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THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (Dir. Ivan Dixon, 1973, US) – ‘You have just played out the American dream…now, we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare’

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The high point of Blaxploitation political radicalism is commonly signposted with Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking film – ‘Sweetback’. When considering the limitations of Blaxploitation cinema, the seminal nature of Peebles film should in no way exclusively act as the definitive reference point for the radicalism of the era or black cinema. Released in 1973, The Spook who sat by the door falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. The claim that Blaxploitation offered new ways of representing what it meant to be black in America seems like another liberal oversight considering how many of these films perpetuated a fantasy urban image of a black anti-hero. Many of these so called Blaxploitation films did little to further the political cause of the black communities in America as many of the films were financed by the major studios in a deliberate and premature attempt to cash in on the emergence of a new black audience. With Blaxploitation, the difficulty with articulating a differing ideological perspective, one which was as fiercely radical and uncompromising as that of the values of black revolutionaries, remained worryingly absent from mainstream cinema.

Black actor and film maker, Ivan Dixon’s second film as a director, The Spook who sat by the door, makes for provocative and highly charged viewing today. Yet the explicit political sympathy it shows with the ideology of black militancy and its centrality within the black community as a force of real change continues to be largely responsible for its relative obscurity and marginal status. Written by Chicago based black activist Sam Greenlee, ‘The Spook who sat by the door’, was published in 1968. Greenlee served as a foreign services officer with the US Information Agency between 1954 and 1957. Though his first novel was a work of fiction, it undoubtedly reflected his own personal experience (and perhaps the discrimination he faced) working for an extension of the white establishment. Co-adapted by Greenlee for the screen (he also acted as one of the producers alongside Ivan Dixon), the novel like the film follows the journey of black CIA agent Dan Freeman who uses his training and skills to create a popular black uprising in the deprived ghetto of Chicago.

Post 68, America had been traumatised by a wave of political assassinations including that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The death of the civil rights movement and the political gap left by the absence of aspiring leaders brought about a period of disillusionment. The reactionary, armed struggle and brand of empowering black militancy advocated by Marxist groups like The Black Panthers questioned the pacifist approach taken by the civil rights activists as somewhat abortive in achieving the ultimate objective of political, social and economic independence and freedom. Rejecting the non-violent ideologies of Martin Luther, black militancy argued that for real change and progress to take place in the black communities it would need to emerge from a collective and somewhat revolutionary attitude towards the oppression of the white establishment.

A handful of films were able to channel such anxieties including the much dismissed and misinterpreted 1973 film, The Spook who sat by the door. The financing for the project came from wealthy black members of the Chicago community whilst Ivan Dixon’s credentials as a black actor and competent director of TV shows secured a distribution deal with United Artists who also agreed to contribute the final share of the budget. On this basis alone, one could argue that Dixon’s film is an independent feature, made outside the sphere of studio interference and described by Greenlee as ‘guerrilla’ film making. Dixon had promised United Artists another blaxploitation film in the vein of his directorial debut Trouble Man but the finished film enraged the studio who gave it a truncated release. Ivan Dixon started his Hollywood career acting as an uncredited student double for Sidney Poitier on The Defiant Ones. Eventually shifting into television, recognition came with Nothing but a Man, an independent film for which he received critical acclaim in the lead role.

Dixon spent much of his career directing apolitical television shows, much of which he has openly criticised as insignificant. His career after The Spook who sat by the door seemed to stall; Dixon accused the FBI of making it difficult for him to find work – his inflammatory political ideals did not go down well with the wider conservative elements of the white establishment. I think the staunch resistance Dixon faced from United Artists when it came to distribution and the suppression of the final film galvanised a mind set which confirmed that it was possible to make a political film but virtually impossible to get it distributed. I suspect this is what largely prevented Dixon from continuing his engagement with political film making. He tried but had failed at subverting the system.

What makes The Spook who sat by the door fascinating viewing today is the film’s uncompromising approach in detailing the ideology of black militancy – the idea of an armed struggle is something that we actually witness and take place in the film. Perhaps the major criticism with the film is Dixon’s over reliance on the trappings of the blaxploitation film – one can see clear evidence throughout of Dixon’s anxiety with making a film that would potentially limit the commercial prospects. Upon the rigorous recruitment procedure, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) is hired to be the CIA’s first black agent and immediately given a redundant, powerless and token desk job. In the sequences in which Freeman interacts with the white establishment, Dixon mocks the Uncle Tom stereotype as our protagonist acts submissively, politely following orders and maintaining his subservient position as the CIA’s pathetic symbol of liberalism.

Though his time at the CIA is a humiliating one, Freeman’s infiltration proves to be worthwhile as he puts to work his skills and knowledge as an agent to instigate a political revolt in his own community. He recruits a mixture of naïve community activists and politicised revolutionaries, teaching them how political resistance must be determined by acts of violent retaliation – he inevitably attracts the support and even consent of the local community who rally around the group’s radical oppositional thinking. For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the film. Unlike most films in which the revolutionary or radical is eventually captured, imprisoned and killed, the ending sees Freeman very much in control of the revolution and prepared to go to any lengths to ensure it achieves the purpose of political emancipation – the CIA and FBI are unable to repress Freeman as he uses their ideas of guerrilla warfare as a weapon against them. The irony here is simply devastating.

Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee.

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JAGO HUA SAVERA / THE DAY SHALL DAWN (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, 1959, Dir. A. J. Kardar) – The Cosmopolitan Intersections of South Asian Neorealism

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“This is the path of the spirit paved with thorns and stones. This is man’s shadow. This is night. But morning will come…” – Khalil Gibran

Gibran’s poetic words point to a cycle of endurance, a battle to survive. This quote from Gibran is juxtaposed over the image of fishing boats at night, navigating the dark waters so to eek out a living, to sustain a village in which fishing is the lifeblood. The recently unearthed Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959) seems to be yet another reason why South Asian cinema’s intersections with neorealism remain somewhat irresolute. Most conversations regarding Indian neorealism tend to centre on two films – Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Both of these films, directed by Bengali filmmakers, show a debt to Italian neorealism and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Although Ghatak’s work could be tentatively argued in terms of a neorealist aesthetic, his style was more eclectic, hybridised and fragmented. Arguably, Nagarik (1952) is possibly the film with the most salient neorealist dimensions of Ghatak’s work, following in the burst of realism initiated by the IPTA in the late 1940s.

If we bring A. J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera into this group of Indian neorealist films, it is important to note that most of these films came from the East of India, many from Bengal. Jago Hua Savera was a co-production between Pakistan and India, and what also makes it unusual are the contributions of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz for script, dialogue and lyrics (unfortunately none of the songs have subtitles) and the cinematography by esteemed DOP Walter Lassally. In fact, Jago Hua Savera was one of Lassally’s first credits as a DOP as a full-length feature, and evidences the fresh realist style that he had developed as part of The British Free Cinema movement with Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and later new wave cinema of the 60s with Tony Richardson. I am  very intrigued by how Lassally got involved with the project. It is worth noting the sound recordist John Fletcher was also part of Free Cinema, having worked on experimental shorts like Nice Time (1957) with directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. Moreover, the editor, Bill Bouvet, was also British. In this respect, the international make up of the crew certainly demonstrates a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan collaboration that was perhaps unusual for the time in India-Pakistan.

The film is simply about the lives of fishermen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opening title reads:

‘Filmed on location at Saitnol, on the banks of the river Meghna – 30 miles south, as the crow flies, from Dacca, in East Pakistan’.

Mian (Zurain) is a fisherman with a growing family, as the titles tell us. His wife, Fatima (Shamsun Nihar), is physically impaired. Mian’s close friend is Kasim (Anees), an orphan who is in love with Mala (Tripti Mitra), the sister in law of Mian, and who comes to stay and help after Fatima gives birth. Kasim is impetuous but loyal to Mian. A principal character is Ganju (Latif) who is obsessed with the dream to own a boat, a threadbare goal that seems to characterise all of the fishermen including Mian. Ganju is a symbol of destitution. When Ganju’s boat arrives, he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his labour and later dies. This is what awaits the fisherman in Saitnol; a painful ending to a miserable existence, which is dictated by the terms of Lal Mian, a slimy moneylender (Kazi Khaliq) who owns the fishing rights to the territory. Lal Mian also has his eye on Mala and hopes that he can convince Mian to let him marry her.

In one sequence, when the fishing rights of Saitnol are auctioned, Lal Mian outbids everyone and retains control. While the fishermen want to see an end to Lal Mian’s rule, they do not have the economic resources to outbid him. After Lal Mian retains the fishing rights, he has a monopoly over the village, and goes about charging extra from the fishermen. Kardar uses a record book of anonymous thumbprints as a symbol of bondage and enslavement that stretches back generations. What Kardar captures so effortlessly is the minuet of the fishing village, charging his narrative with pseudo-poetic neorealist imagery – the boats swaying on the river, the disparate joys of a local mela. Such affection is punctuated by moments of anguish, destitution and fortitude like when Mian attempts to buy a fishing boat but only to realise he does not have enough money or a dying Ganju caressing his newly built boat which he will never sail. Indeed, melodrama often seems to be the element that complicates the neorealist tendencies of films like Do Bigha Zamin but Kardar manages to steer clear off such trapping, perhaps until the final moments as Ganju’s boat is taken away, a rare instance of sentimentality creeping into the film.

However, Jago Hua Savera, made in 1959, seems to have been the culmination of the neorealist moment in South Asian cinema, intersecting along a cross-border creative exchange. Moreover, the international cast and crew, drawing on artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Europe, also situate the film in the realms of international art cinema that was emerging more fully in the late 1950s. Ghatak would return to a similar milieu in his opus Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), exploring the lives of fisherman in Bangladesh and perhaps is indebted to Kardar’s film, notably the stark compositions of landscapes. The pared down, observational approach Kardar takes to the fishing village makes it at times feel as if we are watching a documentary, an ethnographic study but one that is enthralling nonetheless. If Ghatak’s film seems indebted to Kardar then we can also reason Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a classic Italian neorealist work that documents the tribulations of fisherman in a remote Sicilian village, was an influence on both of these films, and returns to the question of exchange that occurred between South Asian filmmakers and Italian neorealism in this period.

Kardar’s brother was Abdur Rashid Kardar, a famous and influential filmmaker and producer who started in the silent era as a producer and then later directed mainstream films like Shahjahan (1946), Dillagi (1949) and Dulari (1949). There is an excellent article by writer and curator Ali Nobil Ahmad published in The Guardian (2016) which drills down into the production history of the film. 

 

Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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The Dream Sequence.

There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

MANOOS/ADMI aka Life is for the Living (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1939, India)

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Manoos (1939) opens with a deftly staged pre-Bressonian like shot of the camera tracking a pair of naked feet as it enters a brothel/gambling den, surveying the men illicitly playing cards on the floor. But this is a shot that pre-dates Bresson and also the opening shot to Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train, and points to the filaments of innovation that characterised classical studio filmmaking in India during the 1930s and beyond. Directed by Shantaram, one of the early pioneers of Indian cinema, Manoos is a striking example of the Hindi social melodrama and was made by the technically accomplished Prahbat Film Company. The film was shot largely on sets in a studio and Rupali Shukla (2014) writes that Shantaram visited red light districts in Mumbai to help with authentically recreating the milieu, which is starkly claustrophobic and Kammerspiel in its look.

At the core of this melodrama is a love story between Ganpat (Shahu Modak), a straight-laced police officer, and Maina (Shanta Hublikar), a prostitute. The opening police raid on the brothel is cloaked in expressionism – canted shots, chiaroscuro and deep shadows. Maina’s noir filled entrance with the light from Ganpat’s torch illuminating her beguiling face is the first of many memorable stylistic touches that runs throughout Shantaram’s creative experiments with lighting and editing. Ganpat takes pity on Maina and gradually falls in love with her. The rescuing of the prostitute and attempts to reform her is certainly a conservative aspect of the film and makes their relationship problematic and perhaps to some extent unpalatable for audiences today. Moreover, the prostitute is the one who is framed as the victim since her job as a sex worker is largely viewed as abhorrent and a social problem. One could argue Maina was relatively content with her life before Ganpat came along and decided to reform her!

Nonetheless, the conservative gender politics are also subverted by the agency of Maina’s character who is not only more sympathetic as a character but gives us a painful insight into the social degradation of women in a pre-partition urbanized India. Hublikar is startling as Maina; self deprecating and whimsical in equal measures. But what really sets her apart from Ganpat is her street-smart nature. Maina continually offers Ganpat with sharp insights into loneliness and social alienation. In this respect, Shantaram’s reformist social melodrama was a progressive work. Returning to the question of stylistic touches, Shantaram stages many transitions between scenes with ingenuity, using whip pans, wipes and dolly shots.

Idiosyncrasies litter the film. In one sequence, Ganpat and Maina escape to a rural setting where they stumble into a film shoot that sees two lovers performing for the camera. Ganpat and Maina mock the hyperbolic romanticism that is being replicated for the film camera, a reflexive commentary on the representation of love in popular culture. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen argue this sequence is a ‘spoof on the Bombay Talkie style of cinema’ (1994: 261), referencing Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya (1936). Later, Ganpat and Maina’s song ironically becomes the focus of the film crew who are mesmerised by their real love as opposed to the artifice of what they are trying to conjure.

In another sequence, Ganpat takes Maina to see his mother so that they can get her blessings. Before the mother agrees to consent to their marriage and approve of her daughter in law, she asks the statue of goddess ambe to drop the flower to the right. When Ganpat realises this may not happen, he intervenes, blowing on the flower, ensuring it falls. Their intervention ridicules the superstitious ritual and exposes the limits of religion. All of this takes place in a heightened style with sharp Eisensteinian like edits, disorientating dutch angle framing and lucid high contrast lighting. There is fatalism at work, which gradually turns the narrative into a full on tragedy when Maina murders her degenerate uncle in an act of violent rage and is subsequently imprisoned for life. Strangely enough, the film’s final moments, encapsulated in the upbeat image of Ganpat marching seems like a betrayal of Maina’s ostracism from society.