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Ritwik Ghatak and Naxal Movement (Red Star – April, 2007)

Posted by Indian Vanguard on October 3, 2007


‘Everyday I become more red – my one ambition to be able to sing the ‘International’.

Naxalbari is, perhaps, the most momentous episode of our time. At one hand, it freed the ideology from the shackles of revisionism, and on the other, it incited a large section of the art-workers and intelligentsia in taking the minutes of the red turbulence. Progressive creators like Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and John Abraham served the cause by portraying the glimpses of peasant rebellions. But politically analyzing, probably, Ghatak’s “Jukti Takko o Goppo” (Arguments and a Tale) provides the most concrete interpretation of the movement. Ghatak’s interest and affinity for the “leftist” genre is most profound in his autobiographical last.

The Story of Jukti Takko o Goppo (henceforth JTG) revolves round Nilkantha Bagchi (Ritwik Ghatak), a broken intellectual, and his journey to innocence. He is a quite well known man but sunk in the fumes of alcohol. He believes that his generation has nothing to offer to the society. It has lost its nerves. He openly attacks himself as a humbug and escapist. But still, his finer feelings are alive. He reacts sharply to the inhuman man slaughter in east-Pakistan and condemns the traitors of the Mountbatten Pact and even defies the so-called independence. He utters, “…take the massive betrayal of 1947, stabbing the national liberation movement in the back. It’s the bourgeoisies’ 15th August! Great betrayal! Freedom! Independence! Fooh!!”

JTG is a travelogue of an individual (Nilkantha), who belongs to the topmost stratum of the society, but for his iconoclastic nature, travels on foot from Calcutta to the interiors of the Birbhum-Puruliya frontiers to integrate with the revolutionaries, and finally gets shot by the state tyrants. The film bears shades of Ghatak’s autobiographical elements; though, not in a very strict sense of the term. JTG brings out to surface the socio-political paradox of the rotten society.

JTG expresses its strong hatred for the so-called literates and intellectuals. It even goes to the extent of blaming them as fakes and escapists. It also delineates the restlessness of people like Nilkantha Bagchi, who drink the “holy water” for avoiding the self torturous confusion, “…which deduction can guide India and Bengal in a right course?”

Through several metaphors Ghatak shows that the anarchic nature of the seventies was a direct outcome of the “great betrayal”. JTG is a significative of the crumbling down of the old system and the birth of a new one. He hails the revolutionaries as the only capital, but at the same time criticizes them for pursuing the ‘infantile disorder’, puerile indigestion! Confused Nilkantha pronounces, “I have got everything jumbled up. It (activities of the young revolutionaries) seems as if nihilism, terrorism, and adventurism! In Lenin’s terminology infantile disorder!”

Throughout his life, Ghatak practiced the complex way of seeing. In JTG he points out the crisis of the new in denouncing the old and ancient. While arguing with the young absconder naxalite, the spent up intellectual explains the evolution of Marxism, which is quite “personal” and subjective, and explains the problems of negating the past. He emphasizes on the importance of the history of thought and pronounces, “…the history of India is four thousand years old. And as many bad names, we may call it, the brightest philosophical thought has been born in this country. Therefore, this country has delivered enough weapons into the hands of the most cunning rascals. These are the arms of roguery. But one has to understand them, grasp them firmly and then uproot them. They wouldn’t disappear just if we say they are not there. To uproot them, one has to know their strength and weakness properly.” Probably this was a critique of the statue breaking movement, that rocked the cities and suburbs in early seventies.

From a formalist point of view, JTG successfully brings out the phase of decadence and turbulence through its eccentric camera angles and frames and the erratic pattern of editing. Cerebral use of background music adds an extra flavour to the political content. Conscious use of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (Attack Bastille) helps to understand the class base and psychology of Nilkantha Bagchi, the last generation of the progressive bourgeois. Juxtaposition of ideas of French Revolution with that of the Naxal Movement is indeed a special thing to realize. Like it or not, a part of history!

In this context it should be mentioned, Ghatak was very much critical of Naxalism. He believed, though the naxalites were the only positive force in this opportunist society, they were misguided. They were successful, and at the same time failure, like the revolutionaries of the Agni Yug. In an interview he said, “I don’t support them politically. But how can I control my feelings for them? I’m bound to get sentimental. They are the only positives in this society.”

JTG throws light on the fact that since the age of primitive communism each age is class divided. But finally the protagonist fails to understand, class-struggle is the law of life. Instead, he holds the concept of existentialism. Out of his load of frustration, Nilkantha utters, “everything is burning. The world is burning. I’m burning…” Although he strongly condemns the prostitution of the inner-eye, but at the same time, preaches the theory of Jungian psychoanalysis, which is quite unusual for a person who strongly upholds that any change in the society should proceed through a Marxist path.

Unlike other so-called progressive films, JTG refuses to provide any concrete way-out. To Ghatak, society is a complicated organization having lots of currents and cross-currents flowing into it. He even threw an open question, “where is the solution?” knowing fully well, that the phase we are passing through is that of neo-colonialism, Ghatak alienated it from his film. He feared if he had showed this angle, his film would have been a political propaganda.

JTG exposes the diabolic wounds of the society and brings it to light. It dissects and analyses the paradoxes of the prevailing course and its counter, the anarchist politics, and carries it through till the end. Proper identification of problems precedes the course of healing. And here lies the socio-political importance of Ritwik Ghatak and his Jukti Takko o Goppo. He might have indulged in numerous ideological loopholes, but the undaunted spirit that he imbibed in his last completed film is a thing to be hailed.

Ghatak’s Nagarik: A Testament of Hope and Leftism (Red Star: June 2006)


Years before my foray to the film world, I was fortunate to see Nagarik (The Citizen), the debut creation of the iconoclastic Indian master Ritwik Ghatak in television. It is needless to mention that I was simply captivated by the subject and also the mode of presentation. The hammering of a locksmith at the time of its start and end simply evoked the flame proletarian revolution in me. Even today, with some preliminary film knowledge, when I see it, still an uncanny feeling mesmerizes me. And that’s the purity of the ideology of the toiling people; the x-factor!

In those days (early fifties) there was a deep scarcity of realistic films in the Indian cinema industry. Standing on this point (of course by then Nemai Ghosh had also completed his Chhinnamool – The Uprooted) we can say that Nagarik is the pioneer; the pathfinder. It is a testament of the partition stricken uprooted and unemployed lower-middleclass, who struggled each day and each night for shelter, identity and existence. The trauma and devastation of the refugee life, which Ghatak himself experienced, with all its bitterness, prevails in all of his theatrical and cinematic creations. Once he stated, “Being a Bengali from East Bengal, I have seen the untold miseries inflicted on my people in the name of independence—which is a fake and a sham. I have reacted violently towards this and I have tried to portray different aspects of this [in my films]”. The Citizen was also hugely influenced by the sectarian line of the BTR era that rocked India in the late forties with its dynamics of left adventurism. The impact of the BTR line is very much dominant throughout the film.

The whole narrative centres round Ramu, the jobless graduate son of a poor retired school teacher Mr. Sen, who lives with his family in an unknown lane in Kolkata. Each day Ramu goes in search of jobs and returns by dusk with a load of dissatisfaction. Day by day the situation gets worse and the family sinks in all sorts of economic hazards. But Ramu never rests from dreaming that around the corner a lucky good turn is waiting. But gradually he discovers no good turn is awaiting him. Adverse circumstances compel him and his family members to shift to a slum. But the hope for a better life continues. At the final stage Ramu realizes the importance of struggle and scraps his petty bourgeois conceptions of “happy life”. He tries to boost-up the psychological condition of Sagar, the unemployed paying guest, totally sunk in pessimism, and proclaims, “Just think, at the time of conceiving the mother faints in pain and feels that death is near. But does death appear? Life appears! A new tender life! All of us are giving birth to a new child. We are struggling in pain. Through this path of agony and pain a new life will come. The era is changing! … We shall not cry today. We’ll wait with patience. Someday the newborn will arrive, whose path of arrival is being created today. Let’s announce firmly that we’ll not die!”

The transfer of power in 47 gave birth to massive refugee problems. The so-called independence and a number of other issues emerged as chief subjects to the then communist party leadership. Most of the party members were against Puran Joshi’s understanding of Congress-Communist unity. In that situation BT Ranadive came-up with a new theory of revolutionary struggle. In the 2nd Party Congress in 1948 the “leftist” leadership mercilessly criticized the Joshi line and pointed it as a class collaborationist one. Entering into the shoes of Marshal Tito and Kardelj, Ranadive advocated the theory of Intertwined Revolution and asked the party cadres and fellow travellers to pursue a path of full-scale revolutionary war against the bourgeois state machinery. The party members and cultural activists got carried away by the attractive contents of the BTR Thesis. Moreover, the raging flame of Telangana and Tebhaga gave them a vast amount of cerebral support. Though very close to Joshi, young Ghatak was heavily inspired by the adventurist nature of the BTR thesis.

Completed in 1952, Nagarik possesses all the characteristics of the Intertwined thesis in spite of a great deal of positive aspects. A general movie-goer can easily make out that the flicker of left adventurism was well prevalent in Ghatak’s mind and he was more eager to provoke the people, rather than doing justification to his aesthetic qualities. Later he said, “…an eminent filmmaker after watching Nagarik told me ‘your film is very much inclined to politics’. I also think so. That was BTR’s era, i.e. the party was within the clutches of leftism…political dominance was too much in that film…but the very content of the film is yet a valid one to me.”

A cooperative venture, Nagarik was completed under heavy odds. A number of IPTA members gave their little savings to Ghatak for completing the film. But due to some unknown reasons it was not able to see the daylight for two and a half decades! After a great deal of labour it finally reached the screens after the passing away of its creator in 1976! What an irony! It is an undeniable fact, that Nagarik does suffer from proper technical qualities and also the overdose of leftism, but at the same time reveals the undaunted spirit of optimism that the maker imbibed from his IPTA experience.

To Ghatak, life was an ongoing phenomenon. Even in decay he visualized the birth of future. Shattered by all odds, the citizen shifts to a slum but does not abandon his hope. Ramu, in spite of all mounting pressures, does not succumb or submit to it, but remains mobile in struggle for the hunt of a better life. Once comrade Mao said, “we should rid our ranks of all impotent thinking…and put daring over everything”. Ramu’s zeal confirms this very truth and points out – though happy times do not follow as morning follows a night’s sleep, but we shall overcome someday. It gives a clear message, in spite of all hindrances and obstacles a new life will come, which will wash away the injuries and dirt of the decayed system. And here lies the central essence of not only Nagarik, but all Ghataks’s creations.

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‘Kalbela’, Naxalbari and Radical Political Cinema

Posted by Indian Vanguard on August 16, 2007

Gautam Ghose’s Kalbela is a film set against the background of the Naxalite movement. Based on a 1980s novel by Samaresh Majumdar, the film sets itself up, quite self-consciously, within a certain tradition of films, namely radical political Bengali cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. It thus establishes an intertextuality and a certain connection with them.

The casting sequences take us through a rapid tour of some of the more emblematic moments of that cinema and that time:

  • The shot from Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 of the young man on the run jumping off a wall, running through the lanes, pursued by the police and finally shot in an open field. You can almost hear Akashvani’s signature tune as it begins its news bulletin to announce the discovery of yet another anonymous dead body in those troubled times.

You are barely through with it and in quick succession you see two, now somewhat iconic, scenes representing the 1970s angry young Bengal:

  • Ranjit Mallik in the final sequence of Interview, flinging a stone to break open the showcase of a shop. He would denude the mannequin and remove the suit it is wearing, and take it for his interview the next day. It is a stylized ‘trial’ of this character for the offence of disrobing the mannequin that becomes the opening sequence of Sen’s ‘Chorus’.
  • The other sequence is also equally iconic: Dhritiman Chatterjee ‘turning the tables’, literally, as it were, on his interviewers. This is a sequence from Ray’s Pratidwandi. Satyajit Ray, who has all too often been accused of ‘evading politics’, however captures, in this sequence, an important mood of rebellion that marked the 1970s.

By situating itself and the story it has to tell, within this matrix of the 1970s radical Bengali cinema, Ghose anchors the film squarely within its time, within that time. The mood and the events certainly, but even the way these black and white shots are used, underlines a somewhat documentary – and thus temporally limited – character of the way these sequences are put to use.

And yet, the making of the film in 2007 must say something more. Based on a novel published about twenty years ago (itself at two decades remove from the event of Naxalbari), could its filmic rendering forty years after the event be read as a comment on ‘our time’?Amar joubane dekha Kolkata onek palte gechhe” [“the Calcutta of my youth has changed a lot now”] from the background in Animesh’s [the male protagonist] voice, as you are taken over one of the many flyovers that mark the 2000s Kolkata skyline would have you guessing as to the meaning of this change. The quiet Kolkata of the 2000s – the Kolkata of flyovers and New Townships, Aqua Villages – all dressed up to invite or welcome ‘Capital’ which it once drove away? The cryptic “

Some of the film’s limitations in fact stem from this desire to anchor the film in a particular time such that we neither have the advantage of looking at the subject [the Naxalite movement] with any serious degree of criticality nor indeed the possibilities of playing with the layered temporalities that can appear through the mere retelling of the tale/s over time (the Event, the Novel and the Film, separated by almost two decades from each other). How is the Event actually recalled in popular memory? How does it appear not just to the actual participants but to those around them – and what is it of that period that is recalled in the present conjuncture: All these remain unexplored in the film. It is as though even the reference to the earlier films – including Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy – is merely to index a ‘reality’ in the manner of a document.

The period since the first eruption of the Event (the Spring Thunder in Radio Peking’s celebrated but highly exaggerated description) to the period of the film has seen what might be called an epochal shift in terms of what we might properly describe as ‘radical’. The large ideological emancipatory narratives that set the terms of discourse then stand displaced by what we could call a situated radicalism, an instance of which we could see irrupting within the filmic text despite the intention of the author-director, in the person of the female protagonist. However, that remains, at best, an irruption – the main text remaining firmly within a largely orthodox representation of the radical.

At the manifest level, Kalbela is a film set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement, its rise and eventual fall, as it degenerates into a spiral of violence that will eventually consume its own members. Once the movement reaches this phase, the speed of events and their logic leaves little room for self-doubt and reflection. The moments of doubt that arise in Animesh’s mind over the killing of the rapist-landlord, for example, are rapidly subsumed by the force of events that eventually land him in jail. The movement is, in a sense, merely the background to what is a story of relationships and especially one relationship of love. And yet, somehow it is the movement that repeatedly moves to the foreground, so much so that we barely manage to see the unfolding of complications in the relationships. There are glimpses and we are often left to infer the rest.

On the other hand, if the film were to be read as a film whose central subject is the Naxalite movement, then it does leave us with a sense of wanting a more self-reflexive account, a deeper contemplation on the pitfalls of the form and methods it finally adopted. A relevant comparison here could be made with Mrinal Sen’s Padatik and the far greater critical reflection by the protagonist Dhritiman: Recall his comment “Joley koomir aar daangaey baagh” (The water is infested with crocodiles and the banks are full of tigers). That was a militant on the run, hiding from the police (the tigers on the bank) but equally suspected by his own party men (the crocodiles). The predicament of the individual caught in the vortex of violence and mutual suspicion that inevitably accompanies such secret underground movements, often romanticized as an episode in an inevitable World Historical Drama, one would imagine calls for much greater reflection today than was possible earlier.

This is an imperative today, especially since, over the last few decades, feminist critiques have unveiled before us the inherently masculinist/militarist nature of such an enterprise. The Dalit critique of such radicalism has underlined the very deep connections of this radicalism with a disaffected but elite, upper caste youth. The critique of violence today has acquired dimensions that far exceed the old Gandhian critique that was conducted in the name of a moral Self. While it shares some ground with the Gandhian critique, the feminist critique also forces us to consider violence as being grounded in an inherently male notion of world domination or mastery. The work of scholars like Susie Tharu has put iconic movements and struggles like the Telengana peasants struggle and the Naxalbari movement itself under the scanner. What would happen in that case, if the film were to be seen – not through Animesh’s eyes but through the ‘displaced’ gaze of the female protagonist, Madhabilata? [That caste remains a non-question is in itself interesting, as we never countenance in bhadralok Bengal the figure of the Dalit even in the peripheries of the movement, unlike say in Andhra and Bihar, where it becomes central to a critique of the movement. And what do we make of the fact that in a state with over 25 percent Muslims, the only Muslim name that is associated with the movement in that period is that of Azizul Haq?]

Quite unexpectedly, however, the film does provide us with a different vantage point of a female if not a feminist voice. This voice does not come to us from within the movement but in fact entirely outside it. One is forced to pause for a moment and linger over the characters of Neela and Madhabilata: Powerful, resolute and prepared to face the consequences of their decisions.

These are new female characters, not quite available to the radical political cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Even though Madhabilata is not quite as important a character as she could have been, she is nonetheless a woman, one is tempted to say, who belongs to the 1990s, to this time: a woman who makes love and bears a child out of wedlock and disregards her friend Neela’s suggestion of aborting it, thus taking on every possible challenge involved in being a single, unwed mother. Undoubtedly, this kind of a female figure can be excavated from earlier literatures too, but there is something interesting, significant and very contemporary about these women (Neela included), who stand in stark contrast to the female characters of the 1970s.

Madhabilata’s strength of conviction and her values do not come from any synthetic ideology but out of something else – of her immersion, her being-in-the-world, and thus of knowing where and how much the limits of the possible can be pushed. Her values and her decisions are determined not by any external criteria but through situations; by the creation or precipitation of situations, unavoidably arising in the flow of daily life. Madhabilata is, to start with, very conventional and unapologetically apolitical but one who is repeatedly confronted with the task of taking a decision in critical phases of her life. She does not choose the most conventional path – from falling in love with a man who is involved in a politics that she does not, in the first instance, care for to bearing a child as an unwed mother. She is aware, for instance, that these situations can tip over and lead her to abandon her parental house without even the benefit of any assurance from Animesh. (All she has is Neela’s unstinted support who has herself walked out her parental house). Hers is a situated radicalism that does not bear the name ‘radical’. But this is how the ordinary person – as opposed to the ‘heroic’ vanguard – is radical: contextually and complicitously, that is to say, often without drawing a permanent line of impermeability in relation to power. That is what makes possible the existence of ambiguous spaces where the opposition to the oppressor thrives. The revolutionary remains a guest visitor to these spaces, so important for the success of his or her project.

Animesh too is faced with such a situation: falling in love with a woman who confronts him with the most ordinary and aggressively nonpolitical concerns while he is inexorably being drawn towards the most extreme wings of the movement. He can resist neither. But unlike Madhabilata, he is unable to take full responsibility for his decisions and must sacrifice the personal to some abstract ‘world-historical’ responsibility, leaving Madhabilata to fend for herself. The Agent of History, Animesh, is completely devoid of all agency where personal relationships are concerned. This is not a predicament, to be sure, of activists of the Naxalite movement alone but in fact, of all political movements and an investigation of these predicaments that may help us to raise some of the most important philosophical questions of our time/s.

[Based on a presentation at a panel discussion on ‘radical political cinema’ at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival]

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