My father loved cinema. And later after he had passed on, I came to know that while he was an engineer making Ropeways across India and holding out as a rare earning member of a large immigrant family, he studied cinematography on his own and he was a fantastic lensman. The use of light and emotions in some of my father’s black and white clicks speaks of a man who had a fantastic visual sense. He would dissect most movies we saw and honestly at that time we would get irritated by his eager interruptions. (I didn’t understand him then, I was a late child so there was this ‘gap’. )
In 1982 when colour televisions came out in India, we were one of the first houses in our neighbourhood to get one. He was a gadget man of that generation – TV, phone, music system with great speakers and VCR later; he had to have the gadgets.
I vaguely remember the Asian Games in 1982. That’s when the brand new EC Colour TV came to our house. To watch the games in colour.
During those days India had only one state-run television channel called Doordarshan. It wasn’t 24×7. And at times they would lose tramsmission feed. If the glitch lasted for a short while, they’d put up something like this:
At times, especially during the telecast of live events, the glitch would be longer. And then they would just play something else from their archives. One day, just like that, while watching the Olympic games, cinema drifted into my life.
I was 7. And I was watching the games with my father. Suddenly the feed went blank and the Sorry for The Interruption sign came on. We waited for a few minutes and then suddenly a movie started. Little did I know then that the next 30 minutes would change my life.
It was a film called The Red Balloon.
The Red Balloon (French: Le Ballon Rouge) is a 1956 French fantasy comedy-drama featurette, written, produced, and directed by Albert Lamorisse. The 35-minute short, which has a music score but almost no dialogue, tells of a little boy, who, on his way to school one morning, discovers a large helium-filled, extremely spherical, red balloon.
As The Boy plays with his new found toy, he realizes it has a mind and will of its own.
Lamorisse used his children as actors in the film. His son, Pascal, plays himself in the main role of The Little Boy, and his daughter, Sabine, portrays a little girl.
(What I did not know till the time I visited The Red Balloon Wikipedia page, that the film released on October 19, 1956. I was born on October 19. 1975.)
Those next 30 minutes are vivid in my memory. I had never been so immersed into anything ever. I was The Boy. I travelled the streets with that Red Balloon. It came into my life, became my friend, we experienced many things and we loved each other. And then we encountered a gang of big boys, who were envious of me, stole my balloon. I got it back but following a chase through the narrow alleys, they throw stones at my balloon, and they soon killed it with slingshots.
And then the Olympic Games transmission resumed.
I was just plain sad. There was no Internet. I didn’t even know the name of the film. It didn’t have any language. I had no way to know the end.
I did not know what happened in the end until a few years back when I found it on Youtube. Now when I look back, that film, The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse and the incompleteness of not knowing how it ended, formed the core of my cinematic desires.
Two things that stayed with me. One, the red balloon. I have always believed that everything has life, yes, even things that are just things can establish an emotional bond with us. Some of us love our cars more than we love our friends.
I was taken by the way the red balloon made me become the little boy.
Two – how the film said so much without saying a word. It was just visual and music. Yet, there was no problem in understanding the narrative and fall in love with it.
(Now I understand that my Calvinesque fascination for finding life in apparently non-living things must have started with The Red Balloon – this wonderful film spoke to a 8-year old and formed the core of who I was to become. Inception.)
As a filmmaker, you always want to do that one film that’s like that one film that made you fall in love with cinema. And when I used to live in Bangkok, I found the principal characters of my own The Red Balloon.
Two hugging salt and pepper shaker figurines, born to be One. If one breaks, the other one’s existence is futile. They only came as a set, no shop would sell you just one figurine.
I often wondered about that kind of love – two lovers who exist as One. What happens if they get separated? Will the other one be as sad as The Little Boy when his Red Balloon burst?
I wanted to explore that story.