Monday, November 26, 2007

RIP Istvan Gaal


This is two months too late and as sometimes happens, I've been thinking of Istvan Gaal often these last two months.

I found out only because I was at the IFFK site to check if they've put up the list of retrospectives and homages (they have) and in the homages to all the directors who died this year, was Gaal's name. My heart sank. I googled for news of him and sure enough, he passed away on the 25th of September this year.

Gaal, like Zanussi, was one of those directors who visited the Institute often. He was incredibly generous with his time, staying for a month each year, at least, doing intensive workshops with the direction students. He was not a very tall man, but he looked tough. His spiky white hair and the inevitable white shirt were signals of a more exciting time on campus.

In my first year, the directions students had to write a script and take turns directing small parts of a half hour film, under his supervision. The students wrote a script that drew heavily from the plot of Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers. This was sheer laziness on their part, of course, because it meant two main characters and not much in the way of challenges they set themselves (sorry, Kuntal). I was the woman in the film, so I got to spend a lot of time with Gaal and the direction students.

Needless to say, everything about the film was a disaster: the acting (mea culpa), a story that was transplanted without contextualising it in any way; and, as happens with any workshop film, the sheer lack of cohesion because of ten students directing one film.

The following year, Gaal came back to do another workshop with another set of students. This time, I was supposed to edit the workshop film (in the end my diploma schedule coincided with the workshop film and I didn't, after all, edit it). If anything, this film was worse.

And despite these failures, Gaal returned to the institute for a third year. By this time I was finished with the place, married and that winter, Gaal was on the jury at IFFI in Delhi. We had been in touch, off and on, and I went to meet him at his hotel. He was reading Ouspensky and we talked about theosophy a little. He chatted with us about our diploma films (which were all at the festival that year). He told me, about mine, that it was a bad idea to adapt Kundera's story without deep thought about why one would choose such a story. This was a familiar argument coming from him. He believed very strongly that filmmakers should be deeply rooted in their own ethos and found it a little strange that our generation was so willing to attempt adaptations of single stories from Eastern Europe without being exposed to the realities that those writers had lived. Our experiences were second hand, stale and deeply false, he said. That year he mentioned Rajashri's diploma film as the only one worth talking about.

(This sounded rather extreme to me. Rajashri's film was about a rebel boy whose differences with his parents involved supposedly radical hair changes, and was a very ordinary film, full of very heavy handed humour and clunky camera work.)

Sitting over a pot of coffee that winter, though, we strayed away from cinema talk. I'd been married less than a year, and I was there with my (then) husband, a classmate and (how to avoid making this sound filmy?) the male lead in that terrible workshop film. Gaal had gifts for us from Hungary. He had got us chocolates and wine, and me a wonderful white-on-white embroidered blouse. I was overwhelmed (and tried hard not to be jealous when, later that year, Surabhi showed me the small bottles of perfume in gorgeous Hungarian crystal that he had given the direction students as a gift). We gave him a sandal paper knife. He said no, he couldn't accept it because to give anyone a knife as a gift meant blood had to be drawn. Finally, after much persuasion, he accepted it provided we accepted blood money in exchange. It all felt a little weird. Watching him tape up the four 50p coins that were our token money, I wondered if all of this was because of a language problem or because he couldn't hear us properly. He was always hard of hearing and wore a hearing aid; conversations with him were apt to be tangential and more than a little odd. I still have the taped-up money somewhere.

That was the last time I saw Gaal, though I did write to him a couple of times. Earlier this year, I wanted to write to him and I realised that I didn't have an address anymore. I vowed to write to the Hungarian Cultural Center and ask them to put me in touch again, but like all good intentions it never made the transition into action and now it's too late.

So at IFFK this year, I will make it a point to see Falcons and remember Istvan Gaal.

Another obit here. Mukul, do you have any photographs?

7 comments:

SUR NOTES said...

what lovely post... i knew gaal was very ill but am very sad to read the news of his demise on your blog today.

i was deeply influenced by the workshop we did with him. every gesture, every word he uttered while editing the film remains with me to date. i can see his hands dance as the 'life' of a shot gets over -anything too soon or too late means the death of a shot. and i would keep wanting to experiment with a shot held on after its life had passed. to hold onto till you see the shot die...

muk's blog entry and now yours- i am taken back to the endless conversations about the craft of filmmaking at the institute...

SUR NOTES said...

oh sorry, one more comment to this post... a couple of years back my mum visited hungary. i insisted that she call gaal and give him a gift from me. he was ver unwell by the and could barely hear- he could not fathom what it was my mother wanted from him, and went onto complain bitterly about his health to her. i think he thought she wanted him to conduct yet another workshop in india...

Space Bar said...

Sur: that's so sad and ... hilarious. what was he ill with, do you know?

Mukul said...

i am very sad to hear this, dala. and silly me, i saw that 'falcons' was on the iffk schedule, but missed the reason why.

i'll be there, good to know that you will be there too. see you.

Mukul said...

have pictures.. will dig them out.

Space Bar said...

mukul! you'll be in tri! such fun. mail and tell me where you're staying and all.

Kuntal said...

My heart sank when I got the news. (Mukul SMSed me after reading your post).

Wish him happy journeys ahead!