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Fond memories of a Czech icon

Swapan Mullick |

The passing away of the Czech director Milos Forman, whose bold statements on the screen had found lasting echoes, may have gone somewhat unnoticed in India. Old-timers on the film society circuit can hardly forget the shattering impact of Loves of a Blonde made in 1965 — both on account of its social impact and sense of freedom that was unusual in the environment in which it was made.

The Czech cinema in 1968 had become part of the reformist movement launched by Dubcek. The slogan of “socialism with a human face” had found its way to what was described as the Prague Spring and had encouraged a wave of new ideas on the screen rooted in a vibrant spirit of freedom. Forman had led the movement with enthusiastic fellow travellers like Vera Chytilova, Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer and Elmar Klos.

That was also the most fertile period of the film society movement. A stream of new Czech films had arrived with support from the embassy. Forman’s Loves of a Blonde was a sensation. Students of St Xavier’s College in 1968 can hardly forget the experience of a film society being launched with the film which had fetched an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category.

Sadly, the crackdown by the communist regime followed and directors had the option of falling in line with the regime or moving to a foreign soil.

 

In a still from Amadeus
In a still from Amadeus

 

Forman attempted a veiled comment in The Fireman’s Ball which looked like a harmless representation of an all-fated social event. It was seen to be a satire on the communist regime and banned. He perhaps had no choice but to move to Hollywood. Forman’s death strangely coincided with the completion of 50 years of the Prague Spring — a landmark that film historians and cineastes will cherish.

It had brought not just the technical wizardry of Chytilova but the warmth and wisdom of Jiri Menzel who has since paid quite a few visits to Kolkata. But the impact of Loves of a Blonde as the symbol of opposition to the totalitarian regime was such that the authorities of the next Karlovy Vary Film Festival, starting at the end of June, considered it to be the most appropriate film to kick off a tribute to someone regarded as the most successful Czech director of all time.

The anti-establishment tone was predictably a big hit at festivals. It opened the film festival in New York before fetching nominations for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Forman had written in his autobiography that the story had its roots in real life.

He had run into a girl in search of a man with whom she had spent a night in the hope of a lasting relationship that was not to be. He had escorted her back to the railway station to return to the town that had a large population of women working in a textile factory and a shortage of men.

The cruel twists built around that personal experience were typical of the serio-comic texture that made Czech films of that period enormously popular. Forman achieved the best results with a lively combination of professionals and untrained actors.

It was a different story when he landed in the United States. The triumphs back home had ended with the sadness of a forced relocation. The first film in Hollywood, Taking Off, made in 1971, was a disaster and it may have prompted him to reconsider the decision to work away from home. But the courage that had led to a chain of dissent in a communist regime, though with an undercurrent of black comedy, was transformed into a harsher idiom in Hollywood.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after the failure of his first film, is considered a masterpiece. It created history by grabbing all the five major Oscars to rival Frank Capra’s achievement in It Happened One Night back in 1935.

It was a stormy celebration of humanism in the repressive environment of a psychiatric hospital — a comment on society as a whole. As one of the patients, Jack Nicholson had given a performance that produced striking images of protest and individual freedom. It was a performance that he could never surpass.

 

In a still  from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
In a still from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

 

Forman had returned to Czechoslovakia to shoot Amadeus in 1983 but with different perspectives. It was the story of the 18th century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the eyes of a rival. It had the familiar touches that helped him claim his second Oscar for best direction.

What really mattered was the consistent flair for controversial themes again revealed in The People vs Larry Flynt made in 1996 while working with stars like Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Kevin Spacey in Heartburn.

The real success lay in the cultural adjustments he had made with a supreme sense of assurance and conviction, preserving the humanism that was at the root of his artistic expression.

Age and illness may have taken a toll in his last years when he had virtually retired. But he had created landmarks that are destined to survive. It will only be appropriate to expect a tribute at one of the Indian festivals this year to revive an extraordinary method of story-telling with hidden sparks.