Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pyaasa (Thirst)

There are those who make films, and then there are those who live their life through their films. Guru Dutt was cinema's ultimate narcissist. His cinema was his own story, as he liked to tell it to the whole world. Inspite of his successes, Dutt was a misunderstood genius, a man who felt Bollywood never recognized him for what he was as an artist.

"Pyaasa" was Guru Dutt's masterpiece. Again, against his own wishes. It was "Kagaaz ke Phool" which he thought was his most heart wrenching work, one which should have got the highest accolades. But the in the confusing world of cinema, it is Pyaasa for which millions of film goers have remembered Guru Dutt. For the record, it is the only Hindi movie,to have featured in the Times All time 100 list of movies, and quite rightly so.

"Pyaasa", like "Kagaaz ke Phool" is Guru Dutt's story, in more ways than one, enacted by Guru Dutt himself. Vijay, the protagonist is a misunderstood poet. Shunned by his greedy brothers and a college sweetheart who marries into wealth, Vijay roams across the streets of the city, looking for food, shelter and writing verses that he hopes to publish one day. The only admirer of his verses is the prostitute Gulabo, played by the exquisitely beautiful Waheeda Rehman. Gulabo is his only solace, the only one in the whole wide world who recognizes the poet for what he is.

Perhaps here too, Guru Dutt wants to tell his own story to the whole world. Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the eminent singer Geeta Dutt, Guru spent her whole life wooing Waheeda, in one of Bollywood's greatest real life romances. In an industry which paid little attention to his style of cinema, it was probably his fantasy to be admired by that one woman, Waheeda.  As I said, Guru lived through his cinema, he dreamt his fantasies through his cinema. Waheeda was Guru Dutt's discovery, his own Anna Karina. This was also the first movie in which she played a leading role, and what a performance she delivers! ( "Kagaaz ke phool" is a more intimate portrait of the Guru Dutt-Waheeda romance, and how the protege leads to the ruin of the great director).

The first part of the movie seems a little slow to me, peppered with comic reliefs and song-dance sequences, a signature of the 50's Indian movie.After facing numerous trials and tribulations, Vijay finally reaches his breaking point with the death of his mother, the only one who cared for her, except Gulabo, in this big wide world. Tired with a world which did not give him recognition, Vijay attempts to commit suicide, but instead of him, it is the beggar to whom he lends his coat, that falls infront of an approachig train. The body is identified to be Vijay's while the officially dead Vijay recovers in a hospital. A young, brilliant, vagabond poet, who dies without any appreciation, suddenly becomes an important story, and a very profitable one. An indifferent world wakes up to this tear jerker, and to his poetry. Publishers who used to throw his poems in waste paper baskets begin to offer hefty sums for royalties to his poems.

Vijay, meanwhile, by a trick of fate, anguishes in an asylum. He manages to escape from there exactly on the first anniversary of his "death". The whole city is abuzz with news of programs in remembrance of the great poet. In a sombre program, publishers shed crocodile tears and men who never ever cared for a good-for-nothing had heart wrenching tales to tell. Amidst this farce, Vijay makes the most spectacular entry. He expresses his indifference as a poet can do best. He sings what is to become some of the most famous lines in Indian cinema.

"Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, to kya haaye" ("Even if I win the world, how does it matter?"), he asks. The recognition that he had so yearned for, had finally arrived. But what did it mean? The deeply personal heart wrenching work of a poet had been converted into a grotesque public spectacle.

Any other hindi movie would probably have ended there, with the hero's success and glittering smile. But not this one. As he confronts the world, the poet sees the dark face of success. Greedy publishers and relatives and friends queue up for a piece of the pie. The next day, Vijay declares to a stunned audience, that he is not really the poet that they have been thinking he is, and turns his back to success and recognition. Guru Dutt walks away into darkness with Gulabo, the only one who ever understood him. Inspite of his many successes in commercial Bollywood cinema, Guru Dutt had walked away into darkness as a lonely soul.Seven years after he made Pyaasa, a morbid and distressed Guru Dutt committed suicide in a rented apartment in Mumbai. Perhaps it is the exit he had always craved, but reality is a harsh mistress. His real life Gulabo, the very same Waheeda Rehman remained the La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

As Woody Allen said in "Annie Hall", "You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it's real difficult in life."

I would like to change this review later. This is a very favorite movie of mine, and I don't think the review presently does justice to that. But being burdened with work as I am, I am putting off the "modify the draft" for a future time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reclaiming the Red Fort

This article appeared in Countercurrents on April 26.

Lalgarh, the arena of the latest of India’s tribal rebellions, has a name that is mildly ironic. Literally translated, it means the “Red fort”, that hallowed seat of the world’s largest secular democracy. But here, in this faraway Red fort, a tribal hamlet in West Bengal, Indian democracy shows a very different face. It bears little resemblance to the tolerant democracy of Gandhi and Nehru, or even the corrupt but benign version of the State that the Indian city dweller is accustomed to. The reality of Lalgarh seems like an anachronism amidst the glitz and glamour of India’s shining new economy. In fact, it seems prehistoric.
Lalgarh’s development statistics are few and little cared for, perhaps a sure sign of Government apathy. The few reports that exist paint a grim picture. 95% of the children between 6 and 35 months suffer from anemia. The average number of working days in 2008-09 under the NREGA scheme was 6.02, 6.72 and 8.06 in the violence affected districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia1. Merely 6.5% of the population of Lalgarh receives clean drinking, and only 12.5% of the land is irrigated2.

Combine this with the oppressive social picture that is slowly emerging from the media reports at recent times. While the Left Front Government, with its ambitious land reforms program, had managed to transform the feudal hierarchy of the landed gentry, a new hierarchy, consisting of local party leaders and musclemen has taken its place. Nobody exemplifies it better than Anuj Pandey, general secretary of the Lalgarh zone of the CPI(M). Pandey had amassed a fortune as a CPI(M) leader, and his palatial two storey house on a sprawling 20 acre land, stood as the only “pucca” house in the whole village3. Angry villagers razed it to the ground and smashed refrigerators, LCD television and air conditioners in the house in an act of mob revenge, as the movement had finally given them a voice. Anuj Pandey’s story seems to be picked out of a seventies Bollywood flick, in its grotesque excesses and dramatic climax. In collusion with the local leaders are the police, whose stories of oppression are now coming out in the open. In fact, the movement at Lalgarh started out as a protest against police atrocities. Numerous cases of rapes of Adivasi women, strip searches of schoolgirls, police torture of pregnant and elderly women have been reported in the area4.
While there is a broad agreement about the genuine demands of the tribals, it is the form of the tribal resistance that has been questioned, in Dantewada and elsewhere. To civilized India, the violent forms of tribal resistance often appear medieval. However, in Lalgarh, the tribals answered not in the language of the violence that they have been subjected to, but in the language of a democracy, of which they never received any. The “People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities” (PCAPA) came up as a democratic organization, with its modest demands of the apology of guilty police officers and the removal of police camps from schools and Panchayet offices 4. Their political activity was in the form of gheraos, boycotts and peaceful assembly. For the moment, it appeared that a new paradigm in tribal politics was emerging, with West Bengal’s mainstream political opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) standing behind Chatradhar Mahato.  

However, things changed quickly. The democracy of PCAPA was answered not by democracy, but by the primeval brutality of force. The administration did not heed their modest demands. On the other hand, Chatradhar was captured in an illegal manner, and is being held in custody under the draconian anti-terrorism law, POTA. About six months have elapsed since his arrest, but the police have still not been able to produce evidence to back up the charges made against him5. The TMC and intellectuals close to the TMC have also increased its distance from the PCAPA, citing it as a frontal organization of the Maoists, after the party joined the Central Government. Regardless of political affiliations, mainstream political parties have failed to lend any helping hand to democratic voices emerging from the tribal areas. On February 2010, the Government forces led another blow to PCAPA, killing their president, an elderly Lalmohan Tudu, in a suspected “fake encounter”. Tudu was not known to have any Maoist leanings, and was never known to carry arms, not even the traditional bow and arrow that the tribals always carry with them. Various eye witness accounts suggest that an unarmed Tudu, and two of his relatives were picked up from their house shot at by a police force, which was apparently engaged in anti-Maoist operations6.

Thus, the events at Lalgarh, as they unfold before us, clearly suggest the administration’s intention of stifling democratic voices raised against it. There is little disagreement over the fact that the adivasis of Lalgarh have genuine grievances pertaining to the lack of development and law and order in the region. The only solution, albeit a slow one, is to reach out to movements fighting for the Adivasis, establish meaningful dialogue with leaders like Chatradhar Mahato, and most importantly, to make a sincere effort to develop these regions. This would not be difficult for a nation riding on the powerhorse of 8% growth rate. Unfortunately, the State has decided to act otherwise. It refuses to see the rebellion as representing the aspirations of disenchanted masses who the State has failed. Rather, in order to evade the problem, those in power have created their own spin on the turn of events, labeling it as a “law and order problem”. The Maoists suit this purpose just fine, and clubbing all anti-State movements as Maoist allows the administration to go on the path of “extermination”. 

The argument equating the tribal resistance to a Maoist uprising is based on entirely false premises. The tribals and the Maoists have a symbiotic relationship at present with regard to their common goal of a fight against an administration that has been unjust to the tribals. The Maoist ideology, attempting a violent overthrow of elected Governments, is not compatible with that of democracy and their mindless violence and destructive ambitions must be dealt with severely, within the ambit of law. However, it would be a grave error to believe that the tribals, who are now the foot soldiers of the Maoists are also stringent believers in the ideology, and unleash a full fledged war aimed to “exterminate” them.

 The justifications of violence have been debated long and hard. Violence is not sought for, whichever side it comes from. However, even free India (and every other civilized democracy for that matter), built on the ideals of Gandhi found it difficult to resolve conflicts without violent interventions, both inside and outside the country. The maintenance of law and order, however, one would argue, is legitimized by the authority vested on the State by the people, in a democratic system. What if the people are not represented? What if the State has failed its people, not once or twice, but at each and every instance? Does it still retain that legitimacy?  The violence of the tribals is a desperate battle for survival and the violence of the State has lost its legitimacy in these tribal hamlets. The endless debates on the form of the movement are thus a diversion from the real problem. To lose oneself in the quagmire of the morality of violence, without an analysis of its context is dangerous and unproductive. It must be realized that the resistance of the tribals have taken a violent form (and aligned itself with the Maoists) in the absence of development and because of the stifling of democratic means of resentment. The State must respond not with unthinking violence, but with diplomacy and humanism towards its own subjects, who have been wronged for the last sixty years. The use of military power without a functional democracy in place is not the hallmark of a People’s State, but that of a military dictatorship, the last thing that the founding fathers had wished for this country.


1. Sankar Ray (23 July, 2009). “Where have the Maoists gone?” The Statesman.

3. Rabi Banerjee (Feb 7, 2010). “Comrade Bourgeois”  The Week.

4. Amit Bhattacharya (2009). “Singur to Lalgarh via Nandigram” Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan

5. Sujit Nath and Aloke Mukherjee (March 9, 2010). “PCAPA leader gets bail in most cases” India Today.

6. Tusha Mittal  (March 13, 2010). “Attack On CRPF Camp Or Fake Encounter?” Tehelka.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ward No.6

Ward No. 6 is widely regarded as one of Chekhov's greatest stories and one that shaped the way the modern short story is written. Apparently, it profoundly influenced the young Lenin, who, on reading the story,  himself felt like being transported to the dingy interiors of Ward No. 6, as one of its inmates. Another prominent writer proclaimed "Ward No. 6 is Russia".There can be no greater praise that can be showered on a single story.

However, I must warn the lay reader, Ward No. 6 is bitter, depressing and dull, as Chekhov himself acknowledges in his private communications. It is a long story with no love interests, female characters, no tensions, and even the climax does not hit you in its O' Henry-esque suddenness, but creeps into you  slowly, searing through your heart, like a long forgotten pain slowly emerging from the depths of obscurity. In my scant readings on Russian literature (lets say 19th century Russian literature), I have found this sense of gloom very universal. In Gogol, in Dostoyevsky, and now in Chekhov, a picture of Russia emerges that is very similar in its gray bleakness. With its cold damp wintry streets, man's soul tortured by suffering and seeking solace in alcohol,  and a society whose values have become all but extinct, 19th century Russia, is a land, where man blended in with the colors of melancholy nature in the most undesirable fashion.As Chekhov himself observes, nature provides little respite in Russia from the sufferings. In one of the last few scenes, when Andrey Yefimitch looks out of the window of Ward No. 6 to see nothing but a "cold, crimson moon" and the adjoining prison cell. Along with society, the simple solitary pleasures of nature too, seemed taken away from the man in this cursed land.

But Ward No. 6 is much more than a harsh indictment of Czarist Russia. It is a story that is deeply symbolic, its characters are like voices in a man's head, whose whispers grow into violent argument in the solitude of the night. The whole story, its setting, its characters are finally a build up to the philosophical debate between Yefimitch and Gromov, and a tragic account of how society views this engagement. Chekhov questions the nobility of renouncement, the Hindu way of Nirvana (and probably engages with Tolstoy, too, on this point). In Yefitmitch's rejection of the futility of real life, Chekhov sees the naiveté and indifference of a nobleman, and the dumbness of a vegetative life, signified by Gromov's neighbor. (Remarkable, how each of his characters, even the most insignificant convey an essential point. A master short story writer indeed!) Yefimitch's entry to Ward No. 6 is also his entry to the reality of Russia's common man, his introduction to the pain and suffering of real life. And how beautifully Chekhov describes the scene:

"So this is real life," thought Andrey Yefimitch, and he felt frightened.
The moon and the prison, and the nails on the fence, and the far-away flames at the bone-charring factory were all terrible. Behind him there was the sound of a sigh. Andrey Yefimitch looked round and saw a man with glittering stars and orders on his breast, who was smiling and slyly winking. And this, too, seemed terrible.
Andrey Yefimitch assured himself that there was nothing special about the moon or the prison, that even sane persons wear orders, and that everything in time will decay and turn to earth, but he was suddenly overcome with desire; he clutched at the grating with both hands and shook it with all his might. The strong grating did not yield.

It is from the stinking insanity of Ward No. 6 that the sanest voices emerge, for theirs is a philosophy carved out of suffering. Gromov desires life, he desires life's simplest pleasures, his freedom and does not buy into a philosophy that, in denouncing the material life, not only expresses its naiveté but is also a convenient politics to deny the masses their rights.

Chekhov questions the concept of insanity, and the power structure that benefits from the existence of this institution. In pushing Gromov and Yefinitch's intellectual engagement to the periphery of society, in dismissing man's thirst for philosophy as an insane exercise, Chekhov's small Russian town represents, in a microcosm, the world's great power structures, where artificial rituals, moralities strengthen beliefs that make it easy to push the inconvenient off the cliff, in this case, to Ward No. 6.

I think it was Herman Hesse, who once said Nietzsche's madness is not his madness, it is the madness of the modern man.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Avatar: Liberal Guilt and Liberal Fantasies

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things..... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Thus begins Howard Zinn's magnum opus "The People's History of the United States". It is a book that many a "Proud" American would place in his closet rather than his bookshelf. The stories of heroism that he tells his children in late night stories and school history books, the inheritance to the Western enlightenment and visions of democracy that he so vehemently proclaims, would be reduced to a mere exercise in rhetoric and hypocrisy, if history was known to the ordinary man as in this fashion.

James Cameron has brought out the skeleton from the closet. In this he has not said anything new. In fact a thousand activists are fighting Jake Sully's battle at this very moment, as I write. These battles are being fought with more ordinary weapons, and the familiar unfairness that God bestows upon reality. Jake Sully's tale is another fairy tale from the big screens of Hollywood, but it is unique in its exploration of the issue of development, in "entertaining, mainstream cinema", in the pop-corn munching, soda sipping multiplexes,those mosques of urbanity, which, ironically, are often the very symbols of the development that Cameron questions.

Cameron has also played out the ultimate intellectual's fantasy, in pitting the liberal,eco-friendly, pacifist, science PhD intellectual brigade against the unholy alliance of the headstrong stupid six pack, and the suave, clean shaved cold blooded calculating businessman (I was often tempted to replace W and Cheney in these two positions as I watched the movie!).As Col. Qaritch talks of pre-emptive attacks, and Selfridge talks of the quarterly earnings, the liberal is taking his sweet revenge over an world it has failed to control.

Avatar's position on the politics of development does not come out loud and clear though. In fact, it seems, it is happy to take the Luddite position, without much explanation. It is in the end, only good triumphing against the evil. But is the evil a necessary one? Avatar refrains from answering this all important question (But then, it is probably expecting too much from a fantasy film of sorts). However, it is a question that requires a deeper thought. For Avatar's villains are also the heroes that we have worshiped since the dawn of civilization. If Christopher Columbus is a shame that the white man would like to hide in the myriad descriptions of conquests, so are the early Aryans, whose invasion of India left very few traces of its original inhabitants.Almost all of the world's greatest civilizations have been constructed over the carcasses of a weaker people. Development, too, has followed a similar path. And it is not the greedy capitalist or the feudal emporer alone, who have wreaked the havoc. The cherished Empire of the people, Stalin's USSR sacrificed millions to the altar of development. Today, as India's "socialist" Government goes on a development spree to become a superpower, we see the all too familiar faces. From the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, to Nandigram in West Bengal it is the same question that haunts the modern liberal intellectual, the child of Socrates and Columbus. In fact, one cannot hide a chuckle at how Art imitates life, when the Vedanta Inc. threatens to take over the Nyamgiri mountains in Orissa, home to the Nyam Raja, the deity of the Kondh tribals who inhabit the adjoining area.

Very soon, such insignificant details would be buried within the weight of history books, and the obscurity of academic theses. The history of India's development, would probably have such trivia as mere footnote, or may omit them altogether. For as Kundera says, the powers that be do not want to change the future, but want the authority to rewrite its past. As the deeds of Columbus, or W or Chidambaram are erased from the books of history, and the memory of the people, sometimes, they would peek from obscurity in the form of Clementin's fur hat, or Cameron's movie.