AN OFF-DAY GAME (Dir. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2015, India: Malayalam)

1Director Sasidharan’s experimental, anthropological dispositif takes a group of friends, lets them drink, throws them into the jungle, and then steps back with his camera, adopting tableau to frame their cruel, animalistic and casteist behaviour. The effect is unnerving to say the least, made altogether confrontational with the presence of a lower caste woman who prepares a meal for the men and whom becomes a source of ridicule, and later physical abuse. Days and Nights in the Forest, one of Ray’s least appreciated films, is an inspiration for this similarly fortuitous and discordant tale of friendship that culminates in an acutely disturbing consummation. The first half of the film unfolds in a series of master shots and since none of the characters are given a formal introduction in the way of close ups creates a detachment placing upon the spectator the burden of observational study. Sasidharan takes no interest in sustaining plot, preferring to turn his camera on the characters, studying their actions, reactions and interactions as if it was an ethnographic project. What Sasidharan seizes upon is that intricate psychological testing amongst the friends masks a deeper distrust, contempt and antagonism, which rise to the surface in an uncomfortable and ultimately savage way. The ancient game the men agree to play in a drunken haze enacts a hidden social ritual, one that manifests an unconscious, primal longing for power, control and death.

HARUD / AUTUMN (2010, dir. Aamir Bashir, India)

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Harud is singular in many ways when it comes to the representations of Kashmir in the sphere of Indian cinema. It does the impossible. It tells the story of Kashmir by simply telling the story of a family. Harud communicates elemental ideas about human relations thereby transcending the way political biases have in the past, and continue to do so, ruined flawed attempts to give a voice to the people of Kashmir. Many of the films about Kashmir that have been made in the mainstream view the region and its people as simply a conflict which means the very people who define Kashmir are rendered invisible in narratives that seem far too preoccupied with digressing into the differing political positions of the various Indian and Pakistan governments. By framing Kashmir as a political conflict between India and Pakistan is important for contextualisation. However, the cinematic historiography of Kashmir has not only simplified the complexity of the dispute over territory but has failed to give a platform to the people of Kashmir who are desperate for the world to hear their urgent need for self determination and ultimately independence from both India and Pakistan.

Actor turned director Aamir Bashir does right to play this close to the ground, focusing on the level of everyday human experience of a family trying to come to terms with the loss of a son who has simply disappeared, joining the thousands of missing people who have ended up in the hands of the Indian and Pakistani military for supposed terrorist activity. Of course, resistance and dissent by the Kashmiri youth is deemed terrorism when in truth it could just as well be labelled as an on going struggle for freedom. Much of the story of Harud centres on Rafiq, the younger brother of Yusuf who has gone missing. Yusuf is a cipher in many ways; ambiguously drawn and Bashir refuses to really get drawn into the political ideologies that motivate most of the characters we meet. This is a bold move as he wants to depict Kashmir as a human place that is hauntingly exemplified through the disillusioned emotional state of Rafiq which is constantly teetering on the brink of self destruction. What Bashir shows us is that the youth in Kashmir have very few options and in the case of Rafiq he is trapped by his obligations to his parents and the injustice he feels about his brother.

Bashir’s film is unremittingly bleak, contrasting starkly with the photography visualising Kashmir as a unmistakably beautiful land. In a way, the tragic conclusion is inevitable. Such an intensely militarised country can only lead to one thing, suggesting the fragility of life is predicated on political lines; the people of Kashmir and its families are the victims of a much broader geopolitical game that has no end in sight. I have been busy praising Haider this year as one of Indian cinema’s best films. Yet it is clear to see Harud’s influence on shaping some of the ideas Bhardwaj deploys in Haider. Although they are two very different films, they are arguing for the people rather than the politics, giving us a new and defining perspective on such a contentious dispute/conflict.

PAPILIO BUDDHA (Dir. Jayan Cherian, 2014, India)

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So many voices go unheard in the media. The oppressed, the minorities, those fighting for their very existence are blotted out of history, expunged since they do not fit the dominant narrative being mythologised, one in which Gandhi’s Satyagraha is continually promoted as the egalitarian solution to most of the divisions that still exist in India. Director Jayan Cherian, an experimental documentary filmmaker based in NY, has to be commended for giving a voice to an indigenous Adivasi Dalit settlement in Meppara in Kerala (Cherian’s birth place) who are attempting to hold on to ancestral land, which is being forcibly taken away from them by a government only interested in serving the interests of larger mining companies. Displacement of indigenous tribes from their lands is a narrative that has been unfolding for a long time but arguably very films have dealt with such an issue given its intensely political context. By embracing Buddhism the Dalit tribe align themselves politically with the thinking of B. R. Ambedkar, a key figure in Indian politics who campaigned for an end to caste oppression. Cherian is very critical of neo-Gandhi ideology, arguing the government use such a corrosive philosophy as a means of appeasement. In reality, for any change to come about, then non-violence is meaningless especially when the nation state regularly deploys violent repression as a means of containing dissent.

In one particularly controversial moment, a group of Dalits protesting the provocative march by a government minister through their sacred land as a sign of peace ends with them burning an effigy of Gandhi. Yet Cherian juxtaposes this to the parallel destruction of a photo of Ambedkar. Perhaps the point here is that neither of these two men has an influence left on shaping the perceptions of a struggle that has become more than just caste, now incorporating capitalism, the environment and gender politics. Papilio Buddha was initially denied a certification in India and continues to attract the scorn of the political and religious elite for its unapologetic portrayal of Dalit life. It is a remarkable film since Cherian refuses to limit his observations solely to the Marxist struggle of the Dalits, dealing also with homosexuality and especially gang rape (harrowingly depicted) with a discerning, unflinching gaze. Cherian deals with very troubling realities, much of which is suppressed in the media, summed up with a terrifying clarity in the staggering series of final shots framing a continuous stream of Dalits carrying their belongings with them, forced to leave their homeland, pushed into exile and turned into refugees in their own country.

It’s difficult to place this film; counter cinema, experimental, political and above all a searing filmic protest.

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.