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30 October 2014

Krylya (1966)

Director: Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Marya Bulgakova, Zhanna Bolotova,
Pantelemion Krymov, Leonid Dyachkov,Vladimir Gorelov,
Yury Medvedev, Nikolay Grabbe, Zhanna Alexandrova
Last month has been incredibly stressful for me, and writing for the blog has been the last thing on my mind. That I post at all is thanks to the drafts that I bank for just such occasions as these; and just so that my blog doesn't just shrivel up and die. So, when my husband offered to write up a film for me (he knew I wouldn't), I jumped at the offer. So, for those who are used to my husband lamenting on my blog, and writing dotty little ditties everywhere... over to Sadanand Warrier.

I normally try to see as many films as possible about aeroplanes and so, when Netflix, with their questionable data mining, suggested Wings to me, I decided to put it in the queue.  I like movies about piston engine aeroplanes where you still took time to move from spot A to spot B, you had fewer instruments to deal with and therefore more time to ruminate, but not quite fall asleep on auto-pilot.
Krylya (Wings) was also a Criterion Collection release and was the debut film of a Soviet woman director Larisa Shepitko. I must confess I had not heard of either the director or the film, so in settling down to watch it, there was an air of nervous expectation, underlined by my wife’s disapproving look. She was in the mood for a masala film but it was my turn to inflict her with my choice of ennui.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the film turned out to be less about aeroplanes and flying, and more about a St.Exupery-esque longing for a time when one felt alive. Possibly, all of us go through a time when one feels truly in harmony with everything, even though the chances were that nothing was truly in harmony with anything.  And that is the story that the film tells.
The story of a once-upon-a-time fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force in the Second World War.  A story that deals only briefly with the war - we  see it through the eyes of our heroine who, several years later in peace-time Soviet Union, plods through her work as the principal of a vocational school. She lives alone and is somewhat estranged from her adopted daughter who has fled her mother’s grey life and married an older man.

Our heroine is Nadhezdha Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), former fighter pilot and winner of several medals for bravery in the Second World War. Honoured by the state, and now principal of the vocational school that has just been commended for a diploma, she tries to be a good administrator, but does not understand her students just as she had never understood her daughter. Or perhaps she does, but knows only too well how, sometimes, life can crush the living. She is too caught up in her own lack of living to understand some of her troubled students who, in turn, admire her for what she was, but despise her for her attempts to understand them. She is very particular about details - a throwback to her wartime experience where a trifle could mean the difference between life and death - and cannot understand the laissez-faire attitude of young people today. 
When alone, Nadhezdha often gazes out of the windows of her concrete apartment block, or from a vantage point on a bridge across the river - but she does not see the scene before her. Instead, she views the world through the perspex glass of a fighter plane’s wind-shield as the wind sweeps her up and the horizon tilts with the plane. When she takes her neighbour’s children out on a Sunday they go to the aerodrome where her old comrades teach young recruits to fly. The air force doesn’t need her anymore but she finds joy in her past  and she teaches the children to sing.
Where the infantry won’t get through
Where an armoured train won’t pass
Where a tank cannot crawl through
There the steel bird will fly. 

When she goes to meet her adopted daughter and her daughter’s husband,  Nadhezhdha is a stranger in their apartment and amongst their friends. She cuts the cake she brings as a peace offering, the slicing of the cake showing her frustration at being closed out of her daughter’s life.
A bit of a martinet, Nadhezdha is conscientious enough to help her students in a competition that her school has entered to the point of substituting on the stage as a large Matryoshka doll.   
The director provides a shape to her heroine's character through small incidents, such as when Nadhezdha struggles with a synonym for 'initiative', for instance, and a young student asks her, “Why do you need a new word?”. Or when an old lady, the grandmother of the boy who is missing from school, offers her a piece of sweet bread in exchange for five minutes of conversation. 
Or when her daughter tells her to retire and let “someone else do it” and she replies, “I never knew such a thing. I did everything that was needed to be done by myself and never regretted it.”  

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when she and the wife of the owner of a café dance together behind closed doors, one celebrating her loneliness and the other celebrating her life. 
They stop, amidst peals of laughter, when they see men peering at them perplexedly through the windows of the café.

Ironically, as she sits in a museum waiting for the director who is her friend, she realises that she is a museum piece too. A young girl visiting the museum, sees her photograph on the wall and asks if Comrade Petrukhina is still alive.  There is subtle humour in that scene - a few minutes earlier, she had been asked by an attendant to move, as she was sitting on an exhibit.
The film ends with Nadhezdha going back to the aerodrome, and hoisting herself with some effort into the cockpit of a plane there. She feels alive again as she looks at the controls and holds them. All the more so, when the students (and her old comrades) come back from their training and ask her to keep her seat in the cockpit while they grab the wings and run the plane towards the hangar. For a moment as the plane begins to move and pick up speed, she feels like she is flying again... 
 ...until a bump on the head brings her back to earth. And they stop, the men, just before they enter the hangar, and Nadhezdha switches on the engine.  

Maya Bulgakova's performance as Nadhezdha is excellent and the supporting cast members are no less. I was quite amazed to discover that this was Larisa Shepitko’s first film as director after graduating from the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography.  Her first  film, Heat, made as a student for her diploma had already won an award. But for a young woman, only 22, on the cusp of creating her career,  to make a film on a woman who has watched her dream die, seems very difficult. But I found the film wonderful - the subtle shades to the characters, the grey landscape of post-war Industrial Soviet Union, the search for the synonym for 'initiative' by an individual where the collective ruled... The music in the film moved with ease from Mozart and Rachmaninoff, to jazz and poetry. It is sad to think that Shepitko was killed in a car accident after making only four films.

At the end of the film, I was reminded of these lines from the French writer and aviator Antoine de St.Exupery's novel Vol de nuit (Night Flight).
“A thousand dark arms had relinquished their grip on him. His bonds had been loosened, like those of a prisoner allowed to walk for a while alone among the flowers.

‘Too beautiful,’ thought Fabien. He was wandering through a dense treasure-hoard of stars, in a world where nothing, absolutely nothing else but he, Fabien, and his companion, were alive. Similar to those thieves of fabled cities, immured within the treasure chambers from which there is no escape. Amid the frozen gems they wander, infinitely rich yet doomed.”


  1. That sounds lovely, Sadu! I must confess I've watched very little Russian cinema (I'm not counting some cartoons that I watched in the good old days of Indo-Soviet bhai-bhai). Brononosets Potyemkin is about all. Thank you for this review - it encourages me to finally get around to watching some Russian films I've been meaning to see for a while. I hope they turn out half as good as this one seems to have been.

  2. Thank you Madhu. The first full length Russian (Soviet) film I saw was "The cranes are flying" on television. It was shown on Bombay Doordarshan sometime in the 70's. I was a young boy then and it affected me very deeply. It still does. You can see it here

    Eisenstein etc came later to me in my culture vulture days in college.

  3. Where was I when you posted this? I didn't go anywhere in 2010, so it must have been before I started reading your posts regularly. I have never heard the last song on your list, but I am not going to listen to it, either. I just cannot stand what passes for music these days.
    Yes, Deedar and Andaz are two films that had outstanding songs. I saw Deedar when I was very young and all I remembered was a scene with two children on a horse, and a song. I saw it later,w hen I was in college, and loved the tragedy. Now - I refuse to watch it altogether.
    I watched Andaz when I was in my early teens and fell in love with Dilip Kumar and hated Raj Kapoor's screen character, and Nargis for acting so foolish. Now - I think I would rather listen to the CD and skip the video altogether.
    Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi - another movie I wanted to watch in my younger days, but my mother was sick of all the weepy Meena Kumari roles, so I did not watch it until a few years back, when cynicism had crept into me. The songs are great, Meena Kumari is good to look at, but spare me the sight of Raaj Kumar looking so expression-less (and to think I was crazy over him and his voice when I was in the 10th, or was it the 11th?). Once again, I will stick with the CD. I think I am tired of all the anger, the bitterness, the tragedy and would rather watch a sweet and happy movie, even if there are no songs.

  4. Lalitha, I am with you. However, I do know the last song on the list and I was LOL at your description Anu, I like the bad hair day description. Thank God, I have found someone else who can't stand Kumar Sanu. Would you believe someone gifted me Kishore Kumar CD ( I was all smiles when I opened the package ) then discovered the songs were sung by Kumar Sanu :(. These are just situations in a movie, but recently someone actually sang this song in a Sangeet Party of the groom, what were they thinking !

  5. Thank you for that link! I remember having heard about this film a few years ago, but though I'd searched for it, I hadn't been able to find it.

  6. I remember it was shown on a Saturday night. I kept seeing the last scenes in my head through the next week in school, at home...I've never forgotten it even after so many years. To me the film hasn't aged. It still remains fresh. "I am Cuba" by the same director is generally supposed to be better, but "The Cranes are flying" is different, especially when you see it at thirteen.

  7. Very interesting reading. It is clear this movie was made so that Mr Sadanand Warrier could review it. My compliments Sadu. Is the movie available on YT?
    Anu, will he come only as a filler or are we going to see more of him? Now you have in-house competition!

  8. Thanks SoY, I am glad that Larisa Shepitko made the film for me :-) I do not think the film is available on Youtube, nor can I find it for sale on DVD right now though it is available for streaming on Hulu. It is a keeper.

  9. AK, I hope he will do more. After all, he has to help keep his spouse's blog going, no? It is written into our marriage contract. :)

  10. I haven't yet caught up with all the comments, so apologies for the delay in replying.

    This post was written when I first began blogging, rather desultorily, I must confess. I;m surprised you dug it out. :) (Can I just say I'm glad you did?) Thank you!

    I agree with you that my tolerance for these melodramas is at its nadir. I'd much rather listen to these songs than put myself through the torture of watching the films again.

  11. Neeru, the 80s were particularly hard on women's hair and clothes. Some of the 'costumes;' of those days makes me cringe!

    Kumar Sanu! You must remind me to narrate the story of what happened when I went to interview him!

    but recently someone actually sang this song in a Sangeet Party of the groom, what were they thinking !

    Probably weren't thinking at all, if my memories of previous sangeets I have attended are any proof. :)

  12. I read this review with interest, that I might try to watch a Russian film for change and I will. This sounds like a wonderful film. May I take this opportunity to say you are a gifted writer, specially poetry. I read your poems and was amazed at your telling a tale through rhyme. I will have to find Krylya to watch it, however I did watch Cranes are flying since you talked about it and gave a link. It is a wonderful movie, takes you to a different time in life and you get so absorbed in the story. Thanks for suggesting it. It is sad to read that such a grifted director of Krylya died so young and had only done four movies.

    Though this has nothing to do with these movies, our experience in Moscow a few years back has to do with Raj Kapoor and Russians. We wanted to see at least one ballet, but the tickets were sold out and they were closing for the summer. Someone outside the theater approached us and asked where were we from ? US, we said. But India yes ? Yes, we were Indian and she asked if we knew Raj Kapoor's "mera joota hai japani" yes, then can you sing the tune ? I did, and also a couple lines of " awara hun" , our prize and surprise ? She took us as her guests to see the ballet, she was part of a performing group.

  13. BTW, I have not heard the word "aerodrome " in such a long time, it was interesting to see toy uses it.

  14. I do watch a lot of Russian films from the 50s and 50s, so Hulu has been recommending this one to me. It seems a bit more stark and realism-driven than I prefer from my Russian films, however. More Tarkovsky than Chukhrai. The fact that it's a female pilot ... well, that might draw me in. Thanks for the review, Mr. Conversations with Chai!

  15. There was a time when films from the Soviet Union were shown on and off on Doordarshan and I remember I quite liked the stories of some of them particularly those with the war as a backdrop. These films generally tugged at one's heartstrings. This film seems to be like one of them.

  16. Thank you, Mr Venkatraman. That is a kind thing to say. S will reply to the rest of your comment when he gets a chance - he's away for the moment. :)

  17. Thank you Neeru. I'm no poet but I like to string together a few words once in a while. Used to do it in college. Yes many Russians fondly remember Raj Kapoor. If you get a chance to read Vikram Seth's "From Heaven Lake" please do. He describes how he got his visa to visit Tibet by singing one of the RK songs while on a visit to China along with a student delegation from the US. It is interesting how many Chileans and Greeks, Turks, Algerians, Moroccans etc have seen Indian films. Krylya is a wonderful film. The best thing about Marya Bulgakova is the way she portrays her own little insecurities,

  18. It is still a common Anglo-French usage I think, rarely if ever heard in the Americas today. I still use it possibly because, even today, my varied books on aeroplanes use the term.

  19. Hello Filmi-Tilde-C, Did you like Solaris? A really interesting film. I don't think Chistoye Nebo by Chukray (another movie shown in the old Bombay DD days I think) is in a way different from Krylya. In the end she finds her own happiness herself.

  20. Hello Mr.V
    I ended with St.Exupery's quote because at the film's end it really felt that she was free and I have always liked that passage in the book. I've left out some salient parts from this film, the death of her lover when he is shot down in a dog fight and she as his wing(wo)man can only look on as his plane spirals into the earth and explodes. It's a very stark shot. The two planes, one trailing smoke and spinning out of control and the other circling around helplessly both against the vast emptiness of the sky. It was a great shot. You should see it if it possible.

  21. Thanks Shilpi, you probably remember the days in the 70s in Bombay when they showed a lot of East European movies. Do you remember they used to show movies for children during the summer vacations many of them from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, countries that now no longer exist on any map. Some of them were really great. I particularly remember a, film I think it was Czech, "Holiday with Minka". It dealt with a bunch of children on a summer holiday and a horse. The horse's name was Minka of course. It was great.

  22. Yes of course I do remember, I used to enjoy them I used to be glued to the T.V.set those days. I still have some vivid memories of those films and besides these, like you have rightly pointed out in your reply to a comment below 'Cranes are Flying' was a wonderful film. Actually Doordardashan used to telecast some wonderful foreign films, as for instance there was this Polish film 'The Quack', absolutely wonderful.

  23. Sounds interesting. I like books about flying and/or WWII, a taste developed by reading Nevil Shute. But I haven't really watched many such movies. I did watch, and enjoy "The Shepard" but then then novella was good too.

  24. The flying bits except for the end are mostly in flashback. There are some interesting shots as I mentioned to Mr.V below. I think I have read almost all of Nevil Shute's output. Another interesting writer is Ernest K Gann. His books are really good too. I came to all the flying stuff through Biggles (Capt. W E Johns) and "The Falcons of France" by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall . Our school believed in dishing out Biggles if we won prizes. The Shepherd is an odd one by Forsyth , a ghost story, I thought it was really good. I tried reading his last book recently "The kill list". Didn't like it .

  25. I used to read Biggles as a kid and loved it. I came to Bangalore in High School and my father got us a membership at a library where they had lots of these old books. I also liked the older books of FF but the later novels are not really the same at all. Nevil Shute is great except for a couple of books. I liked his autobiographical "Slide Rule'' too, even though it was quite technical. Keep blogging.

  26. "Slide rule" is a good book somewhat controversial. If you like engineering you might see how his work on stress calculations for De Havilland on the R100 airship makes an appearance in the novel "No Highway". He worked for a while with Barnes Wallis who was an amazing inventor. Recently there was a documentary shown over here which showed how he used the idea of the spin on a cricket ball to alleviate some of the issues of the bouncing bomb that was used by the 617 Squardron.

  27. Yes I remember "The Quack" and I also realize it is has been uploaded onto YouTube.

  28. I made a mistake the R100 was a Vickers design and not by De Havilland. Shute left De Havilland to join Vickers.


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