The Fiddler on the Roof

Review by: N. Arunkumar *

I have seen many films in my lifetime by now. A few of those films have left a lasting impression on my mind and I have noticed that often reflexively, those films have influenced my thoughts and perceptions of things around me. Subconsciously mind you, and I cannot say that those moments would have been noticed even by me, had I not observed the perceptions of people around me and their reaction to the same thing or event that I have witnessed along with them.

My insights were perhaps a bit more sensitized than others, possibly because I have allowed those films to sink into me completely in an unprejudiced or gullible manner. Of the films which I have seen, a few are universally accepted as classics like the 'Ten Commandments' and 'Ben Hur'.

'The Ten Commandments' was a Cecil B De Mille magnum opus that endures and endears even today. However, I suggest that this film should be seen in a theatre with a 70mm screen only, for the technical brilliance of the work to seep into you. I still recollect the moment I watched the parting of the Red Sea, a scene created by the master Cecil B De Mille from within the constraints of the technology available in the 50's when the film was made, in absolute awe then, and will watch it in the same vein even today if I get a chance to see this classic in a theatre.

It gave a dramatized interpretation of the Biblical story of Moses, who delivered the Hebrew slaves from the land of the Pharaohs to the Promised Land. Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Bryner as Rameses were tailor made for those roles and one cannot imagine the film with any other cast. They literally have lived the roles of these Titans of mythology in this film. 'Ben Hur' followed after the 'Ten Commandments' in 1959, another take on the Biblical character of Ben Hur, played to perfection again by Charlton Heston.

This film got a record of eleven Oscar Awards back then, and this record was equaled only by James Cameroon's film Titanic many years later. One thing about Hollywood casting is the detailed research that goes behind selecting a perfect actor to play the character that is visualized by the director of their films. That is the reason they have a specialized unit that deals exclusively with casting for a film project, unlike the Bollywood system of creating a story around the aura of a saleable hero of a film and the director suited for that star actor.

These films were of course such classics that they transcended boundaries of religious beliefs or ideologies of any kind. People of all faiths and beliefs have seen them and returned from the theatres with a better understanding and appreciation of the religious beliefs that sustain faith of other kinds in this world. As I believe, we should not go to see a film with any bias about its origin or content, but should go to see it with an open mind and learn a few good things if we can. Good films or learning about cultural upheavals taking place in other parts of the world are not bad things for evolving into better human beings.

Of course there are those films which are simply commercial enterprises that aim to lighten your pockets and even leave a sour taste in you. Nevertheless, discretion and intelligence of the viewer is a personal perspective that should not be dictated at the cost of personal enrichment of an individual or society. Seeing a different perspective of life is an integral part of the freedom to expand ones horizons and be aware of the world around us. Putting chains on that is a serious offence to humanity itself that cannot be fought legally considering the times we are living in today.

Another film I have seen in my life and remains fresh in my memory till now was another musical classic, 'The Fiddler on the Roof'. This film never leaves my subconscious mind, ever. The story of an ordinary milkman with five daughters and his simplicity in addressing the trials and tribulations in his life with an earthy wisdom is a must see film by everyone.

His world literally crumbles to pieces right before his eyes and he cannot do anything to stop it from complete destruction, in spite of his wise interpretations of his life and circumstances. The songs of the film, the dialogues, the music and the overall feel of it is so natural and believable that you will not leave the story without a tear at the end of it all. I for one did not want to leave the protagonist, the milkman called Tevye, played by the legendary stage and film actor Chaim Topol, even after the film came to an end.

It is said that no other film has woven music, laughter, poignancy and dance into such an electrifying and unforgettable experience, and rightly so. I felt it gave me a chance to experience the tragedy of the Jews in the early 1900's when the village called Anatevka in Russia was asked to be vacated by them by the Tsar. The persecution that they faced thereafter, right up to the time of Hitler's concentration camp pogrom made me empathize with them much more powerfully than I would have otherwise viewed the tragedy of it all, and wept for the millions of Jews who were slaughtered like animals by a fiendish rule organized by the Nazi party in Germany.

Meanwhile, to get back to Tevye, he was trying to uphold his traditional beliefs and practices while his daughters were destroying them one by one by choosing their own husbands from different cultures and religious backgrounds and denying him any control over their choices too. His compromises with his situation leave us empathizing with him entirely, by the end of the film. The climax scene of the film is a material for tears in the eyes of the viewer.

'The Fiddler on the Roof' also has a symbolic angle to it. The Fiddler is perhaps a subtle reference to God, who plays the fiddle on all of us alike, while we are forced to dance to those tunes he decides to play on us. Often those tunes overwhelm us and crush our otherwise strong views about things around us. We are left with a sense of vulnerability that it is always right when said that 'Man proposed but God disposes'. The lyrics of this film, written by Sheldon Harnick are simply too enchanting in their minimalism and essence that lifts the film to almost another plane altogether. I would strongly recommend this film if you wish to understand the pathos of the Jewish society and the misfortunes that they have suffered as a race of God's chosen people, since the last century.

I feel I am aware about these simply due to this one film as it also provoked my curiosity to understand more about them thereafter. Following the impact of this film on my psyche, I read a lot of books and literature about the manner in which they were treated by the world since then. It has only enriched me as a human being and perhaps unconsciously made me a nobler person too.

A book called 'Babi Yar, a novel' about a pogrom in Kiev during those horrible days of Nazi mania was one such book that left me with tears in my eyes too. This book was not allowed to be published in Communist Russia of the time and it had to be smuggled out of the country in installments by its author Anatoli Kuznetsov to America, where it finally saw the light of day. It is a true account that the Russians did not want the outside world to know about, then. Over 33,000 Jews were murdered here in just one day, making it one of the worst single massacres of mankind ever in history. Just the thought of it sends shivers down my spine even now, and a tear of sorrow for those unfortunate victims of Babi Yar. They were brought down like animals with the mad cow disease being culled at random. Was it done by men? I doubt it very much.

These films have effectively sensitized me to the world around me and enlightened me about how man tries to play God over others, often with grave consequences for the rest of us. I would never do the same bearing in mind that there is only heartaches, devastation, and human catastrophes that are left behind in the wake of such attempts. One mans senseless action to ostensibly deliver his race from a perceived danger could snuff out many other men in their life's path.

"Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains" as said by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book 'The Social Contract' is true for all times too. We here in Manipur are also in a similar predicament, while at that. Persecuted and put in chains, from everywhere and from all angles possible today. We have no freedom to grow in any which way we want and realize the tremendous potentials that we have within us. Fear is the key to life here these days.

Does the reader disagree with me on that? And all these go on, while god continues to play the fiddle on our lives, with a mocking smile on his lips, perhaps.



* N. Arunkumar, a frequent contributor to e-pao.net , reviewed this film.
The reviewer can be contacted at hareedesiree(at)hotmail(dot)com
This article was webcasted on September 1 2009.

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