Tue Sand Larsen and Claus Toft-Nielsen
The protagonist in The Sheep Thief is caught in the act of stealing a sheep, is branded on the forehead and expelled from society. The film is centred around his subsequent struggle to achieve social acceptance and recognition, and it largely obeys the laws and design of classical narration as it portrays the young Indian boy’s efforts and eventuallyhis final fall. With a plot that easily summarised it is evident that The Sheep Thief doesn’t invest its 23 minutes in a complex narrative structure. Hence the question arises as to how time is spent in this production.
Aesthetic devices: To conjure up the mythic in time
An answer to the question posed is most likely to be found in the film’s style. The Sheep Thief is marked by a lingering mood, a considerable slowness in its posing of tableaus and a constant aesthetic retardation in its narrative development. Far from "just" supporting the protagonist’s line of action, the pictures seem to have a life of their own: they are visually meticulously composed and strikingly rich in colours. The pictures leave their spectator with a sensual impression, which is further heightened by the metonymic pars-pro-toto style of the film. Instead of long shots, the spectator is continuously presented with close-ups focusing on everyday artefacts. Composition, colours and light ensure that a rice-bowl, for instance, is lifted out of its everyday-use context and transformed into a motif – an aesthetic category.
However, the artefacts in The Sheep Thief are not completely detached from a realistic universe. The spectator does not witness a process of de-realisation by aesthetic means. What he does witness, however, is how the film’s stylistic emphasis throws objects into the foreground, thereby giving them additional meaning. They open a door to a mythic plane which coexists alongside the realistic one. Therefore the universe of The Sheep Thief is not a uniform, prosaic one. It is, on the contrary, a world charged with meaning and connectedness. Following this line of argument, to be rightfully understood, the artefacts in the film should be interpreted as mediating symbols: present in realistic space, referring to a mythic reality.
The symbols chosen by the film are rather conventional ones and since they are so powerfully and explicitly exposed, they can seem almost naive in character. The tree, for instance, represents a mediating figure. It connects upper and lower, earth and sky, reality and myth and is altogether a category of the in-between. It is through the tree that the outcast protagonist is first given an opportunity to re-enter the social world as he is allowed into the working community of the family gathering fruit for the market. Through the tree, upper and lower social co-ordinates are levelled and the symbolic value is to a large extent emphasised by the film’s choices of stylistic means: via POV-shots going upwards from below the tree combined with POV-shoots going downwards from the crown of the tree, the spectator is given access to both upper and lower planes. The camera angles thus help define the tree as a unifying symbol and the exact same effect is accomplished by several long shots in the film, where trees are placed in the mise-en-scene so that earth and skyline meet at their trunks.
A less well-defined but still well-known symbol is the water. At the beginning of the film, the protagonist lies in the middle of a desert, unable to move and suffering from thirst, exhaustion and pain from the branding. Suddenly water pours down from the sky. He rises and begins his Odyssey. Rain pushes the action forward from ’point zero’ and invests the story with epic drive. It brings about narrative fertility and the connection between rain, movement and even life is further accentuated by the aesthetics of this particular scene in which the long-shot is superseded by an ultra close-up. Thus, as desert sand and water meet, the spectator is given an impression of heavy movement and an experience of the entire frame almost coming to life. Furthermore, the cutting is accelerated in the sequences following the rainfall, which is particularly noticeable since it makes these sequences stand out from the lingering pace of the rest of the film. Besides representing life and movement, water, just like the trees, represents merging and transgression. Just as it couples earth and sky, it connects the protagonist to the boys in the family that adopts him. Therefore it is no surprise that the film presents the meeting between water and tree in a visually potent scene, where bark is cut open by the protagonist and golden resin pours down the trunk.
Transforming stigma into ornament
A temporary acceptance by society
Following his theft in the beginning of the film, the sheep thief is branded and given a permanent, visual stigma, which becomes a part of the boy. It invades his character, and turns into an almost self-fulfilling prophecy: from the moment of branding and throughout the narrative, theft remains his destiny and any attempt to avoid this seems futile. For instance, our nameless protagonist steals a scarf to cover his brand and hide it from the rest of the world. In Erving Goffman’s terms, the brand is transformed from a discredited stigma where "the stigmatized assumes that the difference [between himself and society] is known by the members of society or is evident to them" and it becomes a discreditable stigma characterised by a difference that "is neither known by members of society nor perceivable by them". Having made his abnormality invisible, the sheep thief is first incorporated into the working community, then let into the fundamental social unit of the family, and eventually accepted into communal life on the authority of a village elder. Gradually our main character works his way into the social world. But the pervading force of the brand will not be denied and in spite of the social acceptance he is given, the stigma remains an internalised fact within the boy. In every one of the three phases of re-socialisation, disturbing elements threaten to disrupt the harmony: The sheep thief may be let into the working community but is still subjected to a state of paranoia, experiencing what he considers to be surveillance from alien, distrustful and threatening eyes. He is let into the family, but still the film stylistically points out that the inner space of community is continuously complemented by an outer space of ostracism: when we are visually presented to the family cabin, the deep focus establishes a depth of field as a reminder that an outside/outcast position is constantly juxtaposed to the inner family space as a potential danger. A threat coming closer.
Finally, after having been approved by the village counsel the sheep thief is caught up by his past in the shape of the man who had branded him – an incarnation of destiny. Eventually the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled. He must obey ’the law of gravity’.
By several means, the process of falling is established as the centre of attention in the film. In the scene mentioned earlier, in which the family picks fruits for the market, specific emphasis is put on the mangoes’ movement from treetop to ground, which is accentuated by audio-visual means. It is clearly established how the fall of the mangoes can be considered a mise-en-abyme commenting on the boy’s social déroute. But as the mangoes’ fall proves to be fruitful, so does the sheep thief’s. The development of the protagonist is mirrored by the scar on his forehead, which is transformed from an ugly, inflamed wound attracting flies, into a beautiful rounded sign.
As the wound undergoes transformation through the narrative, so does the protagonist. Not in a traditional manner, however. He never fully belongs within the social world but realises, on the contrary, that he can never escape from his stigma. He learns to see himself on the outskirts of society, as a marginal figure and also experiences just how this position can be turned into gain – and rain.
Stealing and conjuring – hiding and exposing
"I can make the sky cry" the protagonist tells the younger boy in the family at the market and plays a simple trick on him: he lures him to focus on the sky, then squirts water in his face, thereby giving the illusion that he can perform "magic". The sheep thief is installed not only as an icon of theft, but also as an icon of magic in the eyes of the two young boys. That is why, when the family has difficulties selling their mangoes at the market, one of the boys asks the protagonist to do magic that will make people buy their fruits. In the following sequence, and almost as an answer to the request, the protagonist heads towards the temple, presumably to pray to higher forces for a miracle. But once again he is overwhelmed by his fate, which is communicated to the spectator by the film’s POV-strategy, where the frame is drawn from the religious icon of the temple to a golden jug. In the next scene, the sheep thief is running away with the jug, his latest object of desire, but he is watched and attacked during his escape. He nevertheless succeeds in holding on to the jug. One of the villagers, who witnesses the scene from a distance, misinterprets the situation and by an almost divine intervention, the protagonist is celebrated as the savior of the jug. In the mythic universe of The Sheep Thief misdeed is turned into virtue, and thanks to the reputation that subsequently arises around the protagonist and the family which has taken him under their wing, almost everyone in the village makes a pilgrimage to the family booth at the market. The sheep thief has, in a roundabout way, fulfilled the young boy’s request and the dividing line between theft and magic is erased as the former is metamorphosed into the latter.
At the end of the film, we get a pay-off to ensure that the line "I can make the sky cry" becomes almost prophetic in nature: the sheep thief lies on his back on desert rocks, staring into the cloudless sky. The camera focuses on his face and shows the sky’s reflection in his eyes. We cannot fail to see the tear running down his cheek. In an absolutely non-realistic scenario there is a sudden cloudburst. Heavy rain starts pouring down from the blue sky and teardrops and raindrops melt together on the face of the protagonist.
In the fictitious universe of The Sheep Thief, the protagonist is literally making the sky cry. He is the boy whose words come true. Situated in the space between the realistic and the mythic plane, he binds the two together. Like the water meeting on his face, he is a figure of transgression and mediation, reconciling binary opposites: always on the edge of society, the sheep thief connects the social world with the individuality of the outcast, belonging with loneliness, and wrong (stealing) with right (doing magic).
Furthermore, like water, he is a link to fertility and life, which is pointed out in his relation to the family, whose material and spiritual needs he meets. This is very well reflected in the film’s final line, spoken by the mother answering her son’s question as to where the sheep thief has gone: "To help another family", she replies promptly and resolutely.
Before leaving the family, however, the protagonist tears his scarf in two and hands the pieces over to the two kids. With pride they tie them around their foreheads, wearing them as a symbol of gratitude and admiration. The Sheep Thief is thus, in short, a story about a thief turning into a magician and a scarf thereby changing value: from being a piece of cloth used to conceal, it is turned into an emblem of honour.
The Sheep Thief – spanning two cultures
The Sheep Thief can be understood as a borderline phenomenon. The film has its roots in a predominantly European context and tradition, but at the same time it draws us into a specifically Indian world. It is carefully grown in soil where two cultures meet and this is clearly reflected in its representation. First of all, even though The Sheep Thief was directed by a man of Indian ancestry, it was produced at The Royal College of Art, situated in urban London and the European influence manifests itself throughout the film. The Sheep Thief is very explicit in its intertextual references, for instance to one of the European masterworks, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947). Not only does the title of Kapadia’s film bear traces of the canonised Italian neo-realist production, but also on a thematic level, theft is in both cases foregrounded by the narrative as a strategy of survival for the main character. Along with that, The Sheep Thief pays tribute to its predecessor in its selection of motifs by carefully scattering a significant number of bicycles in the chase scene at the beginning of the film.
The bicycle is however replaced by a sheep both as a main motif and in the title, as a reminder that Kapadia’s film is located in India, primarily dealing with Indian society. The Sheep Thief evidently draws inspiration from Indian culture and film culture. A fact which is reflected, for instance, by the simplicity of the thoroughly composed pictures, the pronounced and sensuous colour scheme, the mythic condensed universe and the deliberately naive use of symbols.
These specifically Indian modes of expression might be considered a brand printed on the forehead of the film. But no attempt is made to hide or cover this brand. On the contrary, it is exposed in a prodigious aesthetic gesture – quite like a diadem.
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1 Apart from the fact that resin can be considered a combination of water and tree, it is worth noting that the protagonist, by adding a scar to the tree, establishes an identity between the tree and his own character. A shared identity, which is reinforced by the film, that lets both represent the levelling of planes.
2 George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, 3rd ed., International Editions, 1992, p. 361.
3 The reflection of the sky colours the sheep thief's eyes in such a way that the two correspond. In this way, the film seems to suggest an underlying harmony between the two.
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