The Flashback


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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Whether it be the “Silver Screen” or the Idiot Box, narration of a story requires a special talent, if it is to grip the attention of viewers. Even the best of stories would fail to enthuse, if told in a lackadaisical manner.

We often find the paradox of an extremely good storyline suffering due to insipid narration. If the director wants to keep the viewers’ attention riveted to the screen, he has to ensure that at no point the picture or serial suffers a drag. To this end, several techniques are employed by successful Directors. One of these is the Flashback.

In simple terms, Flashback can be defined as the out-of-turn narration of an important event in the story. Normally, episodes in the tale are narrated sequentially, in their logical order of occurrence. Thus, in telling the tale of a person, we find his birth chronicled first, then his youth, his growing-up into an adult and finally into an old man. The events at each stage of his life are narrated in the chronological order of their occurrence. You don’t find his marriage recounted at the fag end of his life, nor his graduation told after his middle-age happenings. This is the normal mode of story telling.

In the case of a Flashback, however, an event belonging to an earlier part of the story is narrated subsequently, with telling effect.

When the hero, now in the evening of his life, meets a lady (who looks vaguely familiar) at a party by sheer chance, his fading memory is jogged into action. His thoughts fly back to the golden years of his youth, when he had met the lady in question and had lost his heart to her. However, due to the intervention of the lady’s parents who consider the impecunious hero an unsuitable match for their daughter, the girl is spirited away to a distant hill-station, never again to be seen by the hero. The hero pines away for her, but in time, forgets the ladylove and marries another girl, raising a happy family of sons and daughters. All these memories of the past, some pleasurable and some painful, suddenly flood into the hero’s mind, giving him pangs of intense and inexpressible emotion.

In this tale, the normal mode of narrative would be to chronicle the hero’s tender love and affection for this strange lady, while portraying his youth and before his marriage with the second woman in his life. However, we find that viewers are kept ignorant of this significant event in the hero’s life, till almost the very end. Then, to give an interesting twist to the tale, this episode is brought in almost as an afterthought, totally out-of-turn, at a period in the hero’s history to which it doesn’t belong. This, then, is the Flashback.

All Readers who patronise films would agree that this technique is employed with telling effect by most Directors. The surfacing of a significant event at a later stage in the tale provides an element of surprise and serves to sustain viewer interest. Thus, the Flashback is indeed an indispensable tool, which every Director keeps hidden in his bag of tricks, in his efforts to keep the narrative interesting and the viewer guessing till the very last scene.

Who do you think was the first to employ this Flashback, whether in print or on the screen? Several famous names spring to your mind—Cecil B. Demille and so on. You would however be wrong, however ancient a director you were to mention.

“Since when did you turn into a film critic? And shouldn’t you stick to what you know (or think you know), rather than venture into alien areas?” enquires my impatient daughter, who insists on reading an article while being composed, without waiting for the end product to emerge. Ruing the impertinence of today’s youth, I finally decide to get to the point.

If Srimad Ramayanam is known as the ”Adi Kaavyam”, it is not without reason. Predictably, it is the very first work of Epic proportions known to mankind. It is perhaps the first attempt to reduce in writing, a tale spanning more than 11000 years (Sri Rama is reported to have reigned for eleven thousand years-“Dasa varsha sahasraani, dasa varsha sataani cha—Ramo raajyam upaasitvaa”), thus becoming the first historical work. It is the first narrative to bring into play and chronicle the doings of a bewildering number of characters, good and bad. It is the first work to portray the “nava rasaas” or the nine types of emotion and the first too to bring to man the exalted Vedic wisdom in an extremely palatable form. It is the first guidebook for Mankind, laying down the do’s and the don’ts, not in the form of cryptic exhortations as in the Vedas, but by portrayal in the eminently acceptable format of a story, albeit a true one. It is the first eyewitness account, having been written down by Sri Valmiki, as he saw it with the aid of Brahma’s blessing. It is the first book too to accord an exalted pedestal to women—so much so that the entire Ramayanam is considered to be but a tale of Sita Piraatti—“Kaavyam Ramayanam kritsnam Seetaaya’s charitam mahat”.

With so many first’s to his credit, is it surprising that Sri Valmiki was the first creative artiste to employ the Flashback technique too? And not once, but several times throughout the course of the Epic. And each time with a telling effect that leaves the reader surprised and stupefied. All these Flashbacks serve to sustain reader interest in a story, which has a fairly simple outline and could be told in a few sentences. If this tale has been spun out, in all its intricate and engrossing detail, into a mammoth work of 24000 couplets, readers would understand the distinguished Author’s resort to the Flashback, to ensure that the reader’s interest is retained undiminished till the very end. A few such instances are recounted below.

We know only too well the two boons Kaikeyee was granted by Dasaratha, in return for her assistance at the Emperor’s battle with Sambaraasura. What would be the logical context to recount this episode? Naturally, this event belongs to the initial chapters, notably the 6th, which chronicles Dasaratha’s accomplishments in detail.

However, the first we hear of this is from the mouth of Manthara, who reminds Kaikeyee of the event of the distant past and advises her to seek the two boons for the coronation of Bharata and the banishment of Sri Rama. Readers would appreciate that it is this timely reminder of the hunchback that changes the entire course of the Epic, but for which Rama would have been duly anointed Prince on the appointed day and the purpose of the avataaram (viz., Ravana vadham) would have remained unaccomplished. Thus the very first Flashback in the epic serves to impart an interesting turn to the tale.

Another tale relating to Dasaratha, which is not recounted in the chronological context, is his accidental killing of an elderly Rishi’s son. The victim, when breathing his last, curses the Emperor to suffer from the same pangs of separation from his progeny, which the slain Rishikumara’s elderly and blind parents would. Though Dasaratha must have had many a private moment with his Queen Kousalya during his long reign of sixty thousand years, the Emperor sees fit to tell her about this, only after Rama’s departure to the forest, his memories jogged by his own Putra Shokham. The Flashback here serves to emphasise the poignancy of the situation, with Dasaratha, about to breathe his last due to the sudden loss of the apple of his eye, engaging in a bout of soul-searching and confession.

Another interesting Flashback, relating to Sita Piratti, occurs in the Sundara Kandam, whereas the event actually belongs to the Aranya Kandam. While Aranya Kandam contains many an intimate detail about the idyllic sojourn the Divine Couple had in the picturesque woods, somehow the incident involving Kakasura, (the vile crow that pecked at Piratti’s breast and was duly chastised by Sri Rama) is omitted. We come to know of this only much later from the words of Sita Devi, when She narrates it to Sri Hanuman in the Asoka Vanam, guarded day and night by Ravana’s bestial minions.

A perusal of the Ayodhya Kandam alone would leave us with the impression that arrangements for Sri Rama’s coronation were undertaken immediately after the wedding at Mithila and the marriage party’s return to Ayodhya. Sri Valmiki does tell us that Sri Raghava spent many a pleasurable month in the company of Vaidehi. However, the exact time that elapsed between the wedding and the departure to Dandakaaranyam is to be known from the Lady’s own words much later, in quite a different context. Sri Janaki tells Ravana (come in the garb of a Sanasi to abduct Her), in a self-introductory speech, that She spent an extremely pleasurable twelve years at Ayodhya, before the cruel machinations of Kaikeyee drove Her to the jungle.

Several such Flashbacks can be found in Srimad Ramayanam, which add colour and character to the beautiful tale. In chronicling the story of Rama, Valmiki could very well have struck to a prosaic form of narrative, of recounting events in the chronological order in which they took place. It is the Master Story-teller in Valmiki that makes him resort to strategic omissions and inclusions at appropriate places, to make the Epic not only a guidebook of human conduct, but an extremely interesting one too.

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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