Thampu ★★★★

Thampu (The Circus Tent), a conceptual art film by Govindan Aravindan, presents the cycle of circus life in a simple pattern:

They arrive and set up
.....They take care of civic responsibilities
..........They put on three nights of circus shows
.....They take care of religious responsibilities
They strike the set and move on

The pattern, of course, is the universal experience of life:

You’re born and raised
.....You become responsible to others
..........You see some exotic animals and are spit on by a clown
.....You come to terms with God
You shuffle off this mortal coil

The dialectic of life and death suffuses the whole — the dialectic of fullness and emptiness, of attention and distraction, of activity and anticipation, of presence and absence. And the poles of each are contained in the other. The life of the circus isn’t too exciting, and the downtime in between shows isn’t too empty. “Is that all there is?” could be said in response to either, as indeed to the whole. The rhythms of editing replicate the feeling of time passing so well; it is so very satisfying to see one’s inner experience of time externalized in a work of art. It is invaluably comforting to share this burden with others through cinema.

And then in the midst of this slow steady river of life, there are two moments, like two eyes glaring out of the screen, when a circus performer, in a moment of spiritual exhaustion, stares into the camera in close-up and speaks of how their life in the circus is like an insufferable prison. Each time their voice resounds with reverb as if emerging from an underwater dungeon. And then the movie moves on.

For my project I knew I’d be replacing my original choice for 1978 with a Malayalam classic again, but I watched the original choice anyway: Nikos Panayotopoulos’s Idlers of the Fertile Valley. It was a standard European art film, but it provoked little response from me. Thampu impresses me deeply.

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