A Film For The Holidays: T. SHER SINGH
Fiddler On The Roof
I never got to see its award-winning Broadway stage version (with Zero Mostel in the lead), but saw “Fiddler On The Roof” first shortly after it was released on the big screen as a musical directed by Norman Jewison in 1971, with Chaim Topol as Tevye, a poor milkman whose love, pride and faith help him face the oppression of turn-of-the century czarist Russia.
It is a life-affirming tale set in pre-revolutionary Russia, focusing on a family with five daughters which finds itself trying to cope with a growing anti-Semitic sentiment which threatens their village.
I have seen the film several times since then, and a number of stage versions as well. Each time, I enjoy it because it is immensely entertaining, and thought-provoking at the same time. It is well cast, the acting good, the dialogue witty, the sets capture the desired ambience … and the songs are easy to understand and sing-along, with their refrains lingering long after they are over.
I saw the screen version again recently and I was once again reminded of the parallels between the Jewish and Sikh experience, particularly in the modern era. Not just the history and its trials and tribulations, but also the issues that challenge us through the march of time.
The plot -- originally, a series of stories written in Yiddish -- covers the whole gamut of the Sikh experience of the last 70 years, with an accuracy which could easily suggest that surely someone had set out to lay it out in the metaphor of the Jewish diaspora, entirely for our benefit. It is a coincidence, of course, but nothing stops us nevertheless from learning from it.
The film can easily be interpreted as harking back to the 1947 and 1984 tragedies and giving us a mirror image of the predicament India’s Sikhs find themselves in, in today’s Modi/BJP/RSS hell-hole.
There are other threads that run through: arranged marriages, tradition vs. change, poverty vs. wealth, work, education, chardi kalaa, activism vs. submission, identity vs. assimilation, practice of faith and articles of faith, loyalty, language, community … and so on.
Not surprisingly, I get more and more out of the tale each time I go back to the retelling of this story.
The film is also a perfect example of the type of films we need to produce to tell our stories, for the benefit of our children as well as the world at large. Film-making in the Sikh diaspora has indeed become a cottage industry but unfortunately has yet to venture beyond that. Until and unless we start looking at the bigger picture -- of our own story as well as of the world out there -- we will continue chasing our tails (no pun intended).
For the reasons above, I recommend the film to all of you for the coming holidays. It’ll entertain you and it’ll enlighten you. See it with the whole family -- you’ll get more out of it. And talk about it over dinner. Be patient and listen to each person’s take.
I guarantee you, you’ll find your own story somewhere in it.
[The film is easily available on rental, both online and in stores.]
December 14, 2016