Wednesday, August 15, 2007

‘Kalbela’, Naxalbari and Radical Political Cinema

Gautam Ghose's Kalbela is a film set against the background of the Naxalite movement. Based on a 1980s novel by Samaresh Majumdar, the film sets itself up, quite self-consciously, within a certain tradition of films, namely radical political Bengali cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. It thus establishes an intertextuality and a certain connection with them.

The casting sequences take us through a rapid tour of some of the more emblematic moments of that cinema and that time:

  • The shot from Mrinal Sen's Calcutta 71 of the young man on the run jumping off a wall, running through the lanes, pursued by the police and finally shot in an open field. You can almost hear Akashvani's signature tune as it begins its news bulletin to announce the discovery of yet another anonymous dead body in those troubled times.

You are barely through with it and in quick succession you see two, now somewhat iconic, scenes representing the 1970s angry young Bengal:

  • Ranjit Mallik in the final sequence of Interview, flinging a stone to break open the showcase of a shop. He would denude the mannequin and remove the suit it is wearing, and take it for his interview the next day. It is a stylized 'trial' of this character for the offence of disrobing the mannequin that becomes the opening sequence of Sen's 'Chorus'.
  • The other sequence is also equally iconic: Dhritiman Chatterjee 'turning the tables', literally, as it were, on his interviewers. This is a sequence from Ray's Pratidwandi. Satyajit Ray, who has all too often been accused of 'evading politics', however captures, in this sequence, an important mood of rebellion that marked the 1970s.

By situating itself and the story it has to tell, within this matrix of the 1970s radical Bengali cinema, Ghose anchors the film squarely within its time, within that time. The mood and the events certainly, but even the way these black and white shots are used, underlines a somewhat documentary – and thus temporally limited – character of the way these sequences are put to use.

And yet, the making of the film in 2007 must say something more. Based on a novel published about twenty years ago (itself at two decades remove from the event of Naxalbari), could its filmic rendering forty years after the event be read as a comment on 'our time'?Amar joubane dekha Kolkata onek palte gechhe" ["the Calcutta of my youth has changed a lot now"] from the background in Animesh's [the male protagonist] voice, as you are taken over one of the many flyovers that mark the 2000s Kolkata skyline would have you guessing as to the meaning of this change. The quiet Kolkata of the 2000s – the Kolkata of flyovers and New Townships, Aqua Villages – all dressed up to invite or welcome 'Capital' which it once drove away? The cryptic "

Some of the film's limitations in fact stem from this desire to anchor the film in a particular time such that we neither have the advantage of looking at the subject [the Naxalite movement] with any serious degree of criticality nor indeed the possibilities of playing with the layered temporalities that can appear through the mere retelling of the tale/s over time (the Event, the Novel and the Film, separated by almost two decades from each other). How is the Event actually recalled in popular memory? How does it appear not just to the actual participants but to those around them – and what is it of that period that is recalled in the present conjuncture: All these remain unexplored in the film. It is as though even the reference to the earlier films – including Mrinal Sen's Calcutta trilogy – is merely to index a 'reality' in the manner of a document.

The period since the first eruption of the Event (the Spring Thunder in Radio Peking's celebrated but highly exaggerated description) to the period of the film has seen what might be called an epochal shift in terms of what we might properly describe as 'radical'. The large ideological emancipatory narratives that set the terms of discourse then stand displaced by what we could call a situated radicalism, an instance of which we could see irrupting within the filmic text despite the intention of the author-director, in the person of the female protagonist. However, that remains, at best, an irruption – the main text remaining firmly within a largely orthodox representation of the radical.

At the manifest level, Kalbela is a film set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement, its rise and eventual fall, as it degenerates into a spiral of violence that will eventually consume its own members. Once the movement reaches this phase, the speed of events and their logic leaves little room for self-doubt and reflection. The moments of doubt that arise in Animesh's mind over the killing of the rapist-landlord, for example, are rapidly subsumed by the force of events that eventually land him in jail. The movement is, in a sense, merely the background to what is a story of relationships and especially one relationship of love. And yet, somehow it is the movement that repeatedly moves to the foreground, so much so that we barely manage to see the unfolding of complications in the relationships. There are glimpses and we are often left to infer the rest.

On the other hand, if the film were to be read as a film whose central subject is the Naxalite movement, then it does leave us with a sense of wanting a more self-reflexive account, a deeper contemplation on the pitfalls of the form and methods it finally adopted. A relevant comparison here could be made with Mrinal Sen's Padatik and the far greater critical reflection by the protagonist Dhritiman: Recall his comment "Joley koomir aar daangaey baagh" (The water is infested with crocodiles and the banks are full of tigers). That was a militant on the run, hiding from the police (the tigers on the bank) but equally suspected by his own party men (the crocodiles). The predicament of the individual caught in the vortex of violence and mutual suspicion that inevitably accompanies such secret underground movements, often romanticized as an episode in an inevitable World Historical Drama, one would imagine calls for much greater reflection today than was possible earlier.

This is an imperative today, especially since, over the last few decades, feminist critiques have unveiled before us the inherently masculinist/militarist nature of such an enterprise. The Dalit critique of such radicalism has underlined the very deep connections of this radicalism with a disaffected but elite, upper caste youth. The critique of violence today has acquired dimensions that far exceed the old Gandhian critique that was conducted in the name of a moral Self. While it shares some ground with the Gandhian critique, the feminist critique also forces us to consider violence as being grounded in an inherently male notion of world domination or mastery. The work of scholars like Susie Tharu has put iconic movements and struggles like the Telengana peasants struggle and the Naxalbari movement itself under the scanner. What would happen in that case, if the film were to be seen – not through Animesh's eyes but through the 'displaced' gaze of the female protagonist, Madhabilata? [That caste remains a non-question is in itself interesting, as we never countenance in bhadralok Bengal the figure of the Dalit even in the peripheries of the movement, unlike say in Andhra and Bihar, where it becomes central to a critique of the movement. And what do we make of the fact that in a state with over 25 percent Muslims, the only Muslim name that is associated with the movement in that period is that of Azizul Haq?]

Quite unexpectedly, however, the film does provide us with a different vantage point of a female if not a feminist voice. This voice does not come to us from within the movement but in fact entirely outside it. One is forced to pause for a moment and linger over the characters of Neela and Madhabilata: Powerful, resolute and prepared to face the consequences of their decisions.

These are new female characters, not quite available to the radical political cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Even though Madhabilata is not quite as important a character as she could have been, she is nonetheless a woman, one is tempted to say, who belongs to the 1990s, to this time: a woman who makes love and bears a child out of wedlock and disregards her friend Neela's suggestion of aborting it, thus taking on every possible challenge involved in being a single, unwed mother. Undoubtedly, this kind of a female figure can be excavated from earlier literatures too, but there is something interesting, significant and very contemporary about these women (Neela included), who stand in stark contrast to the female characters of the 1970s.

Madhabilata's strength of conviction and her values do not come from any synthetic ideology but out of something else – of her immersion, her being-in-the-world, and thus of knowing where and how much the limits of the possible can be pushed. Her values and her decisions are determined not by any external criteria but through situations; by the creation or precipitation of situations, unavoidably arising in the flow of daily life. Madhabilata is, to start with, very conventional and unapologetically apolitical but one who is repeatedly confronted with the task of taking a decision in critical phases of her life. She does not choose the most conventional path – from falling in love with a man who is involved in a politics that she does not, in the first instance, care for to bearing a child as an unwed mother. She is aware, for instance, that these situations can tip over and lead her to abandon her parental house without even the benefit of any assurance from Animesh. (All she has is Neela's unstinted support who has herself walked out her parental house). Hers is a situated radicalism that does not bear the name 'radical'. But this is how the ordinary person – as opposed to the 'heroic' vanguard – is radical: contextually and complicitously, that is to say, often without drawing a permanent line of impermeability in relation to power. That is what makes possible the existence of ambiguous spaces where the opposition to the oppressor thrives. The revolutionary remains a guest visitor to these spaces, so important for the success of his or her project.

Animesh too is faced with such a situation: falling in love with a woman who confronts him with the most ordinary and aggressively nonpolitical concerns while he is inexorably being drawn towards the most extreme wings of the movement. He can resist neither. But unlike Madhabilata, he is unable to take full responsibility for his decisions and must sacrifice the personal to some abstract 'world-historical' responsibility, leaving Madhabilata to fend for herself. The Agent of History, Animesh, is completely devoid of all agency where personal relationships are concerned. This is not a predicament, to be sure, of activists of the Naxalite movement alone but in fact, of all political movements and an investigation of these predicaments that may help us to raise some of the most important philosophical questions of our time/s.

[Based on a presentation at a panel discussion on 'radical political cinema' at the Osian's Cinefan Festival]

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