Urga [1991] – A Poetic Docu-Drama on Cultural Clash

                                           Russian film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Urga” aka “Close to Eden” (1991) is one of those non-narrative movies that moves at a glacial pace and riddled unrelatable characters, but still manages to bestow us an indelible movie experience. This carefree docu-drama tries to explore the vanishing or largely vanished lifestyle of inner Mongolians, who herd sheep and horses with their family in a stunningly beautiful landscape. The exhilarated freedom, the robust family values and fear over the modern technological changes are subtly addressed in this tale of Mongolian nomads. An ‘Urga’ refers to a long stick with a lasso at the end, which the Mongols use it to catch away the adrift sheep and horses. When Mongolian couples make love out in the field, they plant it in the ground to warn others. “Territory of Love” is another English title given to the movie, which is a more apt one, especially after considering that “Urga” is all about sublimely depicting how the nomads’ beloved territory is impinged upon, in the name of technological & cultural advancement.

                                            The PG rated “Urga” starts with a sequence that makes us question the PG rating for a moment or two. We see a rider on a white horse holding the Urga, chasing another rider on a black horse. The rider on the black horse, who is a woman, falls onto the grass and tries to run away, while the man in the white horse catches up with her. He forcefully embraces the woman, but she manages to push him back to escape towards her ‘yurt’ (round tent). Later, we see the woman, with blood oozing from her nose, sitting in the same tent with the man who chased her. As we gradually observe this man and woman, we get to understand the statement ‘appearances can be deceiving’. Gombo (Bayaertu) and Pagma (Badema) are radiantly happy couples, living with three adorable children and an elderly grandmother.

                                           The rape-like scenario has arisen because Pagma, the city girl who has embraced the ways of her husband's nomadic life, wants to respect the Chinese law of three children (for ethnic minorities; Chinese should follow one- child policy, which was ended recently). Gombo, who was enamored by the tales about Mongolian king Genghis Khan, wants to have a fourth child (Genghis Khan was born as a fourth child). Pagma remains wise to the ways of contraception and insists her husband to buy condoms the next time he goes to city. We also get to observe the positively infectious, pastoral lifestyle of the family, whose yurt consists of few modern artifacts like a Swiss knife, a portable stereo, generator, a baseball cap, and an accordion. The family is often visited by drunk uncle Bayartou, riding on a horse, giving them some random gifts. Bayartou has no home and family as we see his belongings – umbrella, a suitcase—hitched onto the horse’s saddle.

                                          On one instance, the uncle gives the picture of Sylvester Stallone (from “Rambo”) to Gombo’s family, who doesn’t own a TV or have seen a movie, and humorously states that he is his brother, living in America. Although the family doesn’t believe Bayartou, we later see Stallone joining the modern artifacts (hangs inside the yurt). Quite unexpectedly, on one fine morning, a Russian truck driver named Sergei (Vladimir Gostyukhin) meets up with Gombo. The burly Russian road worker sleeps while driving the truck, which plunges half-way into the lake. A wealth of details is imbued upon us as Sergei meets Gombo’s family for the dinner. Gombo and Sergei strike up a mirthful camaraderie, which is never exploited for dramatic encounters. The next day, Gombo goes with Sergei with his two horses on a mission to buy a TV and condoms (as per Pagma’s instruction).

                                          Director Mikhalkov made “Urga” after the collapse of Soviet Union with the help of renowned French producer Michel Seydoux. The movie is seen to be a departure point for Mikhalkov (who later went onto make Oscar winning “Burnt by the Sun” and other acclaimed works like “The Barber of Siberia”, “12”, etc), who had in his earlier part of career made period films. In “Urga”, Mikhalkov advocates for mankind’s reunion with nature, and prefers wilderness, tribal rituals in favor of contemporary lifestyle and modern civilization (which is said to have drawn lot of criticism in his homeland). However, Mikhalkov doesn’t make these generalizations in a bland manner. The director starts on a simple yet astounding anthropological level. His excellent directorial skills are evident in the manner he captures the feel and rhythms of the couple’s life, their daily chores and their hospitality towards guests (the slaughter and skinning of the sheep would surely rattle animal-lovers and vegetarians). The nuanced cultural revelations of the Mongols leave us with as much exhilaration as we witnessed about Eskimos in Robert Flaherty’s seminal documentary “Nanook of the North”.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Sergei’s character initially seems to inhibit all the Russian stereotypical manners. Steel teeth, army background, tattoos, overjoyed nature, assumed superiority and horrified gaze towards Mongolian traditions are all the expected Russian elements diffused by the director. As Sergei strikes a mild friendship with Gombo, and when the duo makes way for the city, we also expect the narrative to travel like a buddy comedy. But, unexpectedly Mikhalkov offers a more humanistic side of Sergei rather than wallowing in stereotype. The depressed weeping of Sergei’s wife, Marina and the silent desolation of his girl child represents how hard it is for the Russian to survive as a stranger in the city. We could understand the kinship between Gombo and Sergei, who both are victims of a harsh economic reality and industrialization. Mikhalkov also doesn’t shy away from observing at Sergei’s superior, hypocritical attitude (evident in Sergei’s tale of sacrifices and in his grandeur vision about Russian forces and fields).

                                          The subtle notions that Mikhalkov imbues in the narrative when Gombo travels for the city might be lost on quite a lot viewers. Mikhalkov and writer Roustam Ibraguimbekov aren’t interested in making a traditional movie out of a much unknown culture. Gombo’s bewildering misadventures in the city are never pitched up to make it a straightforward, feelgood drama. The incongruous journey of Gombo (trotting on horse through paved streets); his nervous reaction in the medical shop, filled with women employers; and his eagerness to eat sugar plums or to buy baseball cap, TV, cycle, etc. seems to insist how rapidly his culture is diminishing and how people are attracted by various symbols of cultural imperialism. The nuanced details about Gombo’s experiences are all wonderfully amalgamated in the poetic dream sequence. In the dream, Gombo’s guilt over embracing modern artifacts acts up as he sees Genghis Khan and his army thunderously arriving to punish (“What’s this iron shit you ride? Where’s your horse”).

                                   The reflective as well as comical dream sequence is then followed by more brilliant scene. In it, we see Gombo’s family consumed by the modern civilization: the grandmother single-mindedly pops out the bubble paper from television box; Gombo uses his ‘urga’ as aerial and they all watch news report about the meeting of Gorbachev and Ronal Reagan. The camera gazes at every family member’s face and all we see is an expression of emptiness and doubt. Slowly, Pagma goes out of the tent and we see her on TV screen, smiling and holding a yurd as if commenting that their life in this pastoral landscape is more interesting and less chaotic than the modern civilization possession by television, which is full of haphazard, unwanted things. The puzzling form of the film comes in the form of its ‘epilogue’, where an adult male voice says “This is how I, the fourth child of Gombo was born. They called me Taimoudjine like Genghis Khan in his childhood”. The man’s voice also suggests at the transformation of the steppe and his livelihood. The city’s setting, the television programs hints that the film is set in the present (that is in late 1980s) and so the epilogue narration of Gombo’s fourth child means that it’s a voice coming 20 years later from the present. Or else Mikhalkov just blurs the idea of time to note how all the existing cultures and beautiful valleys are changed or annihilated for the sake of obscure human advancement.

                                   “Urga” (119 minutes) is a subtle, bittersweet commentary on the dilemma of a indigenous family, caught between the reluctance of moving forward with times and notion of holding back their identity. The rich life led by these nomads portrays how calm life could be, unburdened by the western values & objects. 


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