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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.

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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.

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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.

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THE TWO JAKES (Dir. Jack Nicholson, 1990, US)

The Two Jakes is less a sequel and more of a flamboyant continuation and expansion of the sun kissed noir universe of Los Angeles that Polanski brought to life in Chinatown. Everyone knows a project of this type had no chance of working without the creative involvement of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, all of whom were reunited. Whereas Chinatown was a subversion of film genre, expressly the traditions of film noir, a resolutely anti-genre piece shot like a European art film, very much like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Two Jakes is unashamedly and resolutely a homage to the great riches of Hollywood film noir. It is well documented that Towne’s script for Chinatown went through numerous brutal changes, many of which Towne fought but ultimately could not prevent given Polanski’s authorial control. In many ways, The Two Jakes, is closer to Towne’s original vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling festering wound alluded to in interviews, mapping a broader nexus between oil, land and money, in which an underbelly of corruption and violence continually rises to the surface as a familiar subtext.

What makes The Two Jakes such a worthy successor to Chinatown is arguably the iconographic amplifications of noir and the endlessly pleasurable ways in which pastiche becomes a celebratory enterprise; a pulpy cinematic novel played out in classical film noir encounters. Towne draws the inevitable links back to Mulwray and Cross, framing Gittes as a broken, guilt ridden figure haunted by a murky past of incest and ownership, and who retains his self-righteous contempt for the police and big business. The startling LA art decor production design, dazzling costumes and widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond are the real stars along with a rich supporting cast made up of Harvey Kietel, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach. Fatalism remains at the core as does the theme of flawed masculinity, although eclipsed by a perpetual sense of post war trauma. I wonder what Polanski would have made of it all?