Writer-director Govindan Aravindan started his career as an artist, drawing comic strips. One of his regular strips, a social satire called ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum’, became very popular in India. It was quite an intelligent comic, that eventually developed longer narratives that ran over the strips.
Aravindan got into films by ‘accident’. The story goes that he was helping his playwright friend Thikkodiyan to find finance for a film Thikkodiyan had written. When they approached the writer Pattathuvila Karunakaran about it, he agreed to fund the film but only if Aravindan directed it. After this first film, Uttarayanam (1975), won several awards, it kickstarted a career that would see the director become considered a notable figure in the ‘Parallel Cinema’ or ‘New Indian Cinema’ movement.
Despite the director’s prestige, like many older Indian films, Aravindan’s The Circus Tent (a.k.a. Thamp̄ or Thampu) had been relatively forgotten, long relegated to the history books and rarely available to watch other than on a ropey digital copy. Thankfully, Film Heritage Foundation founder Shivendra Singh Dungarpur worked tirelessly to get the film (and another one of Aravindan’s classics, Kummatty) restored and reintroduced to cinemas. With the help of Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, the best remaining sources were used to polish the film up and The Circus Tent enjoyed numerous successful festival appearances, including being selected for a Cannes Classics screening in 2022.
Now, The Circus Tent is being released on Blu-ray by Second Run, who had previously released Dungarpur’s documentaries Celluloid Man and CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel. I’m a huge fan of what I’ve seen of the work of the most well-known Parallel Cinema director, Satyajit Ray, but the rest of my knowledge of the movement is minimal, so I was keen to watch The Circus Tent. I got hold of Second Run’s disc and my thoughts follow.
The film opens with a travelling circus troupe arriving in the village of Thirunavaya on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river in Kerala. The arrival of the circus causes a stir in the village, and the villagers are eager to see the performances. The circus troupe sets up their tent and begins to put on their show, which includes acrobatics, juggling, and animal acts.
The film follows the circus troupe over the course of three days, as they perform for the villagers and interact with the local community. The film also explores the lives of the circus performers, who are often marginalized and transient.
The Circus Tent is very simple, on the surface, shunning narrative for largely just a naturalistic examination and celebration of life. This approach might sound offputting to some and, indeed, it’s not particularly fast-paced and I found my interest waning occasionally over the lengthy runtime. However, it’s so beautifully done and the circus sequences are so captivating, it’s easy to fall back under its spell.
The film effortlessly captures the atmosphere of the circus and life in the village by focusing often on the faces of people, frequently children, caught in seemingly natural, unguarded moments. The details of the activity of the circus and its audience also add to this, through observing the setting up of the tent, rehearsals, downtime and lovely little moments, such as the village’s children trying to sneak a peak at the animals through holes in their crates when they first arrive.
This naturalism was achieved by primarily using a cast of non-actors, particularly the members of the circus troupe. There are some professional actors in the film too though. According to accounts on this disc, Aravindan had a very quiet style of directing, literally just nudging his cast into action, allowing the actors to find themselves and work at their own, natural pace. The film is very quiet too, with very little dialogue.
There are a few more clearly staged dialogue sequences and, I must admit, I found these stood out, feeling quite stilted. They’re kept brief and to the point though, so don’t detract too much from the otherwise observational approach.
The scenes I most enjoyed were the circus performances. I’ve mentioned the way Aravindan pays a lot of attention to the reactions of people in his scenes and the audience plays a big part in the performance sequences. He doesn’t avoid displaying the shows themselves though. I found great pleasure in watching these. The performances aren’t as wild or extravagant as some of the circuses you see these days and the use of animals is a little regrettable but I found myself transfixed by the acrobatic displays and wonderful clown shows that had a silent comedy feel.
Aravindan was also a musician and that shows in the way the film is presented. With little dialogue used, music plays a key role in the film. It’s largely diegetic, in keeping with the naturalistic style, but adds a lot to the atmosphere. There are also a couple of incredibly beautiful songs performed in the film that stand out in particular.
Though The Circus Tent often works as a beautiful reflection of life’s pleasures, it also has a melancholic edge towards the end, as the villagers seem to lose interest in the circus by its final performance, instead turning their attentions to their own religious festival. You also get some post-modern touches where a couple of the circus performers tell their poignant stories directly to the camera.
So, whilst the lack of a strong narrative makes The Circus Tent feel a little meandering in places, there’s such beauty in the way it captures life in and around the circus that it’s hard to resist. Like a lot of Indian classics, it deserves to be better known and kudos to Second Run for giving it a second life.
The Circus Tent (Thamp̄) is out on 10th July on region-free Blu-ray, released by Second Run. The film had to be restored from the ‘dupe’ negative of a 35mm print, as the original negatives are lost. As such, particularly considering the state of the print used, you have to lower your expectations for how the film will look now and appreciate the hard work done to restore it to a watchable level. There is, sadly, a lack of detail due to harsh contrast causing some blacks to be crushed and bright sections to be burnt out. The original stock the film was shot on caused limitations in detail though, so perhaps the film looks similar to how it was originally screened. It’s likely the best the film has looked for over 40 years, regardless. I’ve used screengrabs throughout my review to give you an idea of how it looks.
Likewise, the audio shows the limitations of the source material but a great job has been done of cleaning it up. The music comes through particularly nicely.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– The Circus Tent (Thamp̄, 1978) presented from the new 4K restoration by Film Heritage Foundation.
– Exclusive, newly filmed interview with photographer Ramu Aravindan, son of the legendary Aravindan Govindan.
– The Circus Tent at Cannes 2022: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and actor Jalaja interviewed by Anupama Chopra for Film Companion.
– 24-page booklet with new writing by filmmaker and Film Heritage Foundation founder Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
– New and improved English subtitle translation.
– World premiere release on Blu-ray.
– Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C).
Aravindan’s son, Ramu Aravindan, describes how his father’s career developed before discussing his films as a whole. It’s a short but interesting piece, casting light on a figure who’s not well known, particularly in the West.
In ‘The Circus Tent at Cannes’, the pair discuss their experiences in taking the film to the prestigious festival. It’s a touching account. They follow this up by talking about the film and director, as well as the restoration process.
The booklet focuses on the restoration process and the importance and difficulty of restoring Indian classics in general. It makes for inspiring reading and made me eager to see more films from the country resurrected on Blu-ray.
So, whilst not one of Second Run’s more extras-heavy discs, it still contains some valuable additions and it’s wonderful to see such an interesting and lesser-known film see the light of day. More Indian classics, please!