Thoughts On: A River Called Titas - Hyperlink Cinema


A River Called Titas - Hyperlink Cinema

Thoughts On: A River Called Titas (Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, 1973)

This is the Bangladeshi film of the series, made by Ritwik Ghatak.

A River Called Titas is a masterfully shot film with an abundance of poetic imagery and narrative beats to match. In such, this film explores fate, romance, maternity and loneliness through the village people living on the banks of the Titas river in Bangladesh with strong touches of profundity. Though it has many moving parts, this narrative is centred on a girl who is gifted (by her father) to a fisherman from another village. As he takes her down the river and toward his village, their boat is ambushed as they sleep and the girl is kidnapped. She manages to fight her captors off and jump in the river, but is separated from her husband, who she knows nothing of - not even his name - and washes ashore in another village where she is taken in. And it's from here that the narrative starts to unfold in an unconventional manner.

Before getting into this, I have to say that I have a very loose grip of this film. This is because of the unconventional structuring of the screenplay, but also because of the often awkward direction and editing. There is no better scene through which to see this that the one in which the girl of this story is kidnapped. Ghatak, the director, does very well at impressionistically telling this story, putting us in the characters' heads, at points. But, he often struggles in sustaining a strong sense of the space in which his action unfolds - leaving you spatially lost. When this is combined with clunky character decisions - like staring at the space that your wife has just disappeared from instead of trying to do something - this narrative becomes pretty incomprehensible and difficult to follow. However, looking at the scene at hand a little closer, you can try to make sense of things through understanding that time is fractured and sparsely interlinked within this film. So, maybe the girl had been kidnapped hours before her husband wakes and this was inter-cut with his waking. But, there is no cinematic cue through which is this understood - leaving it pretty incomprehensible nonetheless.

What this suggests is that maybe it'd be best to re-watch this film. However, I would being lying if I said I look forward to doing this soon as it was quite the struggle.

Despite these flaws, A River Called Titas is a very intriguing incite into a form of storytelling that is, surprisingly so, quite new in cinema. This is a class of film referred to as 'hyperlink cinema'. Hyperlink cinema is a term coined by the writer Alissa Quart, and it defines a class of films that have a multitude of characters meet over a plot with many flash-backs and flash-forwards. In short, think Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Altman's Nashville, PTA's Magnolia or Iñárritu's Amores Perros. These movies are structured a bit like Wikipedia; whilst you may get a lot of information on one page, to fully understand a subject, you'll often have to click through to other pages and assemble the knowledge into a solid narrative.

So, whilst there are numerous films that play with time in flash-backs and flash-forwards throughout cinematic history - one of the most famous examples of course being Citizen Kane - it wasn't until Satyajit Ray in 1962 made his film, Kanchenjungha, that the hyperlink film genre is said to have started. This is because Kanchenjungha features multiple story lines from individual characters that almost serendipitously, or fatally, come together whilst films like Citizen Kane have the multiple story lines in time, but, all of which are clearly bound to one central figure - a Charles Foster Kane.

A River Called Titas is a significant film because it is considered the second hyperlink film to have ever been made - and only a couple of years before Altman's Nashville. What this says about Ghatak's film is that it was quite ahead of its time. To understand why, you'd only have to consider the term 'hyperlink cinema'. This is an idea born in the digital age - and a vast majority of so-called hyperlink films have been made from the late 90s onward. This is an incredibly interesting phenomena when we consider the likeness of the hyperlink film to a book. If books pre-date cinema, then why did it take so long for films that somewhat resemble them structurally to surface?

When we look to films like A River Called Titas, it's quite clear that they have been adapted from a book - or mean to mimic their structure (as Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction). In such, books handle time differently to films; films are often linear, start to finish, whilst books much more freely move through a timeline. The reason why there is this divide between the book and film may come down to the language of both forms. In short, it's a lot more jarring for an audience and difficult for a filmmaker to track the unconventional movement through time in a film than it is an author and reader of a book. This is because books are told through a narrative voice - often an omnipotent perception that is external to the action of the narrative. Cinema has a much harder time achieving this tone and aesthetic. If we look to films such as Enter The Void...

... we see an example of a film that uses its camera in a completely alienated fashion; it is omnipotent and only observes action, rarely immerses itself in it. In my opinion, this distance makes Enter The Void a near-impossible film to watch as it's so unengaging. Books can manage to have this distance from the action, whilst films usually can't, because the distance from action in a novel is often felt as a closeness to the narrative voice - the narrator. Without some sense of closeness, a narrative becomes static and unimmersive - we're no longer being told a story, rather, we are staring at a world in a screen or on a page. And whilst many filmmakers lean on this observational aesthetic where an audience brings a lot to the film, storytelling is traditionally and commonly an active process. If you take the 'telling' out of 'storytelling', then stories often fall flat because they come off as mere happenings or facts.

This seems to be why cinema has historically distanced itself from a book structure and has only mimicked it loosely - films needs to engage us in action and in the present moment through cinematic language. For many decades, this has left filmmakers relying on linear storytelling or playing with obviously placed flash-backs and flash-forwards - look to the formal make-up of any classical Hollywood film and you'll have a strong example of this in use.

Using this idea, we can then make an assumption on why hyperlink cinema bloomed so late. As some have suggested, this form of cinema was born out of a yearning in audiences for new forms of storytelling. In such, it is suggested that we know the plot-line of, say, a gangster film, so well that it'd be possible for a filmmaker to play with this structure and still keep an audience in the know - hence hyperlink cinema grows from the 90s onward. But, whilst this would explain a film like Pulp Fiction, I don't think it's a completely satisfying answer.

Hyperlink cinema seems to have been born from an open space for new forms of storytelling, but also incentivised through the changing way in which people take in information. This then brings us back to the fact that the idea of 'hyperlink cinema' was born in the digital age - the name even in reference to a phenomena of the internet. What this term and the vast majority of hyperlink films coming out in the post-internet and home computer days suggests is that these films reflect the changing way in which people learn and receive 'stories'. In such, just like the internet has an enormous amount of information, maybe too much, that we often take in by jumping back and forward between sources whilst watching videos, listening to music, podcasts and so on, this is how films can be structured. The digital age has then made it clear to filmmakers (who are also immersed in this age) that common people are used to non-linear stories and bringing that information together - all thanks to things like Google and Wikipedia.

What hyperlink films have then done is somewhat mimic the form of a book whilst keeping a closeness to story through a character-centric movement through space and time as well as take advantage of shifting cultures; the changing manner in which we're used to being fed information. When we look to films like Nashville and A River Called Titas, we are then seeing experimental forms of storytelling precursing the normalisation of this new form of cinema, in large part, by the evolving world.

UPDATE: Here's a link to a documentary I considered putting into the series that has some ties to Bangladesh.

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