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.

DHARAVI / QUICKSAND (1992, Dir. Sudhir Mishra, India)

dharavi

A NFDC-Doordarshan Co Production

Much of our cinema, even its so-called modern, alternative strand, is too referential. It thrives on imitation. It is not really our own cinema. We have to learn to break free and do our own thing,” he [Sudhir Mishra] argues.

Hindi cinema’s radical mainstream, Saibal Chatterjee, June 09 http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/jun09/jun091.asp

Should an auteur be judged on the near impossible criteria of consistency or should one simply stand back and simply accept that most film makers can only really ever become accomplished, credible artists if they remain true to themselves. Consistency as a demarcation of a film maker’s authorial status is perhaps arbitrary when considering how virtually most directors unhesitatingly alternate between the personal and the banal. Sudhir Mishra continues to be plagued with what is an inconsistent body of work, wavering from ambitious mainstream failure to realist political cinema. His 1992 parallel art film ‘Dharavi’ set in the slums of Bombay and starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (social realist favourites) certainly suggests a consistent authorial approach yet his status as an influential film maker is undermined by an unevenness in terms of narrative structure that characterises a number of key films.

When exactly the parallel cinema movement started and ended is largely unclear because of the reality that an art cinema has tended to exist alongside the mainstream, popular outlets in the film industry of most countries. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974) and M. S. Sathyu’s ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) certainly seem to act as definite starting points, signalling the birth of a new phase in the emergence of what would be dubbed ‘parallel cinema’. Though Sudhir Mishra has found it deeply problematic to make films on his own terms, ‘Dharavi’ was indicative of a movement which had peaked by the end of the eighties, occasionally producing a handful of noticeable art films in what was a largely commercialised nineties cinema. Perhaps this is why ‘Dharavi’ falls into the category of what is labelled as an unmemorable nineties art cinema.

Yet with the recent international success of stylised films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘City of God’, which have arguably popularised the imagery of slum poverty, Mishra’s realist morality appears wholly convincing and appropriately suited to depicting the lives of a marginalised underclass without resorting to the artifice of sentimentality or an overly constructed escapist narrative in which characters get the metaphorical chance to punch the air in glib satisfaction. A co production between NFDC and Doordarshan, ‘Dharavi’ revolves around a lowly taxi driver, played superbly by Om Puri, who dreams of starting his own business so that he can elevate himself out of the slums alongside his frustrated wife (Shabana Azmi), aging mother and naive son.

Combining a wonderfully atmospheric feel for authentic locations and an unpretentiously realist visual style, the film preys upon the prescient idea that mainstream entertainment in the form of popular cinema is both a diversion from confronting real man made problems in society and also a worryingly powerful distortion of inner ambitions. Mishra’s illustrative and inspired use of dream sequences which act as a projection of Om Puri’s opportunist fantasies features the presence of Madhuri Dixit as herself. The late Renu Saluja’s influential skills as an editor (a key figure in the parallel cinema movement) are evident in the tightly edited montage sequences depicting the visceral taxi journeys through the streets of Bombay, the original and appropriate use of slow motion and perhaps most significantly in the ideologically suggestive juxtaposition between reality and dreams.

Alternatively, Mishra’s film can also be viewed as a sociological study of male anxieties. Once all sense of moral dignity has become invisible to Yadav (Om Puri), a ferocious and uncontrollable anger stirs within the people of the slums who retaliate with violence, collectively resisting the sense of outrageous exploitation being committed in front of their very own eyes. The denouement may seem a little far fetched yet one suspends disbelief largely because the social oppression visible in the slums of Dharavi cannot remain repressed forever. However, nothing really changes for Raj Karan Yadav (Om Puri) as he reverts back to driving a taxi, confirming how survival and those like him are to an extent dependent on the democratic illusion of social mobility which is crudely propagated by the unattainable imagery of cultural icons like film stars. Mishra seems to be saying that the escape offered by Madhuri’s glowing red Saree may be infinite but at what price must this illusion be sustained?