Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ghosts of the old rich

[Never been too happy writing for “special” issues on short notice. It can be taxing to be told a day in advance that the paper is doing a “Billionaire’s Club” special this weekend, so could your column be on films about rich people – especially when I had already done this piece for the last such issue less than a year ago. But well, I complied. As long as one can complain a little afterwards]

The dominant image of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard – set during the Italian Risorgimento, when aristocrats began to be supplanted by the rising middle classes – is that of the old prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster in a super performance) wandering about his palace, contemplating the end of a world he once bestrode like a colossus. Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar, about a music-loving zamindar living his last days alone in a mansion, has even bleaker views of fading grandeur – a spider scuttling across a large portrait of royalty, a disused chandelier collecting cobwebs and dust. More recently, in Vikramaditya Motwane’s lush Lootera, set in the post-Independence years, another old zamindar tries to maintain his composure and dignity as the government reclaims treasures bequeathed to his ancestors by the East India Company 200 years earlier.

These are all gorgeous-looking films about once-rich people in the process of losing their privileges, being swept away in the face of a more egalitarian, less genteel world. In principle, the change depicted in these movies is a welcome one for anyone with liberal sensibilities – it symbolises the coming of equal opportunity, democracy, even soft socialism. One might ask then: how do these films succeed in evoking a quiet, melancholic sympathy for the fall of billionaires?

One answer is that human responses to such things are complex; regardless of one’s ideological position, it is possible to feel a small aesthetic pang about the withering away of grand havelis and the dispersing of valuables that seemed to belong together in a special treasure room. More important, these films are ultimately about people whom it is possible to relate to as individuals. The landlords and royals shown here may have benefitted from excessive privilege throughout their lives, but they also have admirable human qualities, such as a genuine love for music and the other arts, and we are privy to their finer emotions. And they were,
after all, to the manor born. Having only ever known one way of life, they are now – at an advanced, vulnerable age – seeing that way of life slipping away. Even with the most meritocratic worldview, one can still feel for their private tragedies. Underlying this is the bitter pill of the knowledge that the beneficiaries of the new order – the people who deserve their place in the sun – can become just as corrupt and exploitative down the line; that change doesn’t mean a final victory of good over evil, and obscenely affluent people will always be around anyway.

Some films about the old rich and the nouveau riche uneasily circling each other are also doomed love stories, which adds to their human appeal – while reminding us that denizens of an old world can become like ghosts when the new world arrives. Lootera has a great shot of the disconsolate zamindar, shortly after he learns he has been “framed”, at the entrance of a tunnel dug by crooks who were posing as archaeologists – it is shorthand for a man in his grave, and it is the last time we see him in the film. Simultaneously his daughter is betrayed by a young man who is a symbol of modern times, and though the film does everything it can to convince us that they really do love each other, one constantly gets the sense that these two people don’t even exist in the same dimension – they come from such vastly different backgrounds, their destinies are so unlinked.

There is an even subtler relationship in Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. The tragic protagonist Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) – daughter-in-law of a zamindar family falling on bad times – forges an emotional bond with a lower-class man named Bhoothnath (Guru Dutt), but there is never any pretence that this relationship has a future, or that they can even acknowledge romantic feelings for each other. Chhoti Bahu eventually comes to a tragic end, but even when she and her haveli are “alive”, there is something distant and otherworldly about them – much like the prince of Salina in The Leopard watching the young people dance around him, or like the zamindar in Jalsaghar looking into an unpolished mirror with a puzzled expression, perhaps wondering if he had imagined the great days of his past.

["March 4th" does seem an inappropriate date for a post about people trapped in time. Anyway, here are two old posts on films about relics of the past trying to stay relevant: Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. And an extended piece on Lootera here]


  1. In principle, the change depicted in these movies is a welcome one for anyone with liberal sensibilities

    In principle. But not in practice.

    Not sure about Garibaldi. But in most other nations that witnessed violent revolutions, what we saw was the replacement of the old rich with new upstarts - many of whom were amoral, monomaniacal mass murderers who championed the cause of "Republicanism". Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, even Hitler....the list is long...And yes, these champions of the new order ensured that the 20th century was the most violent and bloody of all centuries in human history.

    The one major country that conveniently avoided this sorry fate in the 19th century was England, which did not have a revolution! Because the elites of England made piecemeal concessions to the "masses" and managed to keep base passions at bay. Gradualist, piecemeal reform was the English way. Something that the Continent never learned.

    Yes, the world is more egalitarian today. But this has very little to do with the "defeat" of the old order or the work of "great revolutionaries". The old order would've made way, with or without revolution, given the Industrial revolution and the emergence of the bourgeoise urban middle class. What revolutionaries did was to make the whole process of transition bloody. England clearly showed that the transition needn't have been bloody.

    1. @Srikanth. The reason why England decided to forgo a revolution in the 19th century was because it had had its revolution a bit earlier than the Continent - they beheaded their king Charles I in 1649. The chaos of the Civil War persuaded many of them that, going forward, it was better to take steps in time if aristocratic necks were to be preserved. And yes, Oliver Cromwell was as much of a killjoy in his time as Stalin.

    2. They also had a restoration, And the old order was never really overthrown. They had another largely bloodless revolution in 1688 following which the monarchy was greatly weakened. But again, there was never a bloody revolution besides the very old Civil War which you mention.

      Even today, the monarchy is intact in Britain, albeit ceremonial. The House of Lords still exists. So does the Church of England. And we're talking about the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution here, the birthplace of the modern world.....Clearly revolutions are bloody as shown by the European experience. And they were not inevitable as the English experience shows.

    3. A long term view of "revolutions" explains many things about why some countries are more radical than others. The Glorious Revolution you mention was precisely because the Brits did not want to go through a Civil War and revolution again. They had had enough of monarchical beheadings. I mentioned Charles I, but of course we should also recall Mary Queen of Scots. Not to mention those poor wives of Henry VIII. English monarchs could be just as bloody as their Continental counterparts although Downton Abbey writers would like to present otherwise. So strong was the Protestant-Catholic rumbles of violence that the United Kingdom wasn't created till 1707, remember? And official discrimination against Catholics lasted till well into the nineteenth century and still persists - why can't the monarch of Britain be a Catholic? And let's not even go into Ireland and Easter 1916. About industrialization - well, let's just say that the Germans, French, and Americans soon pulled ahead because they did what the rather stodgy Brits didn't - invest in public secondary education. The Second Industrial Revolution and the Third (communications) is what really made the modern world and for things like electrical goods and chemical goods you need to have some high school education, and these days at least some college. Guess which country fell behind? Can't keep resting on your steam engines forever. Which is what the Brits did. For them science was a gentleman's calling, not a profession. The French, Germans, and Americans saw engineering as a practical way to education and advancement (and later, Indians and Chinese too). And so here we are - the Brits do media, talent shows and tea parties. The French and the Germans do culture as well as high-tech (would you prefer a BMW or a Merc?). And America just lumbers on like a giant bulldozer.....which is why I love it.

      (that was me above but typing a multi-syllable Sanskrit name over and over gets tiring)

    4. I can understand your reference to English Civil War. But the examples of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VIII's wives not apposite as these weren't revolutionary killings.

      The key reason for Britain's peaceful ushering in of the modern world was the English capacity for compromise and negotiation, tradition of limited government (dating back to Magna carta) which was briefly lost during the Tudor period but restored during the Stuart period, and the willingness of the elites of England to make small piecemeal concessions instead of attempting to cling on to a past frozen in time.

      Why can't the monarch be a Catholic? Well there are good reasons grounded in traditional wisdom. England has always had a strong Europhobic streak and independence (both spiritual and temporal) from Rome has always been close to English hearts. And Catholicism has always served as a signal of a soft corner for Rome, the Continent in general, and a discredited form of Christianity that values relics, ceremony and superstition more than morals and "doing the right thing". Ofcourse I am not saying it is a rational thing to keep Catholics from becoming monarchs. But the reasons are grounded in dirty traditional wisdom and not abstract reasoning.

      Britain never really fell behind as you claim. The only country which really overtook Britain was America. Even today, English per-capita incomes are higher than France's and competitive vis-a-vis Germany's. British scientists have pioneered even in "communications" - the Third industrial revolution" you referred to. Think Tim Berners Lee and WWW. Also the country is a major major power when it comes to financial services.

    5. The French, Germans, and Americans saw engineering as a practical way to education and advancement (later, Indians and Chinese too)

      The reference to Indians and Chinese is a bit odd I must admit. Given that 25% of Indians are yet to spell their own name, leave alone learn engineering!

      Also another point often overlooked is that Britain is a much smaller country than Germany or America! Leave alone India or China.

      And ofcourse. The most easily overlooked factor is the enormous brain drain that has happened in Britain over the past 400 years. More people have left the Isles to spread their culture elsewhere than any other country. Huge emigration to US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Europe...This emigration is really very very huge compared to the immigration over the years of French Huguenots, Jews, Indians, Pakis and West Indians into Britain.

      Coming back to the original post -

      Other movies that deal with the decline of old order or more generally old ways of thinking -
      The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Oonche Log - the Ashok Kumar masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons....

      I absolutely adore all three films.

    6. Other movies that deal with the decline of old order or more generally old ways of thinking -
      The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Oonche Log - the Ashok Kumar masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons....

      Someone actually managed to pull the comments discussion back to something as inconsequential as films - oh the relief, the humanity!

    7. Some films about the old rich and the nouveau riche uneasily circling each other are also doomed love stories, which adds to their human appeal

      Jai : I am reminded of Hitchcock's Under Capricorn in this regard which portrays the marriage of Lady Henrietta (an Irish noblewoman played by Bergman) to one Mr Flusky (played by Joe Cotten) who is an ex-convict gotten rich in Sydney.

      One of the great films on class conflict in my view. Flusky is this middle class man at heart who has worked his way to the top. He adores his wife who has married beneath her social class by plighting her troth with Flusky. It's almost as though he is grateful for this. But her frivolities and imagined illnesses are beyond his middle-class comprehension. She even has a fling of sorts with a younger man who represents her social set (the Governor General's cousin). However Cotten's middle class puritanical mind cannot fathom the trivial nature of this fling. The person who does empathize with Cotten is his maidservant. Fascinating stuff.

  2. it symbolises the coming of equal opportunity, democracy, even soft socialism

    Soft socialism has often existed in hunter gatherer societies and also in some Indian communities of America prior to European conquest. These were some of the most civilizationally backward societies of their time which eventually turned extinct when the much reviled Eurasian societies confronted them. Yes. Those very Eurasian societies with their social hierarchies, organized religion, large land holdings and standing armies.

    Just goes to show that the Eurasian model was a winner. Until it was replaced by a new more meritocratic model (again of European origin) made possible by the new set of circumstances created by the scientific and industrial revolutions.

  3. @ Shrikanth - in the movie The Barbarian Invasions theres a dialogue , "Despite two world wars 20th century saw lowest deaths due to war". Am not sure of it. But I think this may be true. In earlier centuries entire continents were wiped out