Retro Short: Two (1964).
This short from famed Indian director Satyajit Ray explores the class divide in India via the competition of two children.
Satyajit Ray, perhaps the most influential director in the Indian Parallel Cinema movement, directed many acclaimed films. His Apu Trilogy has powerful cultural legacy. Despite making over 30 films, ranging from feature films to documentaries and even television work, he only made one short film. That film, Two, explores the divides that roiled Indian society in his day: rich versus poor, traditional culture versus imported European culture. All this heavy material, filtered through the lens of two boys, each trying to impress each other with their toys in a childish game of dominance. At just over ten minutes, the film packs quite a punch while keeping to the realism that Ray prized in his works.
A rich young boy, surrounded by the luxuries of Western capitalism. As he indulges in his modern toys, he is distracted by a poor boy outside his gated residence. The poor boy lives in a hovel, but is happily playing away on a simple flute. The rich child grabs a fancy toy instrument and loudly plays over the other child. So starts an escalating confrontation where each tries to outdo the other with their belongings – one traditional and meager, the other gaudy and plentiful.
Plain and Simple.
On one level, the metaphor Ray employs here is simple. The rich boy is immediately defined as modern and westernized. He sports a pair of Mickey Mouse ears while he greedily gulps down a Coca-Cola. We see him wave to a car as it leaves the compound, implying the wealth and status of the family. Inside, the rooms are spacious and modern, and all of the boy’s toys are flashy and new. In contrast, the poor child lives in a dilapidated hut and plays with traditional toys and costumes. Even more than rich versus poor, this is clearly about the divide between the westernized upper class, and the repressed under class who stick to older ways – from either choice or necessity.
The arc of the story shows where the sympathy of the audience should rest. Before we even see them interact, we see the rich boy engage in antisocial and destructive behavior. He’d rather pop his own balloons with a lit match than admire them. He listlessly messes with his toys before showing obvious dislike of the poor boy’s flute intruding upon his space. From there, the rich boy bullies the other child, only using his wealthy playthings to drown out and spoil the fun of another child. By the end, he’s not content to merely outshine him, he has to destroy what simple things the other child owns. Even after shooting down the poor kids prized kite, the haunting sound of the flute continues to drive him to distraction -proving the hollowness of his victory.
Through A Child’s Eyes.
As with many modern shorts, the film draws its power from embodying the abstract clash of philosophies in two children. A rich man sneering at a poor man is gauche and offensive, but not really remarkable. A rich child sneering at and sabotaging the play of a poor child is monstrous. We don’t normally expect moral displays, especially reprehensible ones, from children – outside of cartoons. Here, grounded in realistic settings and encounters, it becomes especially striking.
The camera gives the allusion of passivity, following the first child from distraction to distraction. Match cuts keep the flow of the narrative clear. Despite being commissioned to create an English language short, Ray chose a minimalist style in black and white without dialogue. Having the cuts situate us, via eyeline match cuts, allow us to seamlessly slip into the perspective of each – though the rich boy’s experience dominates the narrative. There is one montage sequence, where the rich boy shames the simple mask and costume of the poor boy by quickly showing half a dozen expensive costumes (again, mostly western inspired like cowboys and soldiers.) Mostly, the camera does little to draw attention away from your observation of the events.
For such a short film, the film lends itself to many interpretations. Some fixate on rich versus poor. Others domestic simplicity and foreign ostentation. Some even see elements of anti-war sentiment…though I personally didn’t agree with the interpretation offered. The camera work and minimalism employed does keep what could be a simple morality play open ended. Many of the techniques and themes of Two can be found throughout Satyajit Ray’s body of work. If you’re not sure you want to sink six hours into the Apu Trilogy, you can get see many of his leitmotifs effectively displayed here.