Monday, August 26, 2019

Gloomy Sunday: When Overground Turns Under Ground in the Days of Authoritarianism

(All Pictures are stills from Gloomy Sunday movie 1999)

A mainstream film could be made into an underground movie, if its audience decides so. After almost twenty years of its release ‘Gloomy Sunday’, a Hungary-Germany co-production directed by Rolf Schubel based on a novel written by Nick Barkow who based the theme of his novel on the life of Rezso Seress, a musician in the interim period of two world wars who had been shot to notoriety with his piano composition ‘Gloomy Sunday’ which as the urban legends go had triggered a series of suicides both in Hungary, Europe and the United States of America. Billie Holiday’s version of it in her melancholy filled syrupy blues voice was banned from the radio stations including the BBC for a long time especially because it meddled with the mindset of the people in the countries that had gone into the war. The film as infectious as the song itself has however got a different story to tell that makes it a potential underground movie liable to be watched by all the democrats in any country that has been currently ushered into the days of unapologetic fascistic governance.

India fits the bill as she has just been introduced to the garden of restrictions, suppressions and undeclared censorship on words and deeds. The current right wing dispensation at the center has proved undoubtedly that it could lock up a state and its people for any number of days, if months need be and use military force to maintain ‘peace’ and ‘normalcy’ until the will of the people are broken completely. While autocrats dream the dreams of everlasting dominance history works in the opposite direction. It in the most unexpected moments would prop up a messiah like leader or leaders who would be ready to either unify a country in the name of democracy or break it up in to independent federal states with dignified affiliation with an administrative center that would perhaps look after the larger economy, military, information and technology. One day, if history wouldn’t fail us decentralization would become a reality where even the right wing political forces could exist without its ugly fangs. Till then we have to watch a movie in the underground.

‘Gloomy Sunday’, it is said was not a creation of the spirit of self-annihilation. Surely it was the result of a broken heart; the tune as well as the lyrics says so. Learned people say that ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was the expression of Seres’ personal melancholy but those who would like to connect it with the general history of the time see its affiliations with the post first world war depression. The economic depression had caused the collapse of many a personal nerve. People had gone mad then and the post second world war depression had made Camus to say that suicide was the biggest philosophical problem of the 20th century. The whole of existential thoughts had been birthed by the WW II. When the economies fail it is quite natural that people commit suicide. In India farmer commit suicide; instead of clutching to a vinyl record of the Gloomy Sunday, they drink from the pesticide cans and bid adieu to the world. When more and more youngsters are pushed out of their jobs and their future looks bleak despite the chest thumping nationalism makes its inroads at the border areas working overtime to send back coffins to villages, it is quite natural for the left over population to contemplate on suicide than to ruminate on the virtues of living. In those days it is imperative that we see ‘Gloomy Sunday’ the movie in all the possible interfaces so that we could discern why we live on and if commit suicide, why we do so.

‘Gloomy Sunday’ is a tragic story; of three people Laszlo, Ilona and Andras. For the Indians who think more about daily moralities than the freedom that one could eke out from relationships might find the movie a bit irritating and offensive because in this narrative Ilona, the beautiful Hungarian waitress at Laszlo’s restaurant ‘Szabo’ at once falls in love with Laszlo himself and Andras, the new pianist whom they recruit in the restaurant. She sleeps with both the men and they don’t find it odd to be in that strangely alluring relationship. On Ilona’s birthday Andras writes ‘Gloomy Sunday’ for her as the birthday gift. There is a young German businessman, Hans Wieck, a regular at the Szabo and a friend of Laszlo who also falls in love with Ilona but rejected by her at the first instance itself. With the Nazis taking over Hungary, Wieck comes back to Budapest as a Nazi Colonel who is in charge of sending the Jews to the concentration camps. He takes bribes from the affluent Jews and sends them to the other ‘free’ countries. On a fateful day, Wieck demands Andras to play ‘Gloomy Sunday’ and Ilona sings to the piano. Taking Wieck’s revolver, Andras, once the song is rendered fully shoots himself. Later Wieck assures Laszlo’s free passage upon Ilona’s submission to his sexual demands, which she obliges for the sake of Laszlo. But the Nazi Wieck proves himself to be an Aryan German by doing nothing to save Laszlo. Ilona becomes pregnant and we do not know whether the child is of Laszlo or Andras or Wieck. She lives on to die on another day.

Now about why the film becomes an underground variety in present day India. Though the film could be watched as a love story that ends up in tragedy (what is there in a love story if it is not a tragedy!) the real story is how the presence of Fascism changes human relationships; how it creeps into our daily lives and how treachery and deception becomes a common thing. It tells us how an unassuming businessman could turn into a military man who could ruthlessly fleece people for their personal freedom. It could also tell us how the power that are capable to overlook love and place revenge in its place. It also tells us how during the days Fascism how women are turned into mere puppets in the hands of militarized men. Gloomy Sunday is a metaphor of love but it is a cruel metaphor of authoritarianism as well. The underlying subtext is what makes the movie of underground variety. It is so interesting and ironic to notice that in the whole movie that deals with the war time Hungary there is only one shot is fired; that shot is not fired to kill someone else but Andras, the musician himself. It is the subtle representation of dispossession of human beings during the days of Fascism without emphasizing on the pathos though the music that one of the protagonists writes is melancholic. Andras shoots to fame when he writes a captivating piece of music but he is pushed to depression when he comes to know that the music is used by people as an inspiration or background for their final moments. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is the song of impending ‘unnatural’ death in everybody’s life; any time the knocking could be heard at your doorstep. Watching this movie would empower you so watch it.

-          JohnyML

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