sat 18/05/2024

Blu-ray: Thamp̄ (The Circus Tent) | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Thamp̄ (The Circus Tent)

Blu-ray: Thamp̄ (The Circus Tent)

Engrossing semi-documentary following a circus in rural India

Miraculous and terrifying feats in Aravindan Govindan's 'Thamp̄ '

There are scores of films set in and around circuses. Aravindan Govindan’s bewitching Thamp̄ (The Circus Tent) isn’t like any of them, though I was fleetingly reminded of Jacques Tati’s largely plotless Jour de fête – which also opens and closes with a big top being assembled then dismantled in a small rural community.

Thamp̄ isn’t a comedy. Categorising the film is difficult. It looks like a documentary shot on the hoof, and Govindan is credited as screenwriter, but in a later interview he claimed that “we didn’t have a script and we shot the incidents as they happened.” So, Thamp̄ begins with the circus lorries trundling along rural roads in the Indian state of Kerala, the assorted members of the Great Chitra Circus bouncing around like cattle. Arriving in the village of Thirunavaya, the tent is erected in preparation for a three-day stint. Publicity posters and placards are handwritten, the performers parading through dusty streets accompanied by ear-splitting music. Shot in black and white, Thamp̄ looks exquisite, and distributor Second Run’s booklet containing a detailed account of the film’s lengthy restoration process.

circus tentLearning that the film was released in 1978 is surprising, and there’s a continual sense that we’re looking at a culture and way of life which haven’t changed in decades. Still, glimpses of the suit-wearing bosses at a local tile factory suggest that the circus performers’ way of life is on its way out, though it may take a while; it’s hard not to smile when a journalist watching a performance makes notes in pencil on the most distressed-looking notebook imaginable. Govindan’s sympathies are clearly with the acrobats, dancers, jugglers and clowns, whose lives look considerably more interesting than those of the nouveau riche glimpsed in a pristine new house.

The circus acts are fun to watch, though it’s hard not to wince when a goat and monkey (separately) are made to walk the tightrope and a leopard is whipped into submission. Especially good are the three acrobatic cyclists, and there’s some genuinely funny slapstick. Govindan turns his camera on the faces of those in the audience watching the circus performance for the first time, their expressions showing, variously, fear, bafflement, delight and joy. And, after three nights of offering “miraculous and terrifying feats”, the circus packs up and leaves. Two cast members get the chance to speak candidly to Govindan’s camera, an ageing comic lamenting that being a clown involves “dying every day”, while a dancer describes how tired she feels after 44 years on the road.

Though slow-paced and lasting over two hours, Thamp̄ is enthralling, and this newly restored print gleams. Extras include interviews with the director’s son, talking about his father’s career, and a discussion filmed at the 2022 Cannes Festival featuring archivist and filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dingarpur and one of the original cast.

Govindan’s sympathies are clearly with the acrobats, dancers, jugglers and clowns


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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