaps not in a direct, methodical way. But it might help to look at stories from the perspective of the rasa theory. That life is, at all times, a bundle of varied sentiments, even though we may be experiencing a certain dominant sentiment at a given time. What is liberating, however, is that there is no formula to doing this and every story must be allowed to guide its writer towards discovering its unique combination of the sentiments or flavors.
Finally, to quote from the Natyashastra:
Brahma, the Creator: I have created the ‘Natyashastra’ to show all actions of both gods and men. In it there is sometimes reference to duty, sometimes to sport, sometimes to polity, sometimes to money, sometimes to peace. Sometimes laughter is found in it, sometimes fighting, sometimes lovemaking, sometimes killing. It chastises those that are ill-bred or unruly, gives courage to cowards, energy to the heroic, enlightens men of poor intellect, and gives wisdom to the learned. It gives firmness to those afflicted with sorrow and brings composure to the agitated. It is a representation of actions and conduct of people, which is rich in various emotions and which depicts various situations. It relates to actions of men good, bad and indifferent, and will give courage, amusement and happiness as well as counsel to them all. There is no wise maxim, no learning, no art, no craft, no device, no action that is not found in it.
My understanding of the Natyashastra is based upon two English translations of the text: one by Manmohan Ghosh, and the other by Adya Rangacharya.
*Revisiting Satyajit Ray: An Interview with a Cinema Master, Bright Lights Film Journal.
Copyright 2012 Ashwini Malik
About the author: Ashwini Malik is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, screenwriter, screenwriting teacher and script consultant. Born in 1969, Ashwini obtained a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi University and then went to India’s premier film school, Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) to study Film Direction. His graduation film, The Waiter in Slow Motion, was in official competition at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 1995. Ashwini began his career in television and went on to write, direct and produce a number of fiction and non-fiction shows. In 2002, he directed his first feature film, Clever & Lonely. Since 2004, Ashwini has also been involved in teaching Screenwriting. He has taught at his alma mater FTII, and currently teaches at Whistling Woods International, Mumbai. He also mentors regularly at workshops in India and abroad.