Chaturanga (Four Chapters), based on a novella by the early 20th century Bengali writer Rabindrinath Tagore, often translated under the title “Quartet,” tells the story of a series of spiritual crises of a young Bengali Hindu, beginning with his rejection of the religious traditions of his family in favor of an Enlightenment rationalism promoted by his Westernized uncle. A deeply inspiring, profoundly intelligent film, it explores what the meaning of life in the modern world could possibly be – power, money, sex, fame? But whoever has these – power, money, sex, health, fame – eventually loses them – and what then? Help the poor while we can? But is that enough to give a life we must inevitably lose meaning and purpose? So: power, money, sex, fame and, to assuage the conscience, compassion: is that it?
As director Suman Mukhopadhyay’s admirable film shows, and as we know from much postcolonial literature, including Tagore’s writings, these questions often have been felt most urgently by members of mature and established civilizations when faced with the overwhelming power, destructiveness and creativeness of the West during the waves of modernization sweeping from Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
If this film had appeared only a few years back, it would have been tempting to see the existential crises of Sachish, the film’s protagonist, as almost quaint – a reminder of the angst of existentialisms past. A film given to beautifully articulated and integrated philosophical dialog, it raises questions that punctuate much modernist writing before the West became inured to its own paradoxes, numbed by derivatives, drugs, internet porn and shopping – the pacifiers of postmodernism.
Not long ago we were asking whether history wasn’t coming to an end: were we not headed toward the flatness of a world global and unfettered, the promises of modernization finally fulfilled? But one of the peculiarities of the last decade has been to put modernization in question once again: is this monster we have created over the last two centuries really our perfect servant, or a demonic force with a smiley face preparing ruin beyond human imagining? Has our “rationalism” become a triumphant lie about human power when the ultimate human truth is limitation, ignorance, and mortality? Have the religious revivals of the last few decades finally put the lie to secularist “reality,” showing it up as a diabolically clever confidence game based on that shrewdest of strategies, the bet on human self-deception? (Indeed, the global environmental crisis can be seen as a repudiation of “modernity,” whose life blood, we are learning, has been an overwhelming gift from the nature we are jeopardizing: cheap energy from fossil fuels.)
Sachish (played with fine sensitivity and insight by [ ]) repudiates his Hindu traditions for the ethically based rationalism of his beloved uncle – a man who quotes Locke and Shakespeare and listens to scratchy recordings of Beethoven in a dream of human power and brotherhood. But the limits of the uncle’s rationalism are shown starkly when it cannot prevent the suicide of Sachish’s financee or the uncle’s own death, the two events precipitating a crisis of Sachish’s faith in the power of the human mind and will to shape reality sufficiently to slake the soul’s thirsts and heart’s hungers. And Sachish – a man yearning for faith – is converted to a radical form of his original religion though not a more secure spiritual peace.
At this point the story can truly be said to begin: a member of the religious community Sachish joins is a young, extravagantly beautiful, complexly layered woman (played with brooding sensuality by [ ]) who is strongly drawn to Sachish yet wary of his spiritual turmoil. And much of the rest of the film plays out the exquisitely painful and frustrating relationship between the two of them and Sachish’s best friend, a young man who continually follows in Sachish’s footsteps, always a little behind and to the side, a sidekick with the benefits that accrue to someone who does not take life quite as seriously as Sachish.
In the latter half of the film, some film goers may feel themselves becoming exasperated over Sachish’s apparent fecklessness, thinking, “Man, your ‘answer’ is right there. Get over yourself and open your eyes. She wants you, you damn fool!” And the film almost encourages the attitude – Damini, the young woman, is almost too magnificent for the part: smart, stunning, profoundly sensual, always a little apart, with a face as mysterious as a veil. But, of course, “the girl” is not the point. Even love is not the point - a repudiation of that platitude of redemption that deepens the film’s stimulating integrity.
Of course, the film does not offer an easy answer. It may be that Sachish’s search has always been a flight, and he will never find what he is fleeing. Or it may be that nothing that exists will solve his problem or answer his question. His “God” will not be in the finding or the discovery or the possession; it will be in the flight, the quest, the search, the repudiation - and the ever-renewed setting forth.