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Stunning cinematography in the service of a therapeutic goal
This extraordinary film is not a film in the usual sense and to watch it one needs to have strong interests in the psychology of depression or Indian culture or preferably both. It embodies little of any traditional dramaturgy and is not a tragedy despite its initially bleak premise. But it is immensely rewarding both as an epic visual poem and as a meditation on depression in its life-threatening form. This is the story of the film, simply told: two would-be suicides decide to jump off the same bridge over the river Ganges on the same night. One is an old man with nothing more to live for and one is a traumatized young woman. The former, Santanu, prevents the latter, Tanima, from diving into the deadly waters and slowly in the film - over an hour and a half - she regains the will to live. The essential ingredient to a drama is missing here, that the ending should be inevitable yet unpredictable; also the pace of the film remains low-key throughout. Yet to watch it is an unforgettable experience.
Firstly the visuals are stunning. I have long held the theory that the most beautiful film ever made, and one that comes closest to a painting, is Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983). Of course we must include the films of Satyajit Ray for works of comparable aesthetic mastery, and I place Bridge alongside all of these with no hesitation. Where Bridge differs sharply from Nostalgia and Devi (Satyajit Ray, 1960) however is that the metaphysics behind its aesthetics comes from a place far removed from the alienation and atheism of Tarkovsky and Ray. The loving attention to detail, to the textures of crumbling walls, water, dark interiors, a bird, a leaf, in Bridge are not merely an aesthetic exercise but convey what I think the Buddha was hinting at in his tathata or "suchness." The inexpressible meaningfulness and richness of ordinary things in ordinary settings makes each scene in the film poignant precisely because in a state of profound depression that meaningfulness and richness is absent, leaving only a sense of emptiness and despair.
We never really learn however why Santanu, a wealthy Indian scholar, should have found old age so depressing; after all of Indian philosophy and indeed its sannyasin tradition points to those freed from family responsibility as liberated for the spiritual life and therefore on a course to profound meaning. Tanima's depression on the other hand seems to arise from trauma. In a few flashbacks we see her beaten and abused but we learn little more; neither is the course of her cure founded on any psychoanalytical insights. What we do understand is that Santanu's care for her pulls her through, while his mutual journey to meaning lies in this act of compassion. On this score the film has been compared to Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) where a dying old man finds meaning in providing a children's playground in post-war Japan, or - I would add - could be compared to Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948) where a doctor's compassion for a gangster arguably transforms both of them. Bridge also reminds me of the Tamil film The Terrorist (Santosh Sivan, 1998) in which the female protagonist Malli abandons a suicide bombing when a kindly old man tells her: "What is the loneliest thing in life? A seed. Unless it is sown it belongs neither to the sky nor the earth." Malli then tells him that she is pregnant. In Bridge we also learn that Tanima is pregnant, so her return to a love of life carries with it a double meaning.
While Bridge is not dramatic in the sense that any of the other films mentioned here are, its slow turnaround for its principal characters is deeply moving, particularly if one has known deep depression or nursed a loved one through it. At the same time it is deeply resonant of the Indian sub-continent, conveying much of its cultural richness without the skeptical eye of Ray. However, for a Westerner one thing does stand out from the comparison with Ray, given his Marxist background: where is the class-consciousness in Bridge? Two friends of the same social class visit Santanu at one point and his servant brings them tea. The servant bows low in humility as he withdraws with not a thank-you or any other acknowledgement from either men. This is not to criticize the film however, merely to point out that had it analyzed the existential basis of Santanu's depression it might have explored the idea that his relative wealth and exalted social status contributed to it.