June 4, 2010

The political film - No Poets In The Republic

First, dream was never too far from nightmare. Then we lapsed into pure slumber.
by Sudhir Mishra

From Special Issue: 60 Years Of Patriotic Cinema 60 Years Of Patriotic Cinema

It is amazing how, whenever you search for anything in popular Hindi cinema, you invariably land up at Guru Dutt's doorstep! There have been other filmmakers, of course, mainly in the '50s and the '60s, who also confront the idea of India handed to them by their forefathers. Isn't that the definition of political cinema? We all inherit a world with its social norms, political systems, traditions and ideas of justice and freedom. Whether we agree or not forms the basis of how we live our lives or make our films.

These filmmakers inherited the compromise of the Congress party with the reigning pro-British Indian establishment, its continuation of the administrative and legal systems of the colonial masters, and the fact that the party joined hands with the most regressive of politico-religious elements on the Indian scene!

In the middle of it all was the ambivalent figure of Nehru, struggling with himself and the more feudal elements in his own party, with whom he had to adjust because he wanted to remain in power. So, in a sense, Pyaasa is Guru Dutt's and Sahir Ludhianvi's question to Nehru: Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain?

In Guru Dutt's vision, the tragedy of the poet and the prostitute was similar. Both were doomed to destitution, disease, and emotional and social isolation. It is one of the most scathing indictments of post-Independence India. The film, like all good films, political or otherwise, provokes questions and provides no readymade solutions. The minds behind Pyaasa are "independent nationalists". No one rides into the socialist sunset holding hands but by the end the audience has gone through a journey to the heart of the Indian reality.

This is even more evident in the most profound work of the Guru Dutt-Abrar Alvi team, Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam. Through the story of a woman's demand for sexual fulfilment, we see an entire world crumbling. There are no heroes and villains here, only victims unable to cope with the newly emergent India. There is simultaneously a lament at the disappearance of a "world" but also the ability to see its stupidity and the inevitability of its destruction. In the newly emergent India, the Waheeda Rehman character will probably not suffer the fate of the Meena Kumari character. However, these are still middle-class, upper-caste Indians. Pyaasa shows that this India still has no place for the social outcast, like the poet or the prostitute. Guru Dutt is perhaps the only non-Nehruvian and partially non-Gandhian filmmaker of his time.

The rest of them were believers. They may have been critical of the more regressive social structures of that time but seemed to believe that change was possible within the ideology of the ruling party. The struggles they depicted were similar to the one that simmered within the Congress party, between the right and left wings. Raj Kapoor was in that sense the true Nehruvian filmmaker. Filmmakers like him and Mehboob Khan dreamt of a more just and equitable India, which they believed was not being realised because of the remnants of a feudal past.

The failure of this dream probably provided an atmosphere conducive to the cinema of Manoj Kumar. His films glorified a "mythical Indian" past and were a last attempt to hang on to Victorian ideals posing as Indian tradition. This cinema reached its peak with films like Purab aur Paschim in which the enemy were sleazy Indians who had emigrated to corrupt Western lands, and posed a threat to Bharatmata and its culture. In the end, Bharat, personified by Manoj Kumar, rescued both Saira Bano and the motherland from descending into Western hell. The same undercurrent runs through Dev Anand's Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and through our times, in the films of Subhash Ghai It reaches its culmination with films like Gadar on the one hand, and Hum Aapke Hain Koun on the other. Kill the enemies of the motherland, these films seem to say, and India will once again be a paradise where life will be one big celebration, the young will blindly obey their elders, and all the bahus of the household will make laddoos and know their place.

However, in Bengal, and especially in the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, a more complex idea of India emerges. It is fashionable to posit these two great filmmakers against each other. However, in both their films, I see a lament for the unfulfilled possibilities inherent in the idea or the experiment called India. Ray, by the '70s, was a disillusioned Nehruvian, and his later films—Pratidwandi, Seema Baddho, Jana Aranya—reflect that.

He was deeply pained by the failure of the Indian state to democratise and to meet the aspirations of its people. But he also saw the futility and, I dare say, the comedy of the response against it.

True nationalist cinema or political cinema is one which allows you to visit a country and understand it in profound ways. In my view, there was only one Indian filmmaker whose entire body of work allows you to do that—Satyajit Ray. The others succeeded, but only partially.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Kerala, though, is an exception, and dealt with the Indian reality in an entirely personal way. His Mukhamukham is one of the most interesting political films ever made in India. It is an extremely complex piece of work and carries within it deep sadness about the failure of every kind of leadership, ideological or charismatic, and its ultimate betrayal of India.

Which brings us to the parallel cinema of the late '60s and the '70s.

If there is any one film of that time that goes where no one has gone before, it is funnily enough, the very funny Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. The Nehruvian dream has soured and the political masters have become monsters. Everyone is totally corrupt and the city has been taken over by corrupt politicians and officialdom. In collusion with gangster-builders, they have turned the place into an unholy mess. In the midst of all this are two young photographers trying to get by in life. However, in this world they can neither find love nor maintain even a basic integrity.

In Kundan Shah's world, the poet and the prostitute of Pyaasa, and his own young photographers, are all doomed. They're all destined for the gallows and we laugh at the tragedy of it all.