Dreams, Images and Cinema: A Reading of Fellini’s 8½ and Ray’s Nayak

A Scene from Fellini’s classic 8½

In the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s The Republic, the flickering shadow of the sun along the walls of the cave is the semiotic sign of significance for the chained men who dwell inside, until one of them breaks free and returns having seen the real sun. Profoundly poetic and evocative, the allegory depicts the power of the moving visual image on human imagination, a power that can deceive as well as construct consciousness. It is the same sentience that informs the effect of dream in the mind of man, and the ability of the constructed visual spectacle to inspire and shudder, through its aesthetics of sublimation and shock. Alternately used and exploited by the creative imagination and the culture-industry, the visual image has spoken best to the human subconscious, constructing the dream-factory in dialogue with the desires of the mind.

Hugo Münsterberg’s The Photoplay: A Psychological Study first published in 1917, is perhaps the first systematized analysis of the newly emerging mode of visuality in early twentieth century cultural modernity: Cinema. Studying the cinematic effects such as “close-up” and “jump-cuts”, Münsterberg exposited the compression effect cinema could achieve over space and time, by focusing on a specific spatial point (such as the hand of Lincoln’s murderer Booth) and cutting across disparate and sometimes dialectical temporal planes. These abilities – as Münsterberg went on to relate – gave cinema an obvious advantage over theatre that was still tied to the immediately physical space-time despite its performative hyper-reality. In her essay “The Cinema”, written in 1926, Virginia Woolf amazed at the power cinema could potentially achieve over words, a power that could depict what Woolf defined as the “dream architecture.” Interestingly enough, in her essay, Woolf mentioned a screening of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), a silent German Expressionist masterpiece that depicted a disturbing narrative of necromancy and the terror of the uncanny, a film that immediately took up political connotations with the incipient rise of Fascism in Europe and its culture of domination and constraint.

Cinema, which inherits its etymology ultimately from the Greek kinema meaning “movement”, has almost always been associated with the ability to transform the human subconscious into a spectacle. Such depiction, interestingly enough, can only occur through the tools of technology: the cinematograph, the sound recorder, the editing machine. Thus it is not difficult to find the correlations between consciousness and camera; neither is it surprising to observe that early twentieth century popular imagination often perceived these technologies as the “uncanny” portents of capture and there are many fascinating stories about how various people would be scared of being photographed for the fear that the camera might steal one’s soul away. Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria (2006) brilliantly discusses the uncanny associations that emerged in the popular vocabulary at the turn of the twentieth century with the emergence of the new tools of technology, such as the camera and the radio. Thus the camera was considered to possess the power to steal one away from the immediate and real space-time and preserve one into the archives of memory with the body of photograph while the radio and the telegraph assumed associations with the séance with their connotation of a collective unconscious. The photograph, like the figure of Dorian Gray, would never grow old. But at the same time, it would need to have a dark negative – like the ugly picture hidden in the attic – to grow from. The camera and the photograph, like the dream and its images, would always have an ambivalence of reception; for they would often remind one of that which one must forget in order to grow with time. Like the little girl in John Nash’s schizophrenic landscape in A Beautiful Mind, the image in a dream should not be spoken to in the real world, let alone spoken about in popular discourses of exchange. Dreams, like the photo negatives in the dark room, were to be kept away from the lights of reason and the meaning that developed from it all ought not to bear traces of the darkened combinations they grew from. In a culture of digital photography where the specialized camera is increasingly being replaced by the ubiquitous “mobile camera” that does not rely on any “pure original” anymore and where images can be endlessly proliferated across endless media of visual exchange, it is interesting to study the dialogue between cinema and the subconscious at a time when the camera-image still had its aura, paradoxically testified by the presence of its own negative, that lay beneath like a dark dream.

Federico Fellini’s (1963) and Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966) are remarkably resonant cinematic contemporaries that both depict the dreams of figures who are “insiders” of the cinematic world. Fellini’s film has the famous opening dream sequence where the figure inside the claustrophobic car breaks open the door to fly away from the sweat and the gaze around him only to realize that with all his flights and heights, he is ultimately tied like a kite that can be hurled down at will. He is, in effect, a will-less toy that can, at best, be a spectacle of flight, not a free-flying soul. His flight would always be premised on visual consumption and closure, through a body that can only move from a claustrophobic gaze to a more spectacular one. Fellini’s film treats this as a meta-cinematic trope as the percipient body is that of a film-maker (brilliantly played by Marcello Mastroianni) who never gets to make the one film he wants to arrive at through his imagined past and dreams. The theme of incompletion is alluded to in the title itself but what is more striking in the film is the way the protagonist goes through the drama of guilt and desire that enmesh him even as he seeks to achieve his dream. The film-maker inside exists in a complex dialectic with the one outside it in while the dream-cinema that never gets made is always a portentous presence within the one playing and being consumed by the external eye of the spectator. The elaborate film-sets serve as the metonymy of the technology meant to manufacture meanings out of dreams. ends with the depiction of an evacuated film-set where a giant ogress dances away with children, a space where fantasy meets with its chosen figures even as the tools that would give meaning to it all are strewn across as a spectacle of their failure.

Nayak is the story of a film-star Arindam Chatterjee journeying in a train to receive a national award and his chance encounter with a journalist who seeks to study him during the journey. Like , Ray’s film too uses the trope of dreams as a liminal insight into the real world of clock-time. The first dream occurs after the film had carefully constructed the crabby arrogance of its protagonist (played by Uttam Kumar in his most critically acclaimed performance) who is quite happy to preserve his bloated ego and complaisance. Returning to his cabin after coldly refusing an interview to Miss Sengupta – the young editor of a feminist magazine – the film-star falls into a slumber. In his dream he first sees himself walking across a mountain of money as the notes fly to him in a breeze. His gusto is then interrupted by a series of phone calls from unidentifiable points. Increasingly intimidated by the shrill rings, the hero then discovers the telephones as projections from white skeletal arms. The uncanny appears as the surrogate-anatomy of the telephone. His subsequent attempt to escape the mountain sees him fall into a whirlpool of money that starts sucking him up. While wriggling to escape, he sees his former theatre-mentor sitting some distance away and cries for help. The arm that extends itself to aid him is that of a skeleton and even that fails to reach his own. His dream ends in a shriek as his human arm slaps against the cabin window.

The effect of this dream is immediate. The film-star has felt the suction of success and the presence of death that would devour him symbolically in the end. His erstwhile celebrity ego is shattered. Arindam goes back to the young journalist and begins the tale of his past, his betrayals and his growth into stardom. Only now he knows that his is a false star that could and indeed would die away with time. Like Fellini’s the dialogue between dream and cinema in Nayak is narrated through flash-backs in time. The story of Arindam’s life looks at his shooting into fame and the Faustian compromises of innocence it entailed. Like Faust, the film-star knows he would fall in time and the gods he had betrayed would come back to avenge in the end. The figure of Shankar – the former theatre-mentor of the protagonist – with his symbolic name (the Hindu God of Destruction), is a potent pointer to this theme. The moment of Arindam’s betrayal – the decision to leave theatre for the wealth that cinema could offer – had taken place at the site of Shankar’s human death. From the very beginning of Nayak, the protagonist is painfully aware of the changing whims of the market that consumes him. What is more, he now knows he has started his fall from the eidetic illumination of flashlights and photographs. The second dream in Nayak sees Arindam walk into the landscape of his private guilt that is ironically peppered with the tools of cinema. Cries of “ACTION” blares across the garden where he walks past a giant cinema hoarding that contains his face, his human figure dwarfing under his painted image that seems to grow under the lights. Cinema, camera, and the uncanny are seamlessly woven across the landscape of this dream as it offers the dreaming subject its own guilty narcissus. Like Fellini’s film, Ray uses the symbol of the sunglass along with the rhetoric of processing the moving image in cinema. The sunglass in Nayak serves the dual function of hiding the human and exhibiting the iconic through a dark opacity that would reflect back the gaze that befalls it. But ironically it is the sunglass that transforms the human into the object of the collective gaze that measures his ability to live up to its illuminations. The suicidal vacillations that ensue after the second dream in Nayak grow out of the inability to communicate the repressed human self that has become the Orphic machine of performance. Arindam calls for Miss Sengupta to confess his guilt. Unsurprisingly, she stalls the drunken hero in his attempt to narrate by stating she has known it all already. Words, like narrative and like any palpable expression, are bound to suffer the closure of comprehensibility. Miss Sengupta, in denying the Arindam his confession through words, also preserves the purity of his subconscious, even as she acts as the confidante. The confession has been made, the story has been told and it would all remain in the mind, not to be sold and circulated through the agencies of commercial exchange. The refusal of Miss Sengupta to publish and sell the story she has gleaned from her peeps into the film-star’s human world is, like, the collapse of the dream-film inside 8½, a statement of non-conformation to closure.

Nayak is the story of loneliness in the room at the top, where the dweller must smile away to all who look up to him, even as he sees the spectral shadows slant across his dreams. The cinema is the Mephistophelean machine where he has bartered his soul for success, and he must play his parts to perfection except in sweaty dreams. The film ends with the human becoming the iconic image in his dark sunglass again as his worshippers surround him with garlands and the lights from the camera resume their captures and closures; and as his sole confidante walks away with his dark dreams that would never find a narrative to be consumed.

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