(30/08/06) – "The first time I’d seen The River, it was at the Cinémathèque Français in Paris, and I was a little embarrassed by it, as were so many others of my generation, and, even more, the generation of Satyajit Ray," says Kumar Shahani in his introduction to the film on this new BFI release. "That embarrassment, I think, was something of those times. I have gone back to the film with great enjoyment." It is easy to see why embarrassment was the response. The filmmaker who had once made La Grande Illusion (1937) had now produced a sentimental melodrama, full of bad acting, set in a picturesque India of the Raj. A teenage girl, Harriet, falls in love with a visiting American man, Captain John, who has lost a leg in the war. She narrates the story from an adult perspective. The narration dominates which is unfortunate as the script is full of clichés in the dialogue, intensified in the voiceover. David Thompson in his accompanying essay points out that Renoir "had to create much of The River in the cutting room, employing more voice-over than he originally envisaged." Harriet must vie with the older Valerie, while Captain John appears as a cipher, in body and depressed spirit, for the damage the Second World War has inflicted.
India is constantly presented and explained throughout. The choice of travelogue films on the disc of extras places The River explicitly in this tradition, which has always attempted a cross-cultural eye. The earliest of these extra shorts is Panorama of Calcutta(1899) which is simply a shot of the Calcutta waterfront from a moving boat. The idea, stated in these shorts and in The River, of India as "timeless", a location against which the modern moves, is shown as false here, for the people washing and bathing in 1899 are wearing clothes of a slightly different cut when compared to the similar documentary shots in The River. The other films on the second disc progress through to The Temples of India (1938), which begins with the words, "Of all the great religions of the world, the strangest is the weird faith of the Hindu." Weird, strange, colourful, out of time, this is the place constructed in these films, the view of a Western traveller who has first set foot in India and is sending a postcard home, though the postcard changes over the decades. A Road In India (1938) shows us the ‘timeless’ road by means of staged scenes, giving the effect of a pageant or show. Picturesque India or, In and About Calcutta (1913) is a silent film showing us the city sights. The most interesting short is Seil und Tau Fabrikation in Howrah bei Kalkutta (1909) which expands on the jute works shown in Renoir’s film, showing the industrial process in various stages. The working of justice is presented in The District Officer (1945), an ideal of colonial administration; Jute (1923) shows us the operations of a large colonial jute works in Bengal, an educational film of Empire which exposes the poor living conditions of the Indian work-force quite candidly.
Post-Independence, in 1951, The Riverhas shifted from these images of capture to a new, fixed conception: India as flow, as the river of life, as a place of natural faith which gives security. The narrator describes the conditions of labour: "The jute works were very important to my father. He loved the fibrous jute, and the never-ending procession of men carrying it piled on their heads."
What happens over time with The River, Kumar Shahani’s "going back to the film", is that the awkward dramatic content bleaches out and the fascinating documentary footage of life on the Hugli river mixed with the constant blaze of colour cinematography – Renoir’s first colour film, full of blossom, festival, reflection – ends up seeping in to fill the dramatic gap, and it is possible for these elements to infuse the film with a charm which is actually heightened by the badly produced period melodrama which is the content. As such, The River emerges as a curious piece of summer nostalgia, but also as a vivid and successful film for children to be placed alongside a contemporary work such as Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon(1995). Added to this twin appeal, Renoir’s reputation, based on the films he made pre-war, is such that many of us want to see the rest of his films too, finding there images and themes which reflect back on the earlier work.
So The River has been restored, this BFI release providing a region 2 companion to Criterion’s earlier region 1 edition. Both releases present the same high-definition digital transfer in the same ratio, the difference is in the extras. Criterion offer the trailer, an introduction by Renoir, an interview with Scorsese, and a BBC documentary on Rumer Godden, the author of the source novel, whereas the BFI have opted for an introduction by Indian film-maker Kumar Shahani, in which he strongly makes the case for the film and supplies interesting details about the dance sequence featured, along with the seven shorts detailed above. The BFI’s booklet is also a substantial document, including a long and interesting interview with Rumer Godden. Apparently, there was tension among the crew and also with local people – Godden tells how 3,000 students came to riot after a rumour got around that Renoir was filming Indian women naked; after they had kicked sand around and burnt much of the set, Renoir told them in a commanding voice to "Hush", and to "Please sit down." It is the kind of information that deepens our understanding of this slight work, nevertheless rich in context and full of hooks to snare a nostalgia for that last bright summer.
The River is out now on DVD. Please follow the links to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.