A lesson from two movies: Statues that fly, or fall

Two of my favourite scenes involving large statues are from Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) and Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! (2003). The first one falls on its face in the mud. The second one flies into oblivion. In both cases, the statues are metaphors of pride, hubris. The first one belongs to a cruel, albeit fictional king. The second one belongs to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin who has been elevated by some of fans into a god-like stature. In both cases, the hapless and humorous fate of the monuments turns into a critique of pride and hubris of those who commission their construction.

Ray’s film was a response to the Emergency (1975-77), during which the personality cult of former prime minister Indira Gandhi had taken on obscene levels. “Indira is India, India is Indira”, coined by the party’s president D K Barooah in 1976, gained wide circulation, institutionalising the ritual of sycophancy in the Grand Old Party. The filmmaker was familiar with the Gandhis and then West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray--often called the architect of the Emergency because he advised Indira Gandhi to crackdown on her critics--but relentless in his critique of their brand of politics.

In an earlier film, Jana Arnaya (1976), Ray showed a corrupt political leader advising young jobless men about the necessity of struggle for character-building as Indira Gandhi showered her benediction from a picture on the wall. In Hirak Rajar Deshe, Ray chose fantasy as a tool to speak truth to power, a strategy not uncommon in societies in a pincer-hold of censorship. The narrative is set in fictional Kingdom of Diamonds, where a new king prepares for his crowning. Goopy Gyne (Tapan Chatterjee) and Bagha Byne (Rabi Ghosh), two characters with magical powers from his older film Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne (1969), are invited to attend the ceremony.

The narrative is framed in such a way that the audience is already aware of the tyrannical ways of the Hirak Raja (Utpal Dutt) by the time Goopy and Bagha make an entrance. We know that the king has a mad scientist (Santosh Dutt) on his payroll, who has created a machine which can be used to brainwash dissidents. At his court, whatever questions he asks, everyone answers: “Thik, thik (correct, correct).” An independent-minded teacher (Soumitra Chatterjee), who runs a village school, is forced into exile. Ray also manipulates the registers of dialogue to make a political point. The king and his courtiers, who represent unreasonable fascism, speak in rhymes, often trite. The teacher, a fountainhead of knowledge and rationality, always talks in prose.

A screen grab from Satyajit Ray's movie Hirak Rajar Deshe.

As part of the celebrations for his coronation, the king commissions an enormous statue, to be inaugurated at midday. But, the inauguration ceremony is not without mishap. A student of the shut school evades the soldiers and uses a sling to break the nose of the king’s statue. Of course, this is also a David-Goliath reference. In the climax, Goopy, Bagha, and the teacher outwit the king’s party, and put them into the brain-washing machine. Then they get together to pull down the statue. The king and his courtiers too join them and take on the collective cry: “Dori dhorey maaro tan, raja hobey khan khan (Pull at the rope, bring down the king).”

A brief digression: The obsession with size is not a monopoly of kings and rulers. In one of the wittiest scenes of Titanic (1997), J Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the managing director of White Star Line and the owner of the ship, is asked if it was him who thought of its name. “Yes, actually, I wanted to convey sheer size, and size means stability, luxury, and above all, strength.” Cutting him to size, Rose (Kate Winslet) says, “Do you know of Dr Freud, Mr Ismay? His ideas about the male preoccupation with size might be of particular interest to you.” She is, of course, referring to Sigmund Freud. As Rose leaves the table, a flustered Ismay is left fumbling for words: “Freud? Who is he? Is he a passenger?”

In an iconic scene from Good Bye Lenin!, Christiane (Katrine Sass) watches Lenin’s statue in Berlin being flown away by a helicopter. It is 1990. The Berlin Wall has fallen. West German influences are washing over the East, which had remained in a Soviet silo for 40 years since the end of the Second World War. Christiane, however, is unaware of the changes sweeping across her country as she has recently come out of a coma. On the advice of doctors, her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) has created a fictional East Berlin for her, so as to prevent her from being shocked by the tides of history.

The statue seen in the film is supposed to be the one gifted by the Soviet Union to communist East Germany in 1970, on the centenary of the Bolshevik leader. It was established at the area now known as the United Nations Square. Earlier, it bore Lenin’s name. The granite statue was designed by Russian sculptor Nikolai Tomski. During the years of de-communisation, the statue was broken 130 pieces and his massive head was interred in forests on the outskirts of the city. The resurrection of the statue head in 2015 and its display at Spandau had sparked a furious debate about Lenin’s legacy.

The story of Lenin’s statue reminded of English Romantic poet P B Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias (1818). The poet was competing with banker and political writer Horace Smith to write a poem on a common subject — Greek historian Diodorus Siculus account of his travels in Egypt, Bibliotheca historica. Very commonly anthologised, Shelley’s poem dwells on the inevitable decline of rulers and their pretentions to greatness. In 1816, Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni acquired a colossal statue of Ramesses II — Ozymandias is a Greek rendering of the Egyptian name — for the British Museum. It arrived in Britain in 1821, but news of its imminent arrival had created excitement in the press.

In Shelley’s poem, an ancient traveller (Siculus) comes upon “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk a shattered visage lies.” He also comes upon a pedestal for the statue, which proclaims: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But there is nothing at all to look upon: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The metaphor works on more than one level, but most poignantly, it describes how the sands of time erode, eat away, the powers of tyrants. No matter how tall a statue is, it is unlikely to survive for eternity.

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