The bloodying of nationalism

Print edition : January 17, 2003

In a scene from Char Adhyay, Ela (Nandini Goshal) and Atin (Sumant Chhattopadhyay). - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The film Char Adhyay, set in the terrorist phase of the Indian freedom movement, is an outstanding example of Kumar Shahani's meticulous artistry.

Char Adhyay

A WOMAN'S body is washed ashore. Waves relentlessly splash over her delicate limbs, almost prying them loose.

This is the last frame of Kumar Shahani's poem of a film, Char Adhyay. The viewer is left to wrestle with a flood of implications, the chief one being that humanity is vulnerable, and precious. More precious than any of its ideals. Or idols.

Shown recently at a theatre in Chennai, a full five years after it was made for the Golden Jubilee of Independence, Shahani's film does not stop at the end. It goes on and on in the viewer's mind. Memories surface of idols washed ashore after immersion, of clay limbs falling apart. Of real women everywhere bearing the brunt of collective frenzies in unspeakable ways. For comic relief, my mind flipped another switch: a pop song from the 1950s an American voice singing, "You're a livin' doll! A walkin', talkin', livin' doll."

Closely following the drift of Rabindranath Tagore's novella written in 1934, Shahani's film is set in the terrorist phase of the Indian freedom movement. Ela (Nandini Goshal) has allowed herself to be turned into a walking, talking, living mascot for a group of terrorists, a comforting female presence for youth whose self-respect has been lacerated by the experience of colonial domination. The ideologue (Kaushik Gopal) uses Ela's beauty and dignified bearing to project the resurgent spirit of the country.

Having abandoned their own mothers, sisters and wives, these `knights-errant' are ready to loot and to commit suicide and murder for the sake of the cause. At first Ela exults in her glorification, but then begins to question it when one of the group, Atin (Sumant Chhattopadhyay), resists indoctrination. He refuses to sublimate his feelings for Ela and is filled with revulsion at the terrorists' deeds. They reach for simple happiness, but by then they are both in too deep, and must play out their roles to the full.

Shahani's interpretative vision is in keeping with Tagore's views on the autonomy of cinema, and the sheer richness of his cinematic palette reflects Rabindranath's passion for painting in his later years. The film teems with startling images and impressions, most of which do not fall into obvious slots in the viewer's mind but find niches which we hardly knew were there. Although it is beautiful to watch, what with a winsome young couple in the lead roles and wonderfully appropriate music by Vanraj Bhatia, it is not easy entertainment. Disdaining the temptation to mesmerise the viewer, or descend into whimsical and self-indulgent absurdism like so much highbrow art, Shahani makes a bold, Brechtian demand for complete attention. The script is spare and sinewy. Most of the Hindi and Bangla spoken on screen share the terse quality of the English subtitles. He has leashed in the erotic element and foregrounded the anti-terrorist argument, without feeling the need to rub in the message with numbing visuals of violence.

Director Kumar Shahani.-

Yet the evil that is implied has an almost visceral impact. The colour red is registered subliminally as one of the narrative threads. Cameraman K.K. Mahajan's wizardry begins with a spray of flame-of-the-forest blossoms, their red tongues almost speaking a Tagore poem. Then, without comment, comes an old footage of Gandhi, with khadi-clad satyagrahis scurrying after him. A little later, a stream in the lush Bengal countryside suddenly fills with blood. Much later there is a tiny gush of blood from a woman's bosom.

Interspersed with back-and-forth visual narratives are oblique metaphors Ela stranded in a beached boat, Atin consumed with perplexity and guilt in the midst of a marauding group, the boy Akhil's (Shruti Yusufi) disapproval of the obsessions of adults, Master-moshai's deceptively avuncular presence... ruins overgrown with sprouting peepal, a towering canopy of banyan roots, orange-stemmed white parijaata blossoms strewn on the leaves of giant creepers, broken and drowning lotus blossoms, tiny red crabs scampering over a white beach. Yet such is Shahani's meticulous artistry that you will ever afterwards look for echoes of the film's wordless beauty in the faces and the landscapes of India. Although it is a critique of patriotism, strangely it also achieves the level of an epiphany.

No wonder, Shahani has come to be known as what one critic (Alison Butler, in Framework, London) called a "culturally responsible film-maker", ranking with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in using the camera to focus on substantive issues of art, civilisation and society. Char Adhyay is a love story, as Tagore insisted, but it is also undeniably the story of the bloodying of nationalism, which forms the background of that love and determines its outcome. In the novel, Atin broods helplessly: "He had been sucked into the mire, into an infernal darkness of masked banditry and murder from which no radiant pillars of light would ever rise... "

If Tagore's intention was to show the destructive potential of any belief-system that places itself above the human needs of its adherents, Shahani's film touches on the phenomenon of symbolism, which in the Indian context is an almost runaway process, once it begins. Looming large over the characters and events is the female element in nationalist mythology.

From the early days of the freedom movement, the idea of India was symbolically expressed as a Mother Goddess (Bharat Mata) to exhort the people of the subcontinent not only to resist the colonial yoke, but to renew and rebuild Indian civilisation. As a personification of the country's physical beauty, its hoary antiquity, and its promise for the future, generations of modern Indians have responded to this neo-mythic figure in many creative ways. From the outset regarded as a form of the Universal Mother, Durga-Kali, the symbol of the nation as Mother has, however, been endowed by some with an almost occult presence. This kind of occultisation overshadows and from time to time threatens to distort history, defy geography, and blight the lives of the people themselves.

Shahani carries the argument to its logical and artistically satisfying conclusion with the shot of the woman in the water: there is a need to `immerse' our idols periodically to purify them in a critique of the ways in which we have allowed them to be used. Inevitable doom overcomes the icon that Ela has allowed herself to become implying that no image, and no individual, can be a catch-all for the reality of India. The `deity' left to dissolve in the elements is not the Motherland itself. Interestingly, instead of resorting to iconoclasm, Shahani has reached within the tradition of idol worship to unearth the cure for its distortions. An idol (from the Greek `eidolon', which means `to see') is something seen, a vision a darshan. The practice of `immersing' idols reminds us that they are, after all, destructible. We make them, use them, and must let go of them. Our reverence and our responsibility are towards the changing ground reality out of which they arise.

KUMAR SHAHANI has changed little since he and I co-edited the Elphinstone College magazine. Back then his quiet, firm refusal to do things the easy way led him, and inspired me, to take on the faculty on the question of editorial freedom. He went on to make much-talked-about films, starting with Maya Darpan in 1972, and is hailed as a genius and a visionary. In 30 years of film-making, he made Tarang, Khayal Gatha, Kasba, Bhavantarana and other narratives and documentaries. All are on themes of both immediate and profound interest to Indians, and would probably speak more directly to them than they would to anybody else in the world, but they have been seen by very few inside the country. This says something of the trap into which much in Indian culture has fallen, as a direct result of a warped perspective of itself. A censoring of excellence seems to be under way, and Char Adhyay has had its share of such trauma.

It is a legacy that casts light on most extremist ideologies around the globe today. Some nationalist ideologies are bigger misfits for their people than the Indian experiment has been, and with much less room for improvement. But whatever room does exist within India could be significantly curtailed by the current lurch towards majoritarianism. The terrorism arising from this sentiment is itself one of post-colonial India's `million mutinies', as Naipaul calls them, against the vision of the Republic. This majoritarian `mutiny' is trying its best to seize the symbol of the Motherland from the consciousness of millions and recast it in its own image. It is appropriating the apparatus of the state to put down the rest of the `mutinies'.

Shahani's film has been made for Indians perhaps it can be comprehended best only by an Indian sensibility today, when cherished symbols are being appropriated and manipulated. This is a film that Indians should see and think about, in the context of what Geeta Kapur has called, "the anguish of this precise historical moment".

Failing in their attempt to censor Shahani's film, Vishvabharati has succeeded in keeping it away from Indian audiences. "We are still fighting for Independence," says Kumar Shahani.

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