In the Hindi cinema I grew up watching, the definition of nastik (atheist) was a hazy one. It never meant genuine, matter-of-fact unbelief in God: that didn’t even seem to be an option. It was more a case of “bhagwaan se katti hoon” — I’m not on speaking terms with Him because He allowed bad things to happen to my family. Early in the Bachchan-starrer Nastik, little Shankar sulks and tells an idol “Aaj se mera-tera koi vaasta nahin.” But in the film’s climax, when God (or rather the gleaming, jewellery-studded statue that represents Him) shows belated willingness to help by impaling the wicked Amjad Khan with a trident, everything is hunky-dory again and it’s back to waking up the neighborhood by clanging those old temple bells.
This is a way of saying that I don’t usually turn to 1980s Hindi movies for nuanced portrayals of religious faith (or its absence). However, even as an avowed non-believer, there is a small group of “spiritual” films that I find interesting and provocative. These include the work of the Danish director Carl Dreyer (notably Day of Wrath, about a young woman accused of witchcraft) and Ingmar Bergman (who wrestled with the subject of faith through his career, notably in Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly). But occupying a special place on the list is the great British film A Canterbury Tale, made by the Powell-Pressburger team during World War II.
Its plot involves the coming together of three young people — a working-class girl and two soldiers — in a small town during wartime, and their interactions with a local magistrate named Mr Colpeper. Without giving too much away, we soon learn that Colpeper is a traditionalist, deeply attached to a pastoral way of life that is under threat in a modernising world — and that some of the methods he employs to preserve his “values” are morally suspect (to say the least). His view of progress is not very far from that of the religious fundamentalist. Yet he is also shown to be a melancholy man, capable of introspection — and to some extent a figure of sympathy, because we know he is fighting a lost cause. Much of the film’s effect depends on our ambivalence towards him.
Colpeper’s nemesis is a sardonic, probably agnostic sergeant named Peter, and the two men have a (civilised) confrontation in a late scene set in a train. There is a moment of Pure Cinema here that counts among my favourite movie scenes ever: the train pulls into the brightness of Canterbury station and Peter, sitting by the window, is ethereally lit up by the sunlight outside just as he says the words “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.” This is such a magnificently conceived and executed shot that I feel foolish trying to describe it with bare words. It is also a lovely visual evocation of the idea that these people have entered a mystical realm; a place where “blessings are received, or penance done”, and where the usual rules don’t apply.
On the surface, A Canterbury Tale might appear to believe in divine benediction, but even the irreligious mind should have no difficulty appreciating what the film’s Canterbury eventually represents for the four main characters. It can be seen as a place where one comes to make peace with oneself, finding solace by recalling the struggles of other people who lived centuries ago – and thus momentarily becoming part of something larger (something that doesn’t have to be supernatural). Or even where mistakes might be acknowledged and a form of personal penance done. For the thinking believer and non-believer alike, there is more depth and complexity to be found in this film’s graceful climactic sequence than in all those dramatic scenes of our heroes berating or negotiating with their Gods in moments of crisis.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer