RICKSHAW – 1960
Making this film was a response to my shock at the beggars who besieged me in front of the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta in 1954. I had briefly stopped off there on a free trip with the Canadian contingent rotating duty on the Indo-China Peace Truce Commission in Viet Nam, between the French and American wars. Like most westerners, I was overwhelmed by the poverty I saw in Calcutta and determined to come back to explore what life was like at the absolute bottom.
Six years later I was able to finance a return to Calcutta. Our fares were paid by also proposing and selling to Ross McLean at CBC’s Close-up a one-hour public affairs show on India, which Douglas Leiterman directed. We travelled the length and breadth of India, discovering what a vast, diverse and complex continent it was. I got to pin a lapel mike on the lapel of Pandit Jah-warlal Nehru’s ‘Nehru’ jacket – and see one of the two most powerful ostensive definitions of ‘charisma’ that I have ever encountered. Kwame Nkrumah, liberator of Ghana, was the other. But after a month we were done and my cameraman, Rolph Blakstad, writer, George Robertson and I settled down in Calcutta for three months to explore the definition of poverty.
The first discovery was that the beggars
who awed me on my first trip were in effect profes-sional performers.
After research we determined that jute mill workers or rickshaw pullers
might offer our best prospects for filming. The second was a gift from the
great Bengali director, Satyajit Ray. He gave me four gifts, actually. The
first was the name of the official from whom I would get permission to
film in Calcutta. In what is likely the world’s largest and most
hydra-headed bureaucracy, the introduction proved invaluable. The second
and third gifts were rec-ommendations as to a possible Assistant Director.
Both were young, upper class communists who had worked in jute mills in
order to organize their work forces. One was fiery and eloquent, the other
soft-spoken and superbly diplomatic. I hired them both; they were
indispensable, espe-cially in the light of Ray’s fourth bit of advice:
filming on the streets of Calcutta was utterly im-possible. Choosing to
ignore his advice – thus his gift was indirect – was to learn that one
must finally make up one’s own mind and have the nerve to do so. Risk
taking is of the essence of creativity.
We rented a van. Its back had slat sides through which we could shoot and canvas to cover them. Touring the city one afternoon we turned a corner and, looking out the back of the van, Calcutta suddenly felt as familiar as Kerrisdale, the Vancouver district in which I grew up. I knew then, and only then that we were ready to work. The exoticism of foreign locations can be a seductive distraction; it distances you from your subject. If you want to get to the heart of the matter, why put it in a foreign body? I love landscape and the awesome quality of raw nature but, personally, human behaviour compels me more and, in the exploration of it, landscape or location is rather like exposition. It’s the price of the ticket to ride. So I have always chosen, wherever possible, to have characters embedded in their location, as it were, rather than use es-tablishing shots.
Let me make three more remarks, one on narration, the other on chance and the huge part it plays in film; and, finally, another on genre and truth. Some time after the introduction of cin-ema verité, narration fell out of fashion – especially among progressives. Maybe this was because veritéists wanted to sell the presumed greater veracity of verité, or because some progressives are particularly fearful of authority, or the narrator was too often given the sound of the voice of God. It may have simply been a generational matter – each generation must cut down the forest of its fathers in order to have a space of its own. But I suggest to you that narrators can be as useful as any other device to express feeling and ideas. Michael Redgrave, in Humphrey Jennings, A Diary for Timothy, offers superb evidence for the argument – though it may be lost in a tradition never to be re-found.
Chance offers many gifts. The boy who played Ram in Rickshaw was not cast in the part; he was our second choice. The boy who we cast disappeared after the third day of filming. We had to fall back on Ram. How lucky we were.
‘Played the part’ is the phrase that speaks to the final point here. Coming out of the Flaherty tradition, it never occurred to me that the fact that Ram was not actually Dukhan’s son was a problem. He happened to be to be Dukhan’s nephew but that was a matter of pure happen-stance. Coming out of the tradition of news and public affairs, the Head of Current Affairs (no pun intended) at the CBC, Bernard Trotter was shocked to his back teeth to learn from me that Ram was not Dukhan’s son. In my view, however, it is irrelevant unless one is caught in the tyr-anny of genre.
The film offered, as a personal bonus, another chance for a meeting with John Grierson. I had visited him in Glasgow where he was producing and hosting his marvellous, It’s a Wonderful World for Scottish Television. Rickshaw was invited to the Leipzig International Festival and I found myself with Grierson in an unheated bus in the middle of the winter of 1961, travelling from Pankow Airport in the Democratic Republic of Germany, down to Leipzig. Its wartime devastation was still immaculately preserved by the GDR but we were housed in huge new so-cialist realist hotel. John railed, as he was wont to do, at the inefficiency of the hotel and its ser-vice.
Rickshaw won First Prize for documentaries at Leipzig, as it did at the Vancouver International Film Festival. An extra bonus there was a bas-relief award carved by the superb Haida sculptor, Bill Read. We had spent many hours in the Master Control Booth when I first apprenticed at CBUT. It’s unquestionably the handsomest award I’ve ever received.