Not too many people in this country saw what is incontestably one of the best films of 2016. While other more high-profile films were being celebrated by critics and commoners alike, Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans slipped in quietly almost apologetically into theatres alin September and left just as quietly because its Indian co-producers Reliance had no clue that this was actually the most Indian film of the year, and if given a chance it would have touched as many hearts as any of the big Hindi films of 2016.
The story of a couple Tom(the abundantly gifted Michael Fassbender) and Isabel(Alicia Vikander so good as the cross-dresser’s wife The Danish Girl) coming to terms with life after interrupted parenthood , is actually a closet-Bollywood film, the kind Bimal Roy , Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Shakti Samanta made in the past and none but Sanjay Leela Bhansali would even dare in today’s day and age when gratuitous rage fills nearly every page of our cinematic experience.
The storytelling in The Light Between Oceans is at once so gentle and stormy, it replicates the motions of the ocean that the film embraces in a clasp of visual splendor that I last saw in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, and in no Indian film that I’ve seen in recent years .As the ripples of waves rise and fall we see the characters caught in a web of ineluctable circumstances that leave their lives shattered .
More than the film’s mesmeric ambience and heartwrenching emotional content I was stuck by how Indian The Light Between Oceans is. The story of a childless woman who ‘steals’ a child harks back to Vijay Talwar’s 1984 Hindi film Lorie(lullaby) in which Shabana Azmi after a couple of miscarriages is so emotionally distraught she brings home a child she finds in a bus.
In The Light Between Oceans the baby drifts into the childless mother Alicia Vikander’s life in a boat and changes her life forever. The tussle of maternal ownership between the adoptive mother and the real mother(Rachel Weisz) is a reworking of the Yasdhoda-Devaki conflict over Lord Krishna adapted and assimilated into Hindi films of the 1960s and 70s like Khalid Akhtar’s Meri Bhabhi and K B Tilak’s Choti Bahuwhere two matriarchs from the same family assert their ownership over the family heir. In the latter KishoreKumar embodied the dilemma of the two conflicted mother in the song Hey re kanhaiya kissko kahega tumaiyaa.
I missed the songs The Light Between Oceans, but not as much as I miss the light in our moves that shines between oceans of the human experience . This light used to be shining brightly and prominently in our films until recently.We seem to have forfeited the basic emotional conflicts that constitute the human experience for more complex emotional issues . This is perhaps indicative of the rapid changes that have taken over the social order.
Perhaps motherhood is no longer as crucial a social issue as foeticide. The Light Between Oceans is set in an era gone-by(1920s). It is populated by characters and emotions that no longer occupy centrestage in our life and cinema. This is why it must be seen as a luminous legacy of an existence where moral conflicts were not about materialism,when idealism was not to be scoffed at and the sacredness of the parent-child relationship was never squandered in cynicism.
Visually rich and emotionally abundant almost to saturation point, The Light Between Oceans just broke my heart. And not only for its richness of emotional expression but also because so few people saw it . The corporate companies that lord over the fate of modern cinema are populated with personnel that thinks dubbing action franchises in Indian languages makes more sense than dubbing a film whose emotional core is as Indian as Mehboob Khan’s Mother India and Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem.
But all is not lost. The blue-ray DVD of The Light Between Oceans releases this month. January is a critical month in the film.As Fassbender explains , it is the month that joins the past year with the coming year. It is the month of continuity. Perhaps January can rescue this unsung masterpiece from the depths where it has been plunged by the corporate philistines.