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.

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.

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

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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.

BHUVAN SHOME (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, India) – ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle’

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I’ve only really started to look at Bhuvan Shome so here are some tentative thoughts about the film, which I hope to return to at a later date.

Bhuvan Shome is often cited as having initiated the New Indian Cinema movement. Released in 1969, along with Sara Akash and Uski Roti, as a triptych, the films were aided by loans from the FFC, a state institution set up in 1960 by Nehru. In its early years the FFC tended to back already established or successful filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray who was central to attempts to cultivate a high brow cultural identity of state-led film patronage. With Nehru’s passing in 1964 and Indira Gandhi’s rise to power, the FFC underwent some significant changes including the installation of a new chairman B.K. Karanjia, Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s New Cinema decree and finally the FFC’s decision to support low budget, offbeat films. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi approved the loan for Bhuvan Shome, setting in motion Parallel Cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a film that is more important in terms of where it is placed in Indian film history, as a cultural, historical artefact, and less substantial as a piece of cinema. It may still be Mrinal Sen’s most successful commercial project and is often talked about with great affection by those critics and audiences who have championed Parallel Cinema. 1968 is a crossroads for the New Left movement and although I would argue Apanjan, directed by Tapan Sinha, exploring the impact of the Naxalite movement, predates Bhuvan Shome, acting as a precursor to the beginnings of Parallel Cinema, Sen’s film shares the privilege of marking the official start of the movement.

If we look at 1969 considerately, two other films are of relevance here; Yash Chopra’s Iteffaq and Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. The discourse and canonization of Parallel Cinema gravitates to the triptych but I would argue it is a lot more complicated than the linear historiography that is often presented about this critical moment in Indian film history. It clearly is a moment that needs to revised and reclaimed in a much wider international context that saw Indian cinema conversing ideologically and stylistically with New Cinemas in both Europe and Latin America. Perhaps I am pushing it a little by acknowledging Ittefaq, clearly a product of the Hindi film industry, but still it is a cursory failure that briefly pointed to a compromised experimentation with film form by an emerging populist director. As for, Days and Nights in the Forest, this is a Ray film, which I have often said is overlooked, but since it was not directly part of the FFC project, Ray’s film can be situated in a modernist framework in which the triptych also falls into. On hindsight, it is Uski Roti, which is identifiable as a true break in terms of formalism, not Bhuvan Shome or Sara Akash, although the latter do use obvious self-reflexive devices. Yet as we all know Uski Roti was never released in cinemas, nor were many of Kaul’s early films. What makes Bhuvan Shome instructive in trying to historicise Parallel Cinema is not only the wider cinematic debates it triggered particularly from Satyajit Ray, a seemingly less antagonistic continuation of the very public conversation that ensued between Ray and Sen on the politics of Akash Kusum, but that it carried with it a new form of state patronage, one that had moved on from Nehru’s modernist ideals to something slightly more unconventional but not avant-garde. In many ways, this was Indira continuing to determine film policy, something that she had been involved since the late 1950s.

Vinay Lal describes Bhuvan Shome as an ‘expressionist exploration of the politics of class’, which amounts to a political reading of a film that is often labelled as a light comedy, offbeat and expressly apolitical in some respects. Lal bring up the equation of class which is critical and Bhuvan Shome does undeniably have a comical undertone. In many respects, it would be perhaps less objectionable to label Bhuvan Shome as a melodrama about class. The story follows Mr. Shome, a bureaucratic senior officer in the Indian Railway, who embarks on a duck hunting expedition in Gujarat, only to meet a spirited village belle, Gauri. Sen takes a loosely episodic approach to the narrative, focusing largely on the comical, gentle interactions between Shome and Gauri. It is Shome’s class snobbery that comes undone as Gauri exposes him for the buffoon he is, and steadily making him realise that going native, adopting the ways of the local, points to an affirmative class interaction. Gauri humanises Shome and disentangles the officious penchants, sending him back to the city and the office as a man transformed by her charms. But how should we read the story of the state bureaucrat and the ‘rustic belle’? What does it reveal about Indira Gandhi’s attitudes of the time, towards film and culture? Or perhaps there is a danger here of over determination, of trying to find a correlation between the politics of the film and the cultural, ideological politics of the day? The Naxalite movement was at its peak when Bhuvan Shome was released, and the unrest in Calcutta was about to be memorialized in both Ray and Sen’s work. At the start of Bhuvan Shome, Sen acknowledges the Naxalite movement, inserting actuality into the montage of Bengal with footage of protest, unrest. This might be the only historicising that takes place in the film but it certainly signposts the alternate politicised space Sen was about to take up in the next phase of his career, films which have been questioned for their supposed radicalism.

Like much of Parallel Cinema, not much attention has been given to the films themselves, and their is a dearth of textual analysis especially in terms of exploring film form, aesthetics and representational issues. Much has been written, although superficially, about Bhuvan Shome’s significance to Parallel Cinema yet little discourse exists about the construction of the film itself. In fact, amongst the triptych it is Sara Akash that asks to be re-inserted fully into the genesis of Parallel Cinema’s historiography, mainly because, of the three filmmakers, Basu Chatterjee was the one who moved most sharply to take up a centre ground, becoming part of Middle Cinema. In that shift and for supposedly selling out, Chatterjee’s career is the one which has become most prone to attack.

For further reading on Bhuvan Shome see Megan Carrigy’s chapter on the film in The Cinema of India (ed.) (2009) by Lalitha Gopalan, London: Wallflower Press.

For Vinay Lal on Mrinal Sen see: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Culture/Cinema/Mrinal.html