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.

KADAKH (Dir. RAJAT KAPOOR, 2019, India) [spoilers]

There is a dead body in your apartment but you have a plethora of guests arriving for a party to celebrate Diwali very shortly. So what exactly do you do? It is a sinister dilemma faced by somewhat ordinary people going through a tinderbox of emotions. In other words, the perfect Hitchcockian predicament since the extraordinary is often critical to the notion of building suspense, sustaining dramatic tension and reeling in your audience. The first thing that sprung to my mind when watching Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh, a devilishly scripted black comedy about middle class hypocrisy, was the visual design of the apartment including the costumes and décor, refracted and unified through differing shades of violet (sometimes symbolically associated with reincarnation in terms of Indian culture), infusing the film with an unconventional aesthetic tone. The use of violet also stretches to the autumnal colours which undoubtedly creates a muted colour scheme very much in line with the macabre undertones of Sunil’s (Ranvir Shorey) infidelities. With much of the narrative unfolding within one confined space, the piercing claustrophobic ambience amplifies the atrocious secret that Sunil and Maalti (Mansi Multani) have to conceal while the real time Diwali festivities which are organised around a series of impromptu short conversations between friends and family captures the banal small talk rituals of middle class India with their shallow, stunted aspirations.

As more people arrive at the Diwali party, tensions and rivalries come to the fore, culminating in the gut wrenching moment when the trunk holding the dead body (a certain nod to Hitchcock’s Rope) is dragged into the living room to act as a makeshift table for a game of cards, all of this juxtaposed to the aghast Sunil and Maalti. Both Shorey and Multani are excellent, conveying dread and unease as they precariously navigate the party, trying their best to placate the prickly house guests who in turn have brought their own complicated psychological baggage. When Sunil’s infidelity is finally unmasked by Maalti and openly scolded by his friends for such a betrayal, the admission of the dead body that has been with them the whole time provokes an outcry of revulsion. And although Sunil’s unforgivable crimes are roundly critiqued by his friends, the consensus forged at the end to essentially stage a conspiracy and save face amounts to a discordant analysis of middle class pretence; reputation, privilege and friendship are the values that take precedent. In a masterstroke at the end of the film Rajat succeeds in condensing and staging the emotional landscape of the wounded characters into an audacious single master shot, part tableaux, evoking the Epic cinema of Shahani.

Kadakh continues a consistent and richly diverse series of director-actor collaborations between Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey beginning with Mixed Doubles in 2006, and is a work that holds its own against brilliant films like Mithya (2008), arguably a key work in the development of Indian independent cinema, and which for some reason is never really talked about enough. In some respects, Rajat manages to get the best out of Shorey in many of the films they have worked on together, nurturing and coercing a darkly comedic vein that in turn demonstrates Rajat’s exceptional capacity to work in the comedy form with an understated elegance that tips into the grotesque with often surreal results.

AUTOHEAD (Dir. Rohit Mittal, 2016, India)

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Rohit Mittal’s macabre slice of docufiction plunges the depths of Mumbai’s underclass. The concept of Autohead involves a documentary crew observing a rickshaw driver, Narayan (Deepak Sampat), who gradually reveals a murderous defect in his unpleasantly compelling disposition. Mittal’s docufiction recalls most readily Belvaux and Bonzel’s magnificently twisted Man Bites Dog (1992). Analogously, the crew become embroiled in the dubious actions of Narayan, recording his homicidal designs with a hesitant yet droll voyeuristic gaze. Deepak Sampat who plays Narayan is brilliantly cast in the main lead and delivers a chilling performance. Since the majority of the narrative is spent in Narayan’s unsavoury company, his deliciously warped direct camera address becomes the film’s signatory formal device, deployed with an amusingly unreliable postmodern affectation. Indian cinema has repeatedly depicted the auto rickshawallah as the noble and submissive sub-proletariat, and Mittal has fun subverting this conventional imagining. Narayan is a social misfit, derided by his mother, friends and the prostitute he longs for her, and while he emerges as a disturbed sociopath, his skewed view of the world is filtered through the prism of popular Indian cinema permeating the nocturnal milieu of Mumbai. It all leads to a lurid ending in which the ethics of the crew are brought into question that seem suitably appropriate for those typically involved in the observational, participatory documentary form. Mittal’s assured directorial debut is a bleak, self-reflexive rendering of film as an illusory accessory and morally dubious instrument that in some instances can augment and mask reality to a worrying degree.

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

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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.