The great merit of the two new collections of Dutt’s combative essays written from the fifties to the nineties, On Theatre and On Cinema, is that he writes not just from viewpoint of someone with a definite politics but also as a practitioner in these arts, trawling the artistic seas of his time in search of productions that catch his eye. What is the place of local Indian theatre traditions like jatra, yakshagana, and tamasha in modern Indian plays? Do Indian films make cunning use of religious rhetoric to camouflage the iniquities of Indian social life and keep the masses quiet? Are Indian actors on stage and screen guilty of overacting? These are some of the still-relevant questions explored in these essays, at once critical and empathetic, written by Dutt in the sixties and the seventies.
Outside of Bengal, most Indians probably remember Dutt today as the goggle-eyed, hectoring patriarch of Hindi comedies like Golmaal, in which he memorably asserted a continuum between Indian tradition, manhood and virility, and moustaches. But Dutt’s work for commercial Hindi and Bengali was only a small part of his oeuvre, and probably to him the least important. As a teenager in the nineteen-forties, he came across the travelling theatre of the Kendals and received a rigorous training in Shakespearean drama. In his thirties he wrote a string of plays critical of past and present power structures (he was jailed by the Congress government in Bengal in 1965 for the subversive message of his play Kallol). Dutt’s range was vast. He acted in and directed Jatra plays, and reviewed new plays and films (usually under the pseudonym Iago) for journals. One month he might be seen in a Satyajit Ray film, the next in a speedily made farce.
Like many intellectuals of his time, Dutt looked – with glasses that were too rose-coloured – not to the West but to the Soviet Union as the crucible where the future of humanity was being shaped. Following Marx and Lenin, he deplored “the all-pervasive alienation of men in any society based on private property”. He can be heard on these pages haranguing bourgeois society for commodifying “all that mankind once considered sacred” and for peddling crude superstitions instead of standing up for independence of thought.
He often has a point. In a speech given in 1991, Dutt excoriates the TV Ramayana that brought all Indian life to a standstill on Sunday mornings in the eighties for its crude glitz and covert ideological agenda – “monkeys and bears speaking Sanskritized Hindi, holy men flying over painted clouds” – and connects this to the jingoism and chauvinism that led to the sacking of the Babri Masjid a few years later. The serial, he thunders, is nothing but “a fairytale written by an alcoholic.” After the Babri Masjid was destroyed, Dutt declares, "a new god appeared in the Hindu pantheon – the common brick", with the name of Ram inscribed on it.
If this makes Dutt seem like too much of a scold, then elsewhere on these pages we find himself reviewing one of his own performances under a pseudonym and cheekily declaring: “Mr.Dutt as Othello was rather a pitiable sight, with his voice gone, his breathing laboured and his bulk enormous.” There are excellent appreciations here of the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Chaplin, written in rich language with great attention to individual scenes and points of detail. Here is Dutt on Ray's film Devi:
Already in Pather Panchali, Ray's protagonists suffer not because gods have willed it but because of poverty created by men. They are evicted from their home by a power that is stronger than gods – a social system that condones exploitation. And this revolt against the concept of gods who crush human beings reaches fruition in Devi, where a girl, a common housewife, is declared a goddess incarnate and is expected to heal and cure every sick villager, until the boy she loves more than her life is dying and is placed before her so that she can touch and heal him. She dare not play with this boy's life and tries to flee, her sari torn and her mascara running all over her face. One has merely to compare this film with dozens churned out from the cinema-machine of the country, where a dying child, given up for dead by medical science, is placed before the image of a goddess – and, of course, there is a lengthy song glorifying the goddess – be it Santoshi Ma or some such forgotten local deity. Then the stone image is seen to smile, or to drop a flower on the boy's corpse, and lo and behold, what the best doctors could not do, the piece of stone achieves in a second! The corpse opens its eyes, even sits up. This is followed either by another unending song of thanksgiving, or the boy's parents weeping and rolling on the ground to show their gratitude. This kind of brazen superstition is peddled by film after film in this country every year. Are they any less dangerous than drugs? If drugs destroy the bodies of our young men, these films destroy their minds.[...] Devi is a revolutionary film in the Indian context. It is a direct attack on the black magic that is passed off as divinity in this country. Instead of the vulgarized Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Indian TV could have telecast Devi again and again; then perhaps we would not have had to discuss the outrages of the monkey brigade in Ayodhya.And here are Dutt's entertaining riffs on the Sanskritization of Hindustani practised by Doordarshan:
The present rulers have gone after Hindi with a knife, excising every work of Urdu, Persian or Arabic origin (even though that word may be understood all over India), and replaced it with something concocted from a Sanskrit dictionary. The result is a new broadcast which no one but Benares pundits understand. 'Ab aap hindi mein samachar suniye,' wo bolte hain aajkal. Bolna chahiye, 'ab aap samachar mein hindi suniye.' [This quote is attributed to the comedian Johnny Walker by the actor Balraj Sahni in an address given at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972.] That would make more sense. For example, replacing a word like zaroorat. The word zaroorat has entered every single Indian language from Bengali to Marathi. It is, however, being replaced by something called avshyakta. [...] Anyway, what is the object of setting a bunch of half-educated clerks to massacring a beautiful and simple language such as Hindustani? What is the reason behind this madness? The ruling class, all over the world and throughout history, wishes to create an esoteric language of its own. And the Indian rulers describe this destruction of Hindi as the restoration of an ancient tradition, as if our rishis in their forests spoke like TV newscasters.Like most practicing artists, Dutt never lost his capacity for wonder, for pure pleasure in an artistic idea truthfully realised or a detail vividly brought to life. His politics can be too rigid and censorious, but his aesthetic sense never allowed itself to be shackled, and nowhere on these pages can he be found supporting the banalities of socialist realism. He knew very well, as someone who became a character each time he went on stage or faced a film camera, that “all artistic activity consists in camouflage.” Anybody interested in the arts can read these books for both profit and pleasure.
Thus their vague insistence on a "link language" – whatever that might mean for India – not only wilfully obstructs the growth of other languages but destroys Hindi itself. It makes Hindi a barren grammatical exercise, not spoken by anyone in the country. A language grows only by being spoken by millions and by borrowing from other languages – consciously and unconsciously. Far from uniting the country, this idiotic bastardization of Sanskrit is rapidly disuniting it.
And here an old post on the film critic Chidananda Das Gupta's excellent book Seeing Is Believing, which also has much to say about the currents of mythology that run deep in Indian cinema. Alok Rai's essay "The Persistence of Hindustani" can be found here. Dutt's play The Rights of Man has also just been published by Seagull, whose excellent list is well worth browsing. Lastly, here are two old posts on films: "On Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor" and "On Tahmineh Milani's Two Women".
[A shorter version of this essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Mint]