Chokh / The Eyes (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1982, India/Bengali)

The eyes speak, harbouring and chronicling histories, emotional sentiments and even memories. Chokh, a stark political exercise in neorealist aesthetics, opens with the petrified eyes of Jadunath (Om Puri in blistering form) who looks directly at us with a totalizing gaze of defiance. Jadunath, a union leader, has been convicted of murder, and waits impatiently in prison to be executed by the establishment. It is 1975, the time of the Emergency, and dissent is all but unthinkable. Still, the political impulse of the Left remains, manifested in the undeniable resistance articulated by Dr Mukherjee (Anil Chatterjee), a benevolent eye surgeon working at a government hospital, and who in the opening polemic draws the benign connection between poverty and blindness. Against this nexus of economic and social deprivation are inserts of colonial statues, spectral reminders of a colonial legacy that bears down on the people of West Bengal. It is a Bengal familiar to us from Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy in which the Naxals are in a constant struggle against a rotten underbelly intact after independence, transitioning from one elite to another.

As a final request before his execution, Jadunath consents to a conditional donation of his eyes to a fellow worker who is blind and in need of a transplant. Jadunath’s friends, comrade workers who were also in the union, stake their claim to the eyes, informing Dr Mukherjee of the news. It transpires that Jethia, industrialist and owner of a jute mill, has a young teenage son who is going blind and is also in need of an urgent eye transplant. Jethia’s son is a victim of political violence, blinded in a bomb blast, supposedly instigated by Naxals. With political support from the establishment, Jethia reaches out to the superintendent working at the hospital and convinces him that his son should be the recipient of the next pair of available eyes. The corrupt superintendent complies and sanctions the operation without approval from the panel at the hospital, abandoning his ethical responsibilities. In this contestation between rich and poor, director Utpalendu Chakraborty lays bare the ways in which entitlement and privilege bypasses the layers of bureaucracy typically faced by the powerless unionised workers who can do nothing but plead indefinitely. Within less than twenty-four hours, Jethia has his son admitted and readied for an eye operation that for many poor blind people is a distant dream.

Upon visiting Dr Mukherjee at his home, Jadunath’s worker friends relay a stark truth about Jethia’s crimes. The first of two extended flashbacks, details Jadunath’s influence to organise a collective resistance to Jethia’s inequitable rule. We learn that Jethia has dismissed labourers at the factory in an attempt to weaken the union but Jadunath refuses to back down, insisting the labourers be reinstated for the strike to end. When Jethia sends scab labourers to suppress the strike, Jadunath retaliates and orders the striking labourers to lie down at the gates of the factory, defying both the police and Jethia. Outraged, Jethia resorts to violent thuggery, sending his goons to drag the labourers out of their homes, humiliating them in front of their families, and executing three of them in cold blood. However, when Jadunath hears of this, he too retaliates with political violence, killing Jethia’s brother and the manager of the jute mill. Later Jadunath is arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Unlike Jethia’s violence and killings, which is legitimised by the establishment, Jadunath’s response is framed as terrorist acts against the state, leading to his incarceration. The union of the factory labourers is undermined, and essentially neutered. Jethia’s unchecked power to use violence to protect the status quo emerges as a terrifying metaphor for the 1975 Emergency while Jadunath’s imprisonment and death symbolises the victims of the Left who were rounded up, persecuted and made to disappear.

Armed with this new wider historical and political context, Dr Mukherjee resists the unruly demands of the superintendent, arguing he cannot operate on Jethia’s son until he has seen and verified the papers. Dr Mukherjee recognises a case of conditional donation is not only an ethical issue and unmasks the entitled political machinations of Jethia in getting what he wants and at all costs. Nonetheless, the superintendent takes Dr Mukherjee out of the equation and assigns the operation to another surgeon. It is only later when Jethia reads a hospital file does he come to realise the donating party is none other than Jadunath, which horrifies him to such an extent that he cancels the operation. This discovery by Jethia leads to the second of two flashbacks. In this flashback Jadunath is at loggerheads with the owners of the factory and refuses to deal with any kind of revisionism to the demands of the workers, demarcating his intense political integrity and incorruptible nature for which he will have to pay a price. The thought of his son inheriting the eyes of a supposed criminal leads to further outrage, and in a final act of defilement, Jethia instructs his goons to steal the eyes from the hospital and dispose of them, which they do, burying the eyes as if to silence and smother what remains of Jadunath’s political dissent. For the establishment particularly capitalism, the physical destruction of Jadunath has to be totalizing since it comes to exist as proof of not only their unspeakable dread but paralysing omnipotence.

KOMAL GANDHAR aka E-Flat / Soft Note on a Sharp Scale (1961, Dir. Ritwik Ghatak)

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Komal Gandhar is the film Ghatak made after Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960) in what was the most unremitting productive phase in his career. It is also an ignored work. This stems from the film’s inclusion in Ghatak’s partition/exile trilogy and in which much of the critical dialogue has balanced on Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread, 1965). The film’s unacknowledged position in Ghatak’s oeuvre is largely unjustified. Whereas Megha Dhaka Tara’s emotional dynamics of a displaced Bengali family was borne out of a personal trauma, similar thematic interests resurface in Komal Gandhar but the major narrative focus is centred on a political engagement with key creative ideas, namely theatre, which shaped the ideological mind-set of Ghatak as a young man.

Rajadhyaksha & Willemen (1999) argue this was a film that got Ghatak into a lot of trouble as his criticisms of the theatre group in the film was in fact a thinly veiled attack of the IPTA and its inability to function decisively and coherently as an organisation. Ghatak had left the IPTA in 1955, a few years after joining, citing political differences, namely his Trotskyite views. The ideological split, along Marxist lines, in the IPTA, is reflected in the story of rival theatre groups in Komal Gandhar, and eventually the difficulty with reaching a consensus and working together is characterised in the film’s ending which sees a rupture that is nonetheless sanguine. All of this is framed against the unsettled romance of theatre artists Ansuya (Supriya Choudhury) and Bhrigu (Abanish Banerjee) who grow closer to one another over the course of the narrative. It becomes clear their affections are conjoined by a historical connection; they are both refugees living in a kind of traumatic exile expressive of Ghatak also.

This is arguably one of Ghatak’s most musical of films. Although the songs used do not last very long they are deployed experimentally, disrupting yet enunciating the sense of radical tryst that characterises the theatre group. Like Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak uses the visual metonymy of the train and railroad tracks to express partition as irreparable. Another similarity Komal Gandhar shares with Meghe Dhaka Tara is the cast and crew, with many working across both projects. In many ways, Ghatak was assembling a formidable team of regular collaborators but unlike his contemporaries such as Ray who worried less when it came to finance, Ghatak would go on to complete only three more feature films.

NEEM ANNAPURNA / BITTER MORSEL (Dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, India)

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Before Buddhadev Dasgupta became a filmmaker he was a university teacher, lecturing on economics. His association with the Calcutta Film Society in the 1960s led to Dasgupta recognising the function cinema could play as an agent of wider social agitation and potential change. Neem Annapurna was one of first films he directed. In fact, it is the only film I have seen of his to date, and the semi neorealist approach not only evokes the work of Satyajit Ray but also great Bengali auteurs like Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. The film sees a family come to the city of Calcutta from the village, a familiar enough narrative set up for a Hindi melodrama, with the dream of making a better life for themselves. However, they are confronted with stark realities of social and economic deprivation, leading to one of the bleakest depictions of poverty ever put on film. That’s no exaggeration. Shot in a raw documentary style and dispensing altogether with plot, Dasgupta is attentive to the psychological experiences of the family, articulating their suffering in an honestly, unsentimental style. The father spends his days travelling through the city looking for what work while at home his wife and two daughters wait on his arrival with the promise of food. Waiting becomes a focal point of the slender narrative situation, and Dasgupta trains his eye on the unbearable hunger that sluggishly devours the family, capturing their misery through key sequences of real horror such as the mother’s troubling decision to steal rice from someone in a worse situation. One could quite easily position Neem Annapurna alongside Indian neorealist films like Do Bigha Zamin and Pather Panchali.

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

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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.