Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Utpal Dutt on theatre and film

“I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses,” wrote the great stalwart of Indian theatre and film Utpal Dutt in an essay in 1979. “It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves.” What can we say about this clearly Marxist aesthetic? Is it true? Was it more relevant thirty years ago than it is now? Shouldn’t art be seen as a site, a force, independent of social and economic realities? Are artworks themselves a product of class and power interests, or can they be seen as something more ambiguous and capacious, combating propaganda as often as complicit with it?

he 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.

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.
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.
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]


Anu said...

Enjoyed your review muchly. The movie I always associate Utpal Dutt with is that absolute charmer, Bhuvan Shome.

Some of his arguments seem a bit simplistic though. Hindustani for e.g. is as much an artefact of history as Sanskritised Hindi (which has its pleasures). In turn both have lost ground to a Hindi which combines Bollywood Hindi with a smattering of English.

Re a separate Bengal post, a commenter had mentioned that Sankar is not well regarded in Bengal. Isn’t this much to do with the fact that the reputations of the "native" writer and the "translated" writer are two entirely different things? As an e.g. many Western writers are popular in India because they resonate with readers brought up in a particular cultural milieu. These writers would have often passed their use by date or simply not have a reputation in their own countries. Literary reputations can hardly be absolute.

And congrats on publishing your new novel. Will pick up a copy when I am in India.

Ranjan said...

Utpal Dutt's idealism lay deep in the left and perhaps found best expression in “Hirok Rajar Deshe” (In the Land of the Diamond King) where the tyrant King who oppresses the miners and farmers reforms at the end and participates with the mass in pulling down his own statue (interestingly 'Jantarmantar', a chamber for brainwashing was used by the King earlier to brainwash his disobedient subjects, is used to reform the king himself at the end).

What really perplexes me about Utpal Dutt is how he managed to believe in one ideology so strongly and yet could act in movies that are cultural embodiment of what he warned us against. I mean, if you have something very strong against a system, you don’t really use the same system to earn your bread, do you? Or is it the case where the artist and the system use each other, Utpal Dutt using the system to earn his living so that he can continue his crusade against that very system and the system using his talent so that it can continue to churn out the same stereotyped stories Utpal Dutt was crusading against? Funny.

Saikat said...

Unusual for a Cal-hater to be so enamored by modern Bong litracha. And what you've read may just be the tip of the iceberg because the best of Jibananda, Manik, Mahasweta, Sunil, Shakti, Subhash, Samaresh (Basu & Majumder), Joy, Srijata (the list is endless) remain obstinately untranslatable. Have you ever wondered what - if not the Calcutta chromosome - could have mutated itself immutable into the cultural DNA of a nation of eighty million? Did I say nation? Oops, I'm so sorry.

Uncertain said...

There appears to be an indefensible synecdoche in the line "Ramayana that brought all Indian life to a standstill on Sunday mornings in the eighties". A casual glance at the television penetration figures of the 80s would indicate that there is no way Ramayana could have brought 'all Indian life' to a standstill.

And so what if a section of India chose to devote its Sunday morning to Ramayana?

Is one really an intellectual if one has only contempt for the idiom that animates a large number of people of the world - religious myths? How self-serving of Dutt (as an exemplar of the left) to assume that most people are blinded by the 'veil of false consciousness' and that he alone sees how 'inverted' the world is .. that he alone has managed to escape the intoxication of the 'opiate of the masses'.

Such hubris apart, I enjoyed reading about Dutt's versatility and multifaceted personality.

Arz Kiya said...

This post absolutely made my day.

In re synecdoche @ Uncertain, I'm not sure, but if anything, your argument would appear to only further bear out Dutt's position. Television penetration levels are low; ergo, only the bourgeoisie get to see it, and their lives come to a stand-still. The proletariat on the other hand is already AT a stand-still.

Uncertain said...

@Arz Kiya,

I am not sure what you mean by the proletariat being AT a stand still.

By and large, nobody is or even can be at a stand still (cannot say for sure about Gitmo prisoners) .. I thought that much was evident from Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Michel Foucault's writings.

Also, to re-iterate, I find this notion that but for their revolutionary vanguard (educated at the metropolitan centres), the proletariat will be voicelessly living their alienated lives without redemption more than a little disingenuous and self-serving.

I would also like to understand concretely who's the bourgeoise and proletariat say in Mumbai or Kolkata (where Ramayana might have brought lives to standstill). I was under the impression these 18th century west European categories did not translate well outside the perimeters of west Europe.

arzkiya said...

My dear Sir, my knowledge of the worthies you have so mentioned, is largely limited to Sociology 101, back at college. Which I must confess, was perfunctory at best.

But then, my knowledge, or rather the lack thereof :), is immaterial. What we are splitting hairs about is in re to what Mr. Dutt had to say. As opposed to 'why' or the justifiability of his viewpoints.

And, as such, I'd have to state again, your arguments would only seem to bear out Dutt's position. I cannot imagine a Dutt vision of a proletariat, a significant number of which was capable of enunciating a societal consciousness over and above the drudgery of their daily lives.

Ergo, all redemptive stratagems fell to the lot of the bourgeoisie. But then most of them were so caught up in the Sunday morning slot, and were so addled by the same, that the country basically went to the dogs!!

Uncertain said...

@Arz Kiya

We seem to be repeating ourselves and so this will be my last word on this matter.

If I understood you correctly, your contention is that the proletariat is incapable of enunciating a societal consciousness over and above their drudgery and so it's up to the enlightened bourgeois (like Lenin, Dutt etc.) to lead the proletariat to revolution. Have I misunderstood you?

Assuming I haven't, I think whether or not the proletariat are devoid of a societal consciousness can be settled empirically without recourse to any great names.

I encourage you to interview several people whom you think belong to the proletariat and see for yourself if they have any societal consciousness.

My experience suggests that pretty much everyone in the world (except perhaps disenchanted Marxists) have their own local rich cosmologies, ontologies, theories of action, theories of motives and intention, etc.

You may disagree with these ontologies but you should not, I contend, brand them as 'false consciousness' or 'superstition' because 'social forces' and 'false consciousness' are as mythical/real as God.

In any case, I am open to empirical refutation!

arzkiya said...

Wow, I probably feel as redundant as a feckless, no-good exemplar of Dutt's proletariat :)

And before, you're up in arms again, Uncertain :D, let me just try and break it down for you (again!)

1) Mr. Dutt had certain things to say; certain notions to propound.
2) Based upon which, I hazarded a guess as to a "Dutt version of proletariat"
3) Thereby, seeking to highlight a possible flaw in your argument pertaining to the linkage of TV penetration levels and the effect of the same on the country at large.

Now, I might be mistaken in my interpretation of what Utpal Dutt had to say. (As I very frequently am), but it's "Mr. Dutt's viewpoints" I'm yammering on about, not mine.

Let me offer you an analogy:
1) Ptolemy says the earth is at the center of the universe.
2) I say, then probably, as per "the Ptolemaic view", Earth should have the necessary gravitational wherewithal, or some similar scientific dosh.
3) You, dear Uncertain, say, "Arzkiya, you've gone bonkers, man! To even think of such a thing!!"

Merci, and peace :)