THE BATTLE FOR BANARAS (Dir. Kamal Swaroop, 2015, India) – The Crowd

1458135893editor_BFF_Still1

There is a spectacular political trice at the end of Swaroop’s participatory documentary. At night, on the banks of the river Ganges, which is teeming with euphoric revellers and a swathe of India’s police, Modi emerges victorious, returning to Banaras, where he had stood for election as a BJP candidate. As he makes his way down to the banks, the crowd parting restlessly, Modi continually raises his hands in reverence to the electorate and to the people of India. The crowd, a metonymic focus of Swaroop’s documentary, now markedly acquiescent than ever before, is no longer the impulsive, unpredictable and incensed mass. The insipid demagogy of the BJP and Modi have won out, the crowd is now benign, overwhelmed by political spectacle. And the declaration of Modi’s victory, unfolding on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred site for Hindus, reconnects the modern to the ancient in a grand democratic totem. Modi’s speech, narrating an anecdote about Neil Armstrong, and referring to himself as a ‘son of the land’ invokes a cosmic nationalist dogma, displacing the memories and history of secularism with an insincere centrist appeasement. Swaroop’s plural and largely unbiased account of the electioneering in Banaras in 2014 is an ideologically prescient encounter between cinema and history, but it is one the BJP have suppressed (the film has not past the censor board) since Swaroop’s work does not fit a polarising, nationalist agenda.

Swaroop does exceptionally well to detail the contesting political parties in Banaras, positing a deeply complex yet richly connected and inclusive democratic process, in which the Indian electorate is shown in dialogue with contesting ideological voices. On so many occasions, Swaroop sutures the contradictory voice of the electorate into the narrative, whereby ordinary people of Banaras speaking candidly about the dubious electioneering gives the work a distinctly communicative, inclusive legitimacy. However, when political leaders speak, they do so at a distant and through the apparatus of the mainstream corporate media. By denying the politicians an authentic voice and subsequently a privileged position, which is often facilitated by a wider institutional infrastructure, Swaroop’s semi-observational approach catches those details, which are often edited out by the media, so to construct democracy and politics as a kind of theatre. It is the extraneous minutiae particularly the body language of the politicians, notably Modi, who is shown desperately trying to project an underdeveloped image of the statesman that Swaroop exposes as a false yet uninterrupted performance. Swaroop’s vatic documentary is an intellectual enquiry, probing the image of the crowd and its many avatars, notably the concept of hysteria, in this case ‘Modi hysteria’, which once amplified, completely takes over the crowd and creates an unsettling doubling in the people, as exemplified in the visually ubiquitous ‘Modi mask’ the electorate naively don as both a worrying form of submission and idolisation.

HIGH-RISE (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2015, UK)

HR_0393_tiff.tif

Class devours itself. And the politics of class creates an indescribable antagonism that often spills over into violence, and in the case of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, class is explicated through the prism of satire in which modernism is a debauched, sulking creature. Intrinsic to Wheatley’s treatment of Ballard’s writing is an abandonment of logical narrative contrivances in which a spasmodic flurry of visual and tonal meta-cinema explications rise up from a corpus of anarchic British iconoclasts, of which Wheatley now holds company with, notably Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey (an American exile who made his best films in England). High-Rise as dystopian science fiction is an equitable genre reading to make. But Wheatley’s deliberately modernist cinematographic voice is augmented by a meaty political tract, featuring the Utopianism of Old Labour with a contemporary sagacity of Yuppie, white privilege. And beneath the deplorable sentiments of an opportunistic class ridden society is an atavistic impulse threatening feeble democratic notions of social mobility. Wheatley orchestrates a transgressive, masala like parable of mischief, conducting an indescribably palpable ideological discord of congenial malfeasances. What rise indistinctly to the surface is a gamut of modernist disturbances: psychological disembodiment, sexual malady and consumerist neophytes – a cinematic orgy of 1970s British cultural tropes. Wheatley has crafted something bravura with High-Rise, a work of staggering cinematic resolve, a wretched, cannibalistic tour through the cabals of political and social modernism.

DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

two days one night

Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.

CALCUTTA 71 (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, India) – ‘Calcutta was passing through a terrible time…’

Kolkata_71

Conviction is a virtual necessity of any kind of political cinema especially the one that claims to magnify the ills and sickness of society. Out of the Bengali triumvirate including Ray and Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was by far the most radical, advocating a leftist Naxalite inspired ideology whilst borrowing liberally from European modernists like Godard and Brecht. Unlike the classicist style of Ray and Ghatak’s epic tradition, Sen’s response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, ‘Calcutta 71’, was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement. Another element separating Sen from both Ray and Ghatak was his anti illusionary mode – sustaining the aesthetics of realism were subordinate to the political content and most importantly, the dissemination of ideas. Like Godard and Eisenstein, Sen stripped away the classical form and traditions of cinema, revelling in a reflexive prism of Brecht inspired agitprop methods. Ray and Ghatak may have certainly laid the foundation for a new, personally engaged cinema but Mrinal Sen was instrumental in outlining a specific doctrine. Such a politically inspired cinematic doctrine was issued in the form of a manifesto by both Sen and Arun Kaul in 1968 arguing for ‘a state sponsored alternative to commercial cinema’.

In addition, Mrinal Sen’s breakthrough feature ‘Bhuvan Shome’, released in 1969, was also strategic in helping to urge the Indian government to offer greater financial support to those filmmakers struggling to be heard. Ghatak and Ray may have shared an identifiable humanism in the struggles faced by their characters yet such a sentiment was absent from the fiercely Marxist cinema of Sen who repeatedly resorted to the dissolution of the fourth wall. Of course, the danger with such strong willed political cinema is that it is typically weighed down by a polemicist tone. However, Sen avoids falling into this trap by offering us five episodes in the form of clear cut political allegories on one common theme, that of poverty. To underline how poverty shapes the psyche of Indian society and Bengali culture, Sen refuses to remain fixed in a contemporary context and shifts across a number of decades. The original running time of the film when it was first released in 1972 is 132 minutes. However, the version I watched was considerably shorter and the opening episode of a young radicalised Bengali revolutionary was also missing. The original brochure produced for the release of the film provides one of the best summaries of the complex set of political ideas that Sen explores:

Sen like Ghatak was involved with the Indian People Theatre Association and it is here that he discovered the work of Brecht, realising the possibilities of utilising art as a tool for the propagation of ideas and instigating wider change in society. Ray continues to be judged as an apolitical film maker when compared to both Sen and Ghatak. The problem with this kind of judgement is that any film maker who is placed alongside as Sen is likely to be accused of ideological abandonment. Obviously, the great weakness with a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ is the lack of emotional involvement. Parallel film maker Shyam Benegal argues that Sen’s later work is much more engaging and rounded when compared to his seventies films which he says left him cold. Of course, much of this criticism is related to the effects of Brechtian devices which are supposed to frustrate and agitate the spectator to think seriously about the ideas being explored. The film itself becomes more fragmented as we get nearer to the turbulent seventies and this reflected in the use of montage – Sen acknowledging the influence of Eisenstein. It is in the final episode in which Sen cuts between a group of middle class intellectuals and the young radical who is being chased by the establishment that the film most resembles the Godardian impulse of the late sixties.

1971 saw the release of both Sen and Ray’s first films in what would be parallel trilogies on the social and political crisis facing the middle classes of Calcutta in the seventies and much of the ideological debate was filtered through an emerging, disillusioned Bengali youth. Ray’s political anger may have remained in check for a long time but with ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) he silenced many of his critics by choosing to endorse Sen’s notion that it was the collective responsibility of cinema to respond, inform and agitate the audience. Personally, Ray’s ‘Calcutta trilogy’ is a far greater achievement than Sen’s three films and though ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited, 71) is the weak link, it is ‘Jana Aranya’ (The Middleman, 75) that proves to be one of the strongest and most sophisticated Indian films of this era.

In an interview conducted by Udayan Gupta for the Jump Cut film journal, 1976, this is what Mrinal Sen had to say about why he felt compelled to make ‘Calcutta 71’:

MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

The natural and historically continuous co existence between poverty and exploitation was not the story of Calcutta in the 70s, it extended from a ‘third cinema’ perspective outlined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Thus, one can conclude that a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ shares a much greater affinity with the ‘Cinema Novo’ movement of the 60s whilst a highly politicised film maker like Mrinal Sen was closer to the work of Glauber Rocha who also believed that ‘third cinema’ was the way forward in terms of resisting all forms of hegemony whilst criticising the derisory gap between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whilst Ray’s cinema was never as fatalistic or disillusioning as that of Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, the greatest achievement of ‘Calcutta 71’ remains in it’s uncompromising political content and how like many of Godard’s films of the late 60s and early 70s it has become somewhat of a very significant historical document and powerful record of the times.