Late in life, Christopher Plummer, Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner, accepted the inevitable. His obituary would be headlined “The Sound Of Music star Christopher Plummer dead”.
Plummer, a Shakespearean actor, famously didn’t care for The Sound Of Music. He nicknamed it the “Sound of Mucus”. Others called it the “Sound of Money” because it was the No.1 movie for more than half of 1965, the first film to earn more than $100 million (around ₹728 crore now). Plummer complained his Captain von Trapp was an “empty carcass of a role” and that the film followed him around like an albatross.
But it’s an albatross that generations have adored, much like a beloved family teddy bear. In our neighbourhood in Kolkata, every time the film was shown anywhere, the children would be packed into an Ambassador car and taken to see it, and we never got bored. My sister estimates she has seen it half-a-dozen times over the years as a chaperone for new sets of viewers. There was an old booklet at home with all the lyrics of the songs. We had a paperback version of the true story of the von Trapp family as well which I never read, afraid it would ruin the film. We learnt My Favourite Things at school even though, in muggy Kolkata, there was no chance of snowflakes that would stay on our noses and eyelashes. In retrospect, The Sound Of Music sometimes feels like some kind of sugar-coated cultural imperialism that sold us a blonde cuckoo-clock fantasy of how to feel good, something that we internalised and then regurgitated in a Karan Johar film.
Years later, I remember going to the old Castro movie theatre in San Francisco, one of the last single-screen movie palaces left in that city, one that came with its own old-school Wurlitzer pipe organ. There was a singalong Sound Of Music happening. An actor who played one of the von Trapp children, now middle-aged, showed up and the audience, many of whom were in lederhosen, lustily sang along with the film. I didn’t need the karaoke-style subtitles. Thanks to our tattered Sound Of Music booklet at home, the songs were engraved in my memory.
When Plummer died recently at 91, my friends wistfully remembered how his dashing von Trapp had set their hearts aflutter. Someone even claimed to have seen the film every single day when it released in Kolkata. It seems a little strange now that a feel-good musical set against the backdrop of Nazis gobbling up Europe would find so much resonance in our part of the world. After all, we had no clue about crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles and had never seen an edelweiss flower.
The Sound Of Music received fairly damning reviews when it first released. The critic Pauline Kael called it a “sugar-coated lie” and Joan Didion blasted it for suggesting one could “just whistle a happy tune and leave the Anschluss (the Nazi annexation of Austria) behind.” They were right but they missed something audiences understood—its unremitting charm. Of course it was never fully believable—who has ever heard of a family of seven children who never fight with each other! But we forgave its flaws because the hills came alive with the sound of music. Even if we hadn’t tasted schnitzel and strudel, Indians fully understood the thrift in repurposing old curtains into new outfits.
In some sense, this was truly escapist fare. This is not heroism on the scale of Schindler’s List, something we can admire from afar but do not have the guts to emulate. Captain von Trapp does not defeat the Nazis. He merely sneaks his own family out of Nazi-occupied Austria. In real life, they didn’t even hike over snow-capped mountains, they took a train to Italy and a ship to the US.
No matter, however, our love affair with The Sound Of Music didn’t run aground on such annoying details. It is in the end a film not about war and Nazis or even singing contests. It’s a film about love, not so much about falling in love but winning people over with love. The baroness gracefully exits the scene when she realises the Captain loves Maria, not her. The lonely goatherd finds love. But the real love affair in the film is not between Captain von Trapp and Maria. It’s between Maria and the children. Even Plummer, grumpy as he was about his role in the film, understood the power of old-fashioned universal “sentiment in bucketloads”. He said working with Julie Andrews was like “getting hit on the head with a valentine”.
Nowadays we don’t just have a Valentine’s Day, we have a Valentine week, with Rose Day, Teddy Day, Chocolate Day, Kiss Day and so on and so forth. The Sound Of Music wrapped all of that into one film and still somehow succeeded in not becoming unbearably mawkish. Even Plummer grudgingly admitted “our director, dear old Bob Wise, did keep it from falling over the edge into a sea of treacle”. The looming spectre of war gave it an edge, like a hint of salt in cloyingly sweet caramel.
Some films are forever pickled in nostalgia, a reminder of simpler childhoods and the gentle romance of “sixteen going on seventeen”. We neighbourhood children would put together our own plays during summer vacations, like the von Trapp puppet shows. We would dress up and perform on the landing while family and friends sat on the steps and applauded. We even performed snippets of The Sound Of Music, secure in the knowledge that the audience would lap up the familiar, knowing it would hear what it had heard before.
The Sound Of Music isn’t just a trip back in time, however. There’s something reassuring about it even now. Like Plummer’s baritone, the film still soothes us even if we know things didn’t quite pan out in real life the way they did on screen. It is not a victory of good over evil as much as it is a little respite from evil—and in bleak times that feels enough.
As soon as that helicopter shot of a young nun spinning round and round on Alpine meadows appeared on the screen, we surrendered to the film, content in the knowledge that nothing really bad would happen even as the Nazis came marching in. It made us feel safe in a big bad world, a feeling that was upended to devastating effect by Arundhati Roy in The God Of Small Things. A boy being molested in a movie theatre is horrendous enough. That it happens during The Sound Of Music, the epitome of wholesome clean and bright family entertainment, is even more horrifying, and at the same time scarily appropriate. After being molested, young Estha watches the film and wonders, “Oh Baron von Trapp, Baron von Trapp, could you love the little fellow with the orange in the smelly auditorium? He’s just held the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s soo-soo in his hand, but could you love him still?”
Yes, The Sound Of Music assures us that love is always possible, that an icy Baron von Trapp’s heart can melt, twinkling nuns can throw a spanner in the works of Nazis and the edelweiss will bloom and grow forever. And though Plummer is gone, our favourite things will still remain as warm and shiny as a bright copper kettle, reassuring us that somewhere in our youth or childhood we must have done something good.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.