“A film about India without elephants and tiger hunts”—this was how Jean Renoir described his objective in making The River. Guided by Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel, he rejected the India of exotic action and spectacle to make a meditative, almost mystical film set beside a holy river in Bengal, whose success would launch a new era of portraying India on-screen. After Renoir in 1951 would come Roberto Rossellini in 1959 (although with elephants and a tiger in his documentary India), followed later by Louis Malle, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and Richard Attenborough. And, in 1984, David Lean came to make a belated screen version of the sixty-year-old E. M. Forster novel about Anglo-Indian misunderstanding, A Passage to India, that had previously shaped Renoir’s perception of the country.
Just what an extraordinary achievement The River was should not be underestimated, especially considering the time and difficulty of its production in the late forties. The portrayal of India on Western screens up to that point had been almost exclusively based on British imperial history or fiction, ranging from Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and Zoltán Korda’s The Drum (1938) to such Rudyard Kipling adaptations as MGM’s Kim (1950) and Soldiers Three (1951), both of which appeared around the same time as The River. Of course, these could have their own authenticity. Kipling, after all, had been born in India and shaped by his early childhood there, and Kim was filmed partly on location (and in Technicolor). However, it was a different kind of authenticity, still linked to the attitudes fostered by the British Raj. In 1947, under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, India finally achieved independence. But this triumph was marred by bitter religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims, which led to partition and the birth of Pakistan as a predominantly Islamic state, followed by the assassination of Gandhi as a reprisal by Hindu fanatics.
None of this still-recent history is reflected in the serene view of India presented in The River, which might make it seem like an orientalist fantasy, in the tradition of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). However, the reality is more complex. Although born in England (in 1907), Godden spent much longer than Kipling in India, living the same privileged life of the English. But this was forty years later, on the other side of the country from Kipling’s Bombay. Around her, during her childhood in the town of Narayanganj, the Bengal cultural renaissance was producing poets, painters, and writers, including the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore. Sent back to England for school after World War I, Godden returned to Kolkata in 1925, where she opened and ran a dance school, and learned firsthand of the white hostility toward those who mixed with Indians. This makes the role of the Eurasian Melanie—played by the Indian dancer Radha—a much more daring element than might be apparent today. The very suggestion of romance between Melanie and the white American, Captain John, challenged racial taboos on both sides of the Atlantic, and the character of Melanie, who is not in the book, was devised precisely to give an Indian other than a servant an authentic voice and presence in the film’s central drama.
Authenticity was a paramount concern for Renoir, who knew nothing of India directly before seeking Godden’s permission to film her book. Having lived in the United States since 1941, struggling to find film subjects there that were acceptable to Hollywood, he was acutely conscious of the problems facing a filmmaker working outside his native culture. During a decade’s work in France, he had dealt with a range of highly sensitive issues, from the plight of immigrant farmworkers in Toni (1935) to Franco-German wartime hostility in Grand Illusion (1937) to class relations in both The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Visiting India reassured him—he would later claim that it was the “least mysterious” of countries—and Godden’s willingness to work with him on creating a new scenario, and later to advise on the shoot, guaranteed that the film would at least be true to her experience.
Not that The River’s narrative perspective is as simple as it might seem. Its basis is Godden’s own youthful experience of India, with her adolescent alter ego, Harriet, falling in love with a crippled veteran of an unspecified war—which, watching the film, we assume to be the Second World War (though this is not stated)—and the whole narrated with poetic hindsight by an older Harriet, who has indeed become a writer. In reality, Godden, who had been living in Kolkata during the thirties, sought refuge with her young daughters at the outbreak of war in the mountains of Kashmir—and there, by a strange personal coincidence, she seems to have met my wife’s uncle, to whom the novel is dedicated. He spent some months in Kashmir around 1943, between spells of active naval service, seeking personal renewal, and I find myself wondering if the disillusion and eventual recovery he would later describe in an unpublished memoir might have inspired the surprisingly complex character of Captain John.
“Everyone has their reasons” is the motto most often applied to Renoir’s work as a whole, referring to his sympathy with conflicting points of view and his refusal to pass judgment. Although he wrote the line for The Rules of the Game, in later life he would attribute his full realization of its truth to the experience of The River, making it perhaps the pivotal moment in his career. The film’s two fathers—Harriet’s (unnamed) jute factory manager and Melanie’s widower, Mr. John—are both troubled by their paternal responsibilities. The manager has a wife, who patiently explains the unavoidable conflicts of childhood, adolescence, and parenthood; Mr. John agonizes over the mixed-race status his marriage to an Indian has created for Melanie, and over the post-traumatic confusion of his cousin as he struggles to come to terms with having lost a leg in the war. Unlike conflict-centered Hollywood narratives, which invariably end in resolution, Renoir’s films tend to show that not all problems are soluble. None of the principal characters in The River find immediate happiness; instead, they learn to overcome frustration and despair in a series of experiences that we can perhaps see as therapeutic but that are also influenced by the philosophy of Hinduism. The Europeans who are the main protagonists of The River participate in the Hindu rituals, such as Dewali, as observers rather than believers. Yet when their greatest challenge comes, with young Bogey’s death, they adopt some of the trappings of Hindu ritual and much of its stoicism. One aspect of Hindu theology in particular seems to have fascinated Renoir—the goddess Kali’s cyclical path from destruction to rebirth—and this could be seen as the film’s overall theme.
Renoir tackled The River after seven years of relative frustration in the United States, having just given up fighting RKO on his last Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach (1947). The skill and dedication of the Indian crew who worked with his creative team were a revelation. Working with children and nonprofessionals added to his experiences of creating convincing social groups in his French films. According to various testimonies, his legendary outbursts of anger were still in evidence, but the complexity of shooting on location and with many nonprofessionals, as well as within the constraints imposed by the Technicolor process, also brought out in him a new patience.
As the son of a great impressionist painter, Renoir might have been expected to have a special relationship with visual imagery in color, although in fact he had only practiced briefly as a potter before entering cinema. Like many filmmakers of this period, shaped by the discipline of black-and-white photography, he was highly conscious of the limitations of three-strip Technicolor, which produced rich, saturated hues. Rather than try to nuance these toward a subtler palette, Renoir took the view that the filmmaker should set color film only “simple problems.” He thought the tropical vegetation of Bengal ideal, with its “colors neither too vivid nor mixed,” reminding him of the painters Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse. Renoir and his lighting cameraman (and nephew), Claude Renoir, working with the designer Eugène Lourié, aimed at avoiding all “half tints,” even going so far as to paint a lawn a more definite shade of green for one scene.
To our eyes, long accustomed to color film and now benefiting from a superb new restoration and digital transfer, the result has a quality we might want to call painterly, if more in the manner of Henri Rousseau’s stylized jungles than of impressionism or fauvism. For although Renoir shot much documentary-style material, he insisted that the film was “a story based on the immemorial themes of childhood, love, and death”—and, in spite of the voice-over narration, these themes are embodied primarily in intense and daring imagery. Two great image series dominate the film: the river itself, seen in many different lights, from the vivid multicolored bustle of shipping to the stark silhouette of evening, as Harriet goes in search of solace; and the mighty tree that seems to symbolize the family itself, to evoke Eden’s primordial tree of knowledge, and that finally bursts into blossom in what is surely one of the great moments of natural symbolism in cinema.
Renoir was fascinated by India’s natural visuality, which he exploited in the two Hindu religious ceremonies shown, as well as in Harriet’s dream story about a village wedding, in the children’s colorful bombardment of the postman that marks the coming of spring, and finally in the flower-decked funeral procession for Bogey that marks the family’s—and the film’s—acceptance of death as an intrinsic part of life’s cycle.
We know that Rumer Godden liked Renoir’s adaptation of The River as much as she’d disliked Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 version of her earlier novel Black Narcissus. The English filmmakers had taken a diametrically opposite aesthetic approach (also no doubt influenced by practical and political considerations) in shooting their film entirely in the studio, using painted “glass shots” to simulate the vertiginous Himalayan mountain setting and creating an earlier Technicolor classic. Their Black Narcissus intensified the sexuality implicit in Godden’s tale of English nuns overwhelmed by the alien beliefs and landscape, while Renoir stressed the innocence of sexual awakening in The River, adding more children to the book’s family and developing the theme of parenthood in newly written scenes.
Today, we don’t have to choose between these great films. We can savor both, for their pioneering use of Technicolor in the studio and on location and for how they develop Godden’s slight, ambivalent Indian stories into resonant works that still shed light on the European fascination with India while also revealing the essential falsity of colonial life at the moment it was ending. For Renoir, The River would serve as a bridge between the United States and his return to Europe for a last, glorious period of creativity. If his work as a whole can be seen as oscillating between the pastoral and the theatrical, both of these modes shape The River, linked by the idea of storytelling as a way of understanding the world. This emerges in Harriet’s wedding story, which starts as a way of distracting Captain John from her rival, Valerie, then develops a life of its own, taking the film more effectively into the realm of myth than Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). And it continues with the magical and wholly visual sequence in which all four romantically linked characters—Harriet, Melanie, Valerie, and Captain John—play a kind of pastoral hide-and-seek, like a sunlit reprise of the nocturnal antics of The Rules of the Game.
Like another near-contemporary film, Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), The River has survived falling out of fashion to reemerge as a touchstone for a certain kind of modernity in cinema. It’s a self-conscious, reflective film that draws on the “reality” of India but does so to immerse us in the spiritual drama of its central character. Little wonder that Martin Scorsese values it so highly, as is perhaps evidenced in his own extensive use of voice-over narration and his having tackled, as a Westerner, the portrayal of Tibet in Kundun (1997). Today, the ultimate effect of The River’s otherwise strange projection of an idyllic pre-1920 India into the era of Indian independence is perhaps to challenge Forster’s view of Indians and Europeans as condemned to mutual incomprehension and return to something more like Kipling’s idea of learning from India. The Europeans in the film’s foreground are already an anachronism in an India emerging from colonial rule, but they can still draw strength and inspiration from its age-old customs and beliefs. Meanwhile, one of Renoir’s local advisers, Satyajit Ray, would soon pick up the challenge to Indians of representing India to the world with the first part of his Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali (1955).
This piece originally appeared in Criterion’s 2005 DVD edition of The River.