Rossellini’s India

Roberto Rossellini travelled to India to film the 1959 documentary “India:  Matri Bhumi.”  The film features visually stunning scenes of various places in India with a poetic Italian voiceover.  Matri Bhumi means “motherland” or “mother earth” in Hindi.

An elephant logger in "Matri Bhumi."

An elephant logger in “Matri Bhumi.”

In addition to the travelogue footage, Rossellini, the director, includes four fictional scenes, including a tale involving the work of elephants in a small village, the building of a dam and its effect on a family, the effect of iron mining on forest tigers, and a trip by an old man and his performing monkey to a festival.

Considered a masterpiece, the 2011 restoration involved the merging of color film stocks from several different sources as well as a careful and exacting renewal of the soundtrack.  Rossellini shot in various locations and used actors and extras from where the action takes place.  The film opens with views of the sprawling city of Bombay, and the Italian narration says “Bombay has long been considered the doorway to India.  Upon arriving, one feels instantly euphoric.”  Although the tone of the voiceover seems to indicate a straightforward documentary — and the camera takes us on a tour of the city and describes its diverse and tolerant citizens — the film soon veers off to its first story.

The elephant story provides considerable contrast as Rossellini shows us the work and life of rural peasants along a riverside.  Our first view of elephants shows them parading in a religious ceremony and then shows them clearing trees in a forest.  The forest sequence takes its time as we listen to the incessant chattering of birds.  Along a road, elephants carry heavy logs between their tusks and trunks.  The narration reveals an ironic twist, the elephants work only 3 hours per day while their handlers toil constantly working them, feeding them and washing them.

After the elephant story, the movie goes back into travelogue mode, this time taking us to Benares (now Varanasi).  We see the city and its unique architecture from the viewpoint of the Ganges River.  The next story involves actual scenes of the building of the  Hirakud dam project in the northeastern Indian state of Odisha.  Rossellini shows an endless parade of workers carrying rocks and gravel to fill in the enormous dam.  After its completion, the husband in a migrant family is transferred to another construction project in another state, but his wife opposes the move.  As the waters of the new dam flow over the land, the family faces the uncertainty of a new beginning.

The forth and final story involves a trained monkey who travels with his master to a festival.  The searing heat gets the better of the trainer, and in a moving scene, the monkey does his best to protect him against circling vultures.  The main themes of this and other sequences provide the movie with a powerful emotional impact about life and happiness.  Rossellini delivers a quote from the Bhagavad Gita scripture:  “Both knowledgable and ignorant people are equally happy.  Only the mediocre are unhappy.”

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