Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal / The Evil Deeds of Cherian (Dir. John Abraham, 1979, India [Malayalam]

Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.

Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.

Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.

Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.

The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.

Rangula Kala / Colourful Dreams (Dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1983, India / Telugu) – ‘I’m an artist not a trader’

Rangula Kala, released in 1983, was the directorial debut of Rao and is an accomplished work, exploring the role of the artist in society. It would make a brilliant triple bill alongside Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool since all three deal with the value of the artist in the marketplace which is in turn contested through differing perspectives on the significance of art and its relationship with the broader social, economic and political landscape of India.

Rao essays the leading role of Ravi, a bearded beatnik painter, who is tormented by the ‘emotional conflict inside him’ and trying desperately to make a living while developing his distinctive style as a painter. Although Ravi is not concerned that his work is derivative of existing forms, what really matters to him is the connection he continually tries to forge with the real world, an existential search that is manifested in a series of tangible dream sequences that finds Ravi lost in a consciousness clouded by guilt, doubt and truth. Many of Ravi’s closest friends including a Marxist journalist (Narayana Rao) and Ramesh, a successful painter (Saichand), actively encourage Ravi to pander to the whims of the audience and the market but he defies this way of making art because it is based on compromise, a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ravi values the work for what it is and represents not what it is worth in the marketplace and what price it will fetch for the pontificating and pretentious upper classes. An exhibition of his work (much of it resembling a modern style) fails to strike a chord with art promoters and is labelled a flop, leaving him in despair both emotionally and economically. As a result, in one sequence, Ravi is forced to visit Mrs Ramarnath, a faux high society figure, and sell one of his paintings simply because he needs the money to survive. Later, Ravi tells Sarala, his girlfriend, that people like Mrs Ramarnath have very little regard for artists and treat art as a commodity that sits alongside their other possessions as part of a twisted capitalist logic.

Rao is also critical of the hypocrisy that circulates amongst fellow artists and Ramesh, the hypocritical snob, who has literally sold out to the marketplace, misleads Ravi and goes to great lengths to mask over his precarious position as a social climber: ‘I’m an artist not a trader’, he exclaims in a radio interview. Ravi’s search for his role as an artist comes to fruition when Suraya, a trade union leader, invites him to attend May Day celebrations for workers. Here Rao uses the first of two political songs of working class resistance by Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet and Naxal activist, that articulates a rising tide of anger in Ravi’s shifting mindset. Later, Suraya, instructs Ravi that he can use his art for a far greater ideological cause, to serve the people and be part of a political mobilisation, an idea that he responds to immediately and eventually embraces. What follows after Ravi’s realisation is the remarkable insert of another resolutely angry protest song by Gaddar, this time criticising the tyranny of the capitalist system and how it has enslaved the poor. The link between a cultural front and political movements has often been a significant one in helping to narrate and express an unofficial story, that of the workers on the front line. Exhibiting his work on the streets forges an authentic connection with the people and his paintings come closer to capturing a reality that he has been searching for. Critical acclaim follows and his journalist friend extols Ravi for finally developing a distinctive style, academic praises that Ravi humbly accepts.

While Ravi continually experiments with the aesthetics of painting, Suraya’s murder at the hands of the state at a peaceful demonstration, galvanises Ravi’s political awakening. Sympathising with the plight of the workers, Ravi finally pushes himself to make the transition to a state of alertness and ideological mobilisation. Imposing upon himself a state of imprisonment, Ravi re-thinks his role as an artist, his monochrome and starkly abstract paintings now embodying the figurative images of the workers and the repressive state apparatus expressly the police. In the closing moments, the extreme zoom in on Ravi’s eyes seething with rage followed by a fade to red unmasks a violence yet to come, and extenuates a revolutionary fervour that echoes films like Padatik and Ankur.

Amar Lenin / My Lenin (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1970, India)

‘The river and fields reverberate with the sounds of the hammer and chisel’ go the lyrics for what appears to be a popular folk song venerating the cultural significance of Lenin on the psyche of Bengal’s socialist conceptualization. Ritwik Ghatak was expelled from The Communist Party of India in 1955 largely for questioning the absence of a co-ordinated cultural front, a critique he takes up diligently in his film Komal Gandhar. Ghatak’s ideological connection and commitments to socialism remained a constant source of tension in his work. Amar Lenin, long unavailable, was made in a final period after the completion of Subarnarekha (1965), the final part of his ground-breaking Partition trilogy. This late period saw Ghatak direct a number of short documentaries with many projects left incomplete. This was also a time taken up by his stint at the FTII. Made at the behest of the Government of West Bengal in the centenary year of Lenin, Amar Lenin was made during the first phase of Parallel Cinema and like many films released in the late 1960s, the impact of political uncertainty and revolution was felt in the immediacy of a street reportage style, all of which is clearly evident in Ghatak’s approach to the documentary mode. The opening shows a peasant farmer going to a play about Lenin performed at night; all of this is juxtaposed to a song that eulogises the socialist sentiments of Lenin. The next sequence uses a harvest song cut to women milling flour, celebrating the rural and village life as a utopian space of union and solidarity. Ghatak structures the documentary around a benign peasant farmer who goes to Calcutta to join in the celebrations of Lenin which includes the inauguration of a statue to Lenin, street processions and political speeches by Abdul Razzak Khan and Dharani Goswami. As the young farmer journeys through the city he observes a rally in the which the ‘Lenin Youth Festival’ has drawn people from all corners of India.

Amar Lenin was made at a time when political activism was at its peak in Calcutta particularly with the ways in which Naxalism had galvanised a younger generation including students to take up arms and join the call for a broader cultural and social revolution in doing away with a system indebted to the old colonial traditions. The presence of both Russian and Indian delegates at the inauguration ceremony also captures the ideological alignment and sympathies expressed by socialist parties in both countries, a rare moment of broader mobilization and consent that took place before the violent repression of the Naxalite movement in 1971, fracturing the Communist Party further still in West Bengal. When the peasant farmer returns to his village, he has been galvanised with new socialist ideas, which he implements at the grassroots level, mobilizing his brothers and sisters to challenge the feudal order and overturn the tyranny of the landlords through direct action. The taking up of arms and the peasant revolt that Ghatak stages and re-enacts is a direct political reference to the Naxalbari uprising of the time and is intercut with communist leaders in Calcutta delivering empty speeches, a juxtaposition that delineated the increasing divisions and factions within the Communist Party of India at the time, with Ghatak broadly sympathising with Charu Mazumdar’s Marxist-Leninist approach of militancy. Is it any wonder Ghatak’s Naxal leaning and resolutely poetic documentary was banned in India.

Modernism by Other Means: the films of Amit Dutta – Srikanth Srinivasan (Lightcube, 2020)

Srikanth Srinivasan’s (aka JAFB who writes at his legendary site The Seventh Art) first monograph is a great book about Indian cinema. It is a great book about a filmmaker. Srikanth lists himself as a film critic on the jacket of his book, which he rightly is, but this work is very much that of an accomplished and nuanced film scholar, and indeed which has often been the striking characteristic of his eclectic film writings over a period of fifteen years and counting. I still don’t think he gets the credit and attention that he deserves, underlining the cultural discourse in which film writing is narrowly canonized; remaining within tenuous, highfalutin parameters, with much of it tipped into the favour of Anglo-centric feels.

I first came across Srikanth’s work in 2007 when I was starting to use the internet to write about film, at my first site pretentiously titled ‘Ellipsis: The Accents of Cinema’, which is now defunct. Those were the years when film writers would regularly crawl across the internet to leave comments to new posts in the hope of initiating a conversation and dialogue. Sadly, such diligence and commitment came to an end with the rise of social media and expressly Twitter, which kind of ruined what could have potentially been something quite significant in terms of sustaining a connected global cinephilia with the space to let writers develop their own style and forge a readership. Now with Twitter, everyone seems to be barking out the same film rhetoric, much of it lazily recycled and generally lacking nuance.

Anyhow, if you have been following Srikanth’s adventures over the years, which also saw him take a cultural hiatus to France, his interests in experimental Indian film and filmmakers, about which he has written extensively, continues to elucidate a major blind spot when it comes the prevailing film discourse on Indian cinema, which as he notes in his introduction, is inclined towards ‘mainstream and Parallel Cinema’. I necessarily don’t agree with this point as I would reason the scholarly work on Parallel Cinema is in dire need of resuscitation and further study, with much of the focus having shifted to the much feted Indie scene. And although monographs on filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal have been far more forthcoming over the past ten years, the non-linear history of Parallel Cinema remains relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, I would reason Srikanth’s monograph occupies a new space, carving out a critical insight that forges a wider cultural intersectional understanding of Dutta’s work, articulated through the elegant, intellectual and strident analytical prose.

Indeed, Srikanth points to the short shrift that experimental Indian film has been given, something he dually rectifies with what is an accessible, exceptional and detailed investigative reading of director Amit Dutta’s output, arguably one of India’s most important contemporary artists working today, and who in many ways extended the premature iconoclastic creative experiments of Parallel Cinema. Having been made with the co-operation of Dutta is significant. Overcoming the politics of access which often remains as an obstacle when it comes to researching or writing on the histories of alternative Indian cinema is telling in the comprehensive and rigorous approach Srikanth takes, journeying chronologically through Dutta’s work and showing us his evolution as an artist who has worked almost in isolation from the mainstream and relatedly showing a disillusionment with the dubious curatorial choices and agendas of film festivals. It is worth noting the monograph broadens and consolidates the retrospective Srikanth curated on Dutta’s work in 2017.

The formative period at the FTII which forms the basis of the first chapter that looks at Dutta’s early films draws out the connections between oppositional film practices, the ability to experiment at length at a privileged institution and how Dutta’s early inspirations drew heavily on his own experiences and expressly ‘indigenous myths’. Pertinently, Srikanth identifies how the creative manipulations of time and space would become a defining theme in Dutta’s work, crafting a ritualistic and measured tone buoyed by a slow rhythm. As Srikanth works meticulously through Dutta’s films, the lucid prose maps a wider cultural framework that connects the traditions of Indian art to an idea of using film as a self-reflexive prism with which to deconstruct narrative, genre and film style as something autobiographical in nature. And what Srikanth teases out so vividly is how real life artists including painters become a defining concrete and spectral presence in Dutta’s work, a constant return to investigate folk tales and mythology whereby it becomes intrinsic to his mixed media methods of communication and investigation. If anything what Dutta’s output demonstrates is how infantile and possibly regressive much of the so called alternative Indian cinema actually is. And in this respect, Dutta’s work seems almost revolutionary, occupying a futuristic pro-filmic space.

With the chapter on ‘Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009)’, Srikanth argues for the sociological dimension of Dutta’s work, although somewhat reluctantly because of the lack of overt political engagement throughout his work, a hallmark of many avant-garde artists. Given Srikanth’s extensive and impressive film knowledge and understanding of international cinema, he is able to draw out the wider intertextual connections that can often go amiss, referencing films by Ray, Greenway, Tarkovsky, Resnais etc. and how they inform Dutta’s directorial choices, an aspect of the monograph that anchors itself in the riches of hybridity, fusion and exchange. The broader cine-geography onto which Srikanth maps Dutta’s work reiterates a cultural duality in which internationalism and indigenous practices are part of an Indian art tradition and aesthetic consciousness that stretches back to the 1920s. Undeniably this monograph examines Dutta’s capacity to create new art forms through the prism of experimental filmmaking and thereby the recurring and informed links to Indian art history becomes an essential feature since one could reason Dutta is part of a late new modernism.

Alongside the delineation of key themes (nature and civilization, memory, space) and shifting patterns of working with technology, there is a deep understanding of aesthetics including the pursuit for an organic film style that runs throughout the chapters with astutely exhaustive close textual analysis of key sequences from virtually all of Dutta’s films. The evolution of a new film style ‘free of cinematic influences’ as Srikanth notes becomes an abiding argument that is developed throughout the chapters and contestably emerges as allusive to the way Dutta has constantly metamorphized as an artist. The chapter on ‘The Seventh Walk’, a remarkable project Dutta made in 2013, is in many ways key to the monograph because Srikanth is able to argue why this work is ‘the nearest he has ever come to immersing himself in the natural world’.

Modernism by other means is a fitting title for an artist who is defiantly contemporary, a polymath whom Srikanth understands and probes broadly with a final stretch of the monograph dedicated to non-film output, all of which is decisive in forming a fully rounded and intimate portrait of Dutta. Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

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