Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Against Rang De Basanti

On Saturday I went to watch Rang De Basanti with some friends at Paras Cinema in Nehru Place. Aamir Khan's latest foray into Indian history is without question a cinematic venture of remarkable daring - it left me completely stunned. In almost two decades of watching Bollywood productions I have never come across such preposterous drivel as that served up in the second half of this film (one reason for this, of course, is that Rang De Basanti takes itself so seriously).

Rang De Basanti is about a group of youths, pleasure-loving, individualistic, largely ignorant of their country's history and cynical about its future (this much of the film is by and large well done; the characters are true to life and the dialogue is witty). Under the direction of a young British filmmaker keen to recreate some of the episodes of the Indian independence movement, particularly from the lives of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, they begin to gain a sense of a past that is now remote to many young Indians, and are forced to rethink many of the beliefs and attitudes towards life that they previously took as given. Although the sudden metamorphosis into sepia-tinted drama, in which the characters play out episodes from the lives of Indian revolutionaries, is clumsy, one accepts it because Hindi cinema is rarely perfect - at least it is an attempt to do something inventive.

But what follows not only stretches the boundaries of logic, it also sends out a dangerous and incendiary message that, if anything, works against what the film seems to be trying to convey to us: that we should stand up to be counted, attempt to honestly do what we can to improve our situation.

Halfway through the film there appears a young army pilot Ajay Rathore (played by the actor Madhavan) who baits the other youths about their cynical attitude towards their country - he voices, as it were, the message of the film. Later, Rathore is killed when his plane, one of the MIG-21s which have earned such notoriety in our country, suddenly crashes. At first his friends are only griefstruck, but later they become outraged when it appears that official negligence, especially corruption at the highest levels of government, has been to a great extent responsible for the tragic loss not only of Ajay's life but those of other young pilots. They take out a demonstration against the Defence Minister (Mohan Agashe), who organises a police lathi charge to deal with them, in which Ajay's mother is seriously injured.

At this point our heroes suddenly begin to hear the whispers of history in their brains. What did Bhagat Singh and Azad do in a similar situation (the lathi charge is likened to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre)? They took matters into their own hands. Thus, inspired by their newfound idols, they decide arbitrarily that no other recourse exists than to assassinate the Defence Minister. They carry out the assassination in a cold-blooded manner - and this is where the film is most dishonest, showing us a reconstruction of the revolutionaries lying in wait for Dyer, and then cutting to the youths waiting outside the minister's house in the same pose.

Also, the father of one of the youths is a henchman of the minister's, and also has blood on his hands in the matter of the defective MIG planes. The solution here again is to kill him in cold blood - his son does this himself. Clearly, when it comes to sounding the drum rolls of justice, family ties are of no importance. Indeed, there is something chilling and repulsive about a young man so willing to play judge, jury and executioner to his own father for the crime of corruption. Rakeysh Mehra may believe there is something tragic-romantic about the character's behaviour, but in truth it is nothing other than barbaric.

Even worse things are to come. The country is shocked by the minister's assassination, and with a bit of help from his party's propaganda machinery (the bright saffron worn by the functionaries leave no doubt as to which party is intended) he becomes a martyr. Our heroes are once again in the throes of despair. What is to be done now?

Another bright idea: the revolutionaries of old actually furthered the cause, the spread of the truth, by giving themselves up to the police, thereby enlisting the country's sympathies. So our young men make haste for the All-India Radio office, take it hostage (again they feel no qualms about drawing guns), and broadcast the truth about the minister's evil deeds over national radio. Hundreds of people around the country are shown listening to the broadcasts, and being persuaded by their message that the steps they took were the only ones they could have possibly taken. They phone in by the dozens to express their support. The building in which our bright young revolutionaries are holed up is surrounded by the police. In another of the film's many excruciatingly painful scenes, we see the young men celebrating the success of their mission, and embracing each other warmly in at least a dozen successive shots as victory music plays on the soundtrack. Never do they appear so self-involved, deluded, and plain daft as at the point when they have apparently made their greatest sacrifice. Right after that they are gunned down by the police, and become martyrs themselves.

Unholster your pistols then, O youth of India, and if you've been wronged in any way, think of who it is you want to eliminate. The worst thing about Rang De Basanti is that not only does it sloppily promote the idea that violence is fine as long as you are persuaded that the cause is right, it uses an absurd parallel from history to legitimise it, and at every stage superimposes the frame of history upon the action. Even as it seems to argue that the youth of the country should take responsibility for our shared predicament, it finds a convenient scapegoat for our problems in the figure of a politician, and makes the elimination of one or two people the object of the action. Attempting to stimulate us to greater awareness and maturity, it instead promotes an adolescent view of political action. It wildly mixes all kinds of things from all kinds of places, and rolls them up into one gigantic farrago of nonsense which it attempts to rush past the viewer and stun him or her into agreement.

It seems to me that it is high time that Aamir Khan got off his nationalism-patriotism-'wake-up, you-people' hobbyhorse. His last two attempts in the genre have produced two turkeys, and he appears to have forgotten that he after all an actor, someone who gets into the skin of different kinds of people with varying motives and preoccupations, not just someone who embodies the voice of the resistance in different accents and from different points in history.

We are often told that we should attend to the lessons of history, but if there was ever an argument against it, then that is Rang De Basanti.

Here are some older posts about other Hindi films: Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal, and Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

José Saramago's Unknown Island

Anyone who has opened a book by the Portuguese novelist José Saramago will have realised that he is not a writer who makes any concessions to the reader: he demands all that we have to give. For one, Saramago writes great chunks of prose that sometimes go on for pages without offering the reader the hospitality of a paragraph break. When he uses direct speech he does so without quotation marks or indentations. Thus when reading him we often find, to quote a phrase from an essay by Milan Kundera on Kafka, that "the eye finds no place to stop or rest".

Additionally, Saramago’s themes are often difficult, and his work is by turns fantastical, allegorical and even heretical. Blindness imagines a whole society afflicted by a loss of sight and the chaos that this brings in its wake. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church for its portrayal of Jesus not as the Son of God but of Joseph, and of God himself as a kind of power-hungry dictator. Something of this contrarian spirit, this determination to invert accepted ways of seeing things and indeed to be always at odds with power, can also be seen in the speeches and comments made by Saramago, an unreconstructed communist. In 2002 he courted controversy by likening the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to the Holocaust, and George Bush's re-election in 2004 prompted him to make several acidic observations on America's role in world politics.

Nevertheless, Saramago is too good a writer to ignore, for he is that rarest of rare things, a genuine stylist whose distinctive voice and way of looking at the world is stamped on every sentence he writes. It seems to me that if you were looking to approach Saramago for the first time, you should read his beguiling little fable The Tale of the Unknown Island. It is such a slim volume (one could have easily fit it into the recent Pocket Penguin series) that one might with justification call it a short story, except that it manages even at this length to convey a sense of amplitude – of a beginning, a middle, an end, and even the sense of a future – that is novelistic.

Saramago’s tale begins like a story from The Arabian Nights. We hear the voice of someone telling us the story more distinctly than we hear the characters themselves, and the narrative of a man approaching a king with a request is a convention perhaps as old as storytelling itself:
A man went to knock at the king’s door and said, Give me a boat. The king’s house had many other doors, but this was the door for petitions. Since the king spent all his time sitting at the door for favours (favours being offered to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking at the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear, and only when the continuous pounding of the bronze doorknocker became not just deafening, but positively scandalous, disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood (people would start muttering, What kind of king is he if he won’t even answer the door), only then would he order the first secretary to go and find out what the supplicant wanted…. Then, the first secretary would call the second secretary, who would call the third secretary…
Many readers will no doubt find in this paragraph an accurate picture of the Indian bureaucracy, and if you substitute democratic politics for the rule of kings, it is possible to see also in this paragraph, especially in the wake of the recent cash-for-questions scandal, a picture of of Members of Parliament who spend their time sitting not at the door of petitions from those who have elected them but "at the door for favours".

Finally the king does appear, and is told by the man that he wants a boat to go "in search of the unknown island". The king is skeptical: no more unknown islands exist. The man is equally sure that he can discover one, and finally he is granted his boat. And as the man takes his leave to set off on his journey it turns out that the story has a hero and a heroine: the cleaning woman of the palace who, impressed by the man’s calm resolve, now decides that:
she had had enough of a life spent cleaning and scrubbing palaces, that it was time to change jobs, that cleaning and scrubbing boats was her true vocation, at least she would never lack for water at sea. The man has no idea that, even though he has not yet started recruiting crew members, he is already being followed by the person who will be in charge of swabbing down the decks and of other such cleaning tasks, indeed, this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves, It’s all over, that’s it, who cares anyhow.
The man gets his boat, and the cleaning woman becomes the first member of the crew, but they have no luck in recruiting other sailors for his voyage, for they all insist that there are no more unknown islands.

Even at its simplest, Saramago's writing tilts at deeper meanings. The voyage in pursuit of unknown islands serves in his book as a metaphor for self-discovery. He plays on the well-known saying that no man (or every man, depending on whether the speaker wants to insist that man is inextricably connected to society, or there is always a core to him that is inaccessible to others) is an island when he has his protagonist insist that "you have to leave the island in order to see the island, that we can’t see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves." We might say that this is one of the things great narrative art does: to allow us, through an extended empathetic engagement in the lives of others, to become free of ourselves, to leave our own islands (as I suggest in this post and this one).

A great deal more happens that night: the man realises he is falling in love with the cleaning-woman, and later he sees a dream in which a lot of fantastical things happen. Saramago's finish is wholly in keeping with the playful, whimsical spirit of his story. The next morning…

…as soon as the sun had risen, the man and the woman went to paint in white letters on both sides of the prow the name that the caravel still lacked. Around midday, with the tide, The Unknown Island finally set out to sea, in search of itself.
Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998. His wonderful Nobel lecture, "How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice", can be found here, and an autobiographical essay here. Since Saramago takes his politics so seriously, here is an extract from a speech made by him in 2002, "For Whom The Bell Tolls", and here is an essay called "Reinventing Democracy" written in 2004. Julian Evans provides an excellent survey of Saramago's life and work here, and Philip Hensher has a very fine piece on literary endings here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The despair of Attila Jozsef

The Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef (1905-1937) lived a short, sharp, incandescent life, wracked by poverty, loneliness, suffering and uncertainty, which he somehow managed to channel into verse of great beauty and poignancy. Born into a poor family and left in the care of foster-parents for some years before being restored to the care of his mother, who served in different households as a domestic help, Jozsef (like the young Charles Dickens, who when very young did a spell in a boot-blacking factory to bail out his debtstruck family) was forced to work from a very early age. In an autobiographical essay written in 1937, the year in which he took his own life by throwing himself under a freight train, Jozsef recounts all the things that he did to survive from day to day:

War broke out when I was nine and our lot became progressively worse. I did my share of queuing. There were occasions when I joined a queue at the foodstore at nine o'clock in the evening and just when my turn was coming at half past eight the next morning they announced that all the cooking fat had gone. I helped my mother as best I could. I sold fresh water in the Világ Cinema, I stole firewood and coal from the Ferencváros goods station so that we should have something to burn. I made coloured paper windmills and sold them to children who were better off, I carried baskets and parcels in the Market Hall, and so on.
Joszef's experiences prepared the ground for his verse. Few poets have written about poverty - its gnawing uncertainty, lack of hope, pathetic abjectness, raw despair - so powerfully. Here are the first three stanzas of his poem "What Will Become Of Him" in a translation by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner:

What Will Become of Him...

What will become of him, whoever
has got no handle to his hoe,
upon whose whiskers crumbs don't quiver,
who dawdles, gloomy, thrawn, and slow;
who would from half a furlong's hoeing
keep one potato out of three,
whose hair falls out in patches, growing
bald unnoticed - who'd care to see?

What will become of him, whoever
has but five acres under crops,
whose draggled hen clucks at the stover,
whose thoughts nest in a mudhole's slops;
when no yoke clinks, no oxen bellow;
when mother serves the family soup
and steam from a liquid weak and yellow
drifts from the bottom of the scoop?

What will become of him, whoever
must live alone and work alone;
whose stew has neither salt nor savour,
the grocer gives no tick nor loan;
who has one broken chair for kindling,
cat sitting on the cracked stove's shelf;
who sets his keychain swinging, jingling,
who stares, stares; lies down by himself?
"Whose stew has neither salt nor savour,/the grocer gives no tick nor loan;" - those lines would make any other poet burn with envy. And even if we do not immediately get the meanings of words like 'thrawn', 'draggled' or 'stover', we are captivated merely by the sound of Jozsef's verbal music. (This alerts us to the truth of a remark made by TS Eliot on the poetry of Dante, often thought to be difficult and abstruse, "It is not necessary to understand the meaning first to enjoy the poetry…our enjoyment of the poetry makes us want to understand the meaning.”)

Jozsef wrote a great deal about a world such as this - hungry people appear often in his poems, including on several occasions the poet himself. Other poems are about his mother, now dead and gone to her grave ("Why did you bend your back over the washing?/That now in a box you should straighten it?"), and about what it means to be a poet, one of which pictures life as a glass of beer ("I quaff great draughts of reality,/neat world with foaming sky on top.") But Jozsef was also capable of writing in other keys. Here is his late poem "Lullaby", with its soft, murmuring sounds and its childlike acts of imagination, in a translation by Vernon Watkins:


The sky is letting its blue eyes close;
The house its many eyes closes, too.
The quilted meadow lies in a doze:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The wasp and beetle are both asleep;
Their heads are down on their feet, and through
Darkness, a drone in the dark they keep:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The tram has fallen asleep as well,
And while its rattling slumbers, too.
It tings in its sleep a little bell:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The coat is sleeping across the chair,
The tear is sleeping where it's worn through;
No more to-day will it stretch the tear:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The ball and whistle are both at rest.
So is the wood where the picnic grew.
Even your sweets by sleep are possessed:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

All will be yours in the crystal ball;
You'll be a giant, it will come true;
But just let your little eyelids fall:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

A fireman, soldier, herder of sheep,
You'll be all three, and each will be you.
See, your mother is falling asleep:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.
Some more translations of Jozsef's poems by Ozsváth and Turner, from their collection The Iron-Blue Vault, can be found here. And an archive of 20 translations of Joszef by different hands is here, along with the essay by Jozsef from which I quoted earlier. An excellent essay on Jozsef by the Hungarian émigré writer George Szirtes, winding through his work but also dwelling upon the nature of translation itself, can be found here.

And while we're on Hungarian literature, let me also try to interest you in the work of the novelist Sandor Marai, whose two novels available in English translation, Embers and Casanova in Bolzano, are among the best novels I've ever read. Embers was published in India by Penguin, and is quite easily available. I've written an essay on Marai's work here.