Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Migrant’s Progress to Gallows: ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’ film by Jiju Antony

(Still from Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani by Jiju Antony)

Holocaust and the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent have given us more burning images than any other world events could impart. Perhaps, if you just close your eyes, closer to home images of horrifying images might pop up. And you often wonder why, if given without a suggestion to think a good or bad image, but just an image, why you imagine only those horrible images? Do images an innate horrible side to it? Does each beautiful image engender a horrendous image? Do the good images hide the bad ones? While the latter cannot be doing the same to the former ones, in dire contexts or even in the controlled contexts of a concert hall or a theatre or even in a drawing room where you read your daily dose of newspaper, the sad images could lead you to a cathartic experience and after the mental climaxing you may, yes you may, come out of the experience as a much refined being, at least temporarily. That’s what art does to a person. Jiju Antony’s movie, ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’ (EELS-2017) does the same to a viewer, especially when one sees it against the backdrop of the images of migrant laborers walking miles to get home streaming into his consciousness.

(Filmmaker Jiju Antony)

The word could be cathartic, when spoken in the context of a movie or art form as just mentioned above, but in a real life situation the images could something else; a pure indignation could fill inside you, an unreasonable dejection might engulf you, an inexplicable gloominess would envelop you, provided if you are a human being. If you are in a high rise building, move away from the balcony for you might feel this itch to jump down. If you are in possession of a gun, keep off from it for you might pull the trigger against yourself for you and I know it is a gloomy Sunday. Art could however make life imitate it inversing the oft-held notion of art imitating life. Here, almost four years before, Jiju Antony, the director of EELS seemed to have imagined the life imitating art. This line of thought becomes all the more poignant and powerful when you tend to see each abstract face in the milling crowd of daily wage earning men and women throng the bus stations in the blistering hot, making the drone shots a jumble of human pixels, a story. Like a shot where an image comes into focus after hovering around in out of focus for a long time, the faces become clear and each face belongs to a human being and each of them has a story to tell.

(EELS poster)

They do not tell it. They perhaps tell it to their silent nights through sighs of longing and pain. But there are sensitive film directors like Jiju Antony who would walk an extra mile to eke out stories from those faces. In EELS the protagonist is a taxi driver (when we see him in the narrative for the second time) and in due course of time we come to know that he is an orphan named Prakash Jadhav. As we see him on his day of hanging inside the jail and also in the 9th segment him committing a rape and double murder we ourselves have given the judgement that he deserves the capital punishment. Hailing from the underbelly of this vast country called India, any innocent looking person could turn into a potential criminal and that is what we learn to believe. A flotsam in the urban pool of life, these people are looked at with suspicion and distrust. And each time we confront them we make them believe that they don’t belong. “Tere aukat kya hai yeh toilet use karneka’ (What’s your right to use this toilet) asks the lady who has employed him as her personal driver. The relationship between the employer and the employee is so tentative and flimsy that any moment the latter could explode. He doesn’t do it because he does not want to be a criminal; but each time he knows that one beast is growing in him. He doesn’t even spit that hatred growing in him like the way the protagonist in Arvind Adiga’s novel the White Tiger, Balram, a driver does.

(Prathap Joseph, cinematographer of EELS)

What makes one a criminal is the question that many a film has explored. But in EELS, done in the Decalogue fashion, ten stories, of the same person but done in a reverse order but not strictly in a flashback fashion. Also one could see Jiju auto-refers the short movie, ‘An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.’ However, Jiju’s idea is not to justify the rape and murder committed by Prakash Jadhav but explore how he has become one. In a way the culprit is not Jhadav but the events that unfold in his life which lie beyond his control. By the time we reach the last section we almost sympathize with the six year old Jhadav and wonder how this boy could do such atrocities in life. He goes through a series of setbacks in his life. Orphaned at a young age he is brought up by a Christian priest who subjects him unnatural sex which makes him escape from that hell. His baptism through street life and destitution finally makes him a taxi driver and in the meanwhile his experiences have made him impotent. His impotency is treated in the movie as a trope that makes him rethink about his worth and manliness and he could express that only through violence.  

(Deewar by Yash Chopra 1975)

One may find Jiju’s movie thematically a bit overdone especially in the mainstream cinema where a harrowing life is attributed to the protagonist to make him an anti-hero that a society craves for especially when it collectively feels the political impotency. But the way the film has been created is different. One doesn’t even come to know the transition of tone in each segment to not only show the time in past but also to emphasis the dying innocence of the man. By the time he commits crime, he is in color. One good thing about the movie is that neither the character Jhadav nor the director justifies the wrong doing of the protagonist. There is a sort of inevitability of events in the movie that couldn’t have controlled by any other parties. It is not even like the man flowing with the stream but it is more like an episode caught by the storm of history, as Walter Benjamin would put it. Perhaps, the grand tragedy of Jhadav is the collective tragedy of the laborers in India. Disorganized and anchorless these people are pushed to the edges of the society, as dregs of life. It is an effort to find a meaning to its own incomprehensible existence. It is not like the grand narrative of Deewar (Yash Chopra 1975) where the protagonist from the village living on a footpath looks at the high rise, promising himself to reach there by hooks or crook. Vinay Lal, the sociologist and cultural historian speaks of two viewpoints of the movie; one from the footpath and one from the high rise. ‘Mera pass gadi hai buglaw hai…sab kuch hai, tuhmare paas kya hai?’ (I have got a bungalow, car and everything what have you got?) ‘Mere pas maa hai’ (I have got mother).

(Cultural Historian Prof.Vinay Lal)

This effort to belong versus the natural belongingness (to mother, mother India, mother earth and so on) was the great point of crisis in 1970s and the grand narratives of the time sold the dream that one could make it in a city like Mumbai. But the post-global scenario unveiled a new reality where the movement from the footpath to high rise became impossible. Prakash Jhadav, with his surname connoting his lower caste identity is bound to end up either as a taxi driver or a small time worker. There is no emancipation for him in this city. The termite like existence that has brought them out during the corona crisis into the streets of Delhi underlines the fact that the rich has to exist with this kind of poor and make them constantly invisible. This sudden visibilizing of them through a calamity in fact has caught the rich unprepared and that has exposed their vile. Jhadav’s crime is not his crime but a collective crime which got manifested through him. It is constant invisibilizing of Jhadav and his ilk makes them assert their visibility through the most horrendous ways. Jiju Antony definitely does not endorse the criminal act but he calls out (like Lawrence Fishburne calls out ‘wake up’ in Spike Lee’s ‘School Daez’, a black redemption movie) ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’ ‘Oh God Oh God Why have You Forsaken Me?’

(Lawrence Fishburne in Spike Lee's 'School Daez)

Christ calls this out to God and it is what each person today on the road calls out. Perhaps it is what each person who have come down with Covid 19 calling out ‘Oh God, why me and why have you forsaken me?’ Prakash Jhadav could have been anybody else. But the question is that why he? So the story should go back. Had he been born to a rich family he would never have been this. Prakash Jhadav could have been an IAS officer, a doctor or anything of his choice had the events in his life were different since his birth. Hence, those who are back home relaxing and feeling okay about the migrant laborers and the destitute, Jiju Antony’s movie tells you, should know that they are lucky only because they are born in a different condition and grew up in a different way. Your crime is not lauded but the question remains, why oh God, if you are there, why have you abandoned me by ‘choosing’ me? Produced by NiV Art Movies and Kazhcha Film forum the film EELS has excellent cinematography by Prathap Joseph, himself an award winning indie film maker and is edited by another award winning film director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan.


Friday, March 27, 2020

Ramayan Serial: Rethinking it through Nostalgia and Ideology

(Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan; the picture perfect ending)

It was in 1987 that we bought a television at home. I was doing my undergraduate course in English literature. ONIDA (neighbor’s envy owner’s pride), Dianora and BPL had already ushered flat screen television sets. However, the latest technology had little influence on me for I wanted a television set that looked like a television set; the picture tube eating up the major portion of the box and a side panel with switches and knobs. The salesman in a television showroom in Trivandrum tried to hammer some sense into my romantically stubborn head in vain. I wanted a television set that looked like a television set. The flat screen television set with anti-glare glass for added value did not turn me on. I was hooked to the conventional one and I found my heart’s choice in a Keltron Television set. Oh my Keltron; acronym for Kerala Electronics that had pushed its brand into the national market not as a television maker but as a maker of traffic lights. With indigenous technology of traffic light in hand Keltron remained unchallenged in the market for a very long time; today I do not know what is its condition though I live somewhere next to its headquarters in Trivandrum.

(Old Keltron Television set)

On the first day of its installation itself, by two sober looking young men with their resin bags bulging to burst with different kinds of tools (I remember the important one was a soldering iron and a set of screw drivers that dismantled the set into various pieces), the reception had gone into trouble and I had to run up and down the terrace to adjust the antenna towards the right direction. What a feeling it was to see the picture tube coming to life for some time with grains (it was raining in Kudappanakkunnu, the DD station, as we commented jokingly) and later with moving pictures gliding, swirling, folding, shaking, shivering for some more time to settle finally into some comprehensible scenes. Breaking down of the television set (why did you buy Keltron, you should have gone for the ONIDA is the general refrain) and when the television set fit like a fiddle, breaking down of the transmission itself (thadassam in Malayalam and Rukawat ke liye khed hai in Hindi) were a common feature and we learned to live with the vagaries of the television almighty.

(Shah Rukh Khan in his first serial Fauji)

Then came the Mother of all Television programs; Ramayan by Ramanand Sagar. Till then our staples were a Hindi movie on Wednesdays and Chitrahaar on Thursdays, Startrekk, He Man and the Masters of the Universe, Chithrageetham and some Malayalam movies. One good thing about watching Malayalam movies (often tear jerkers and sentimental love stories) was that the lovers separated by space (one in a village and another in a city) could watch it at the same time imagining that we were in the same room, heaving the same sighs and shedding the same tears. Yes, we also had Intezzar and Fauji that launched Shah Rukh Khan as the fast talking Abhimanyu Rai, the young soldier. Benjamin Gilani, Ajit Vachani, Kavita Chowdhury (Udaan), Vikran Gokhale, Pallavi Joshi and so on were our favorite stars. While Shammi Kapoor set the television into fire, Renuka Shahane and Sidharth Kakk told us about the culture of India. Dr.Narottam Puri discussed sports and Prof.Yashpal taught us Sunday science. Prannoy Roy had just launched his World this Week series. Miandad, Roger Binny, Kapil Dev, Gavaskar, David Boon, Narendra Hirvani, Viv Richards, Patric More and so on were playing cricket. John MacEnroe, Martina Navratolva, Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graff, Boris Becker were playing at Wimbledon. Sergie Boobka was pole vaulting and Mats Biondi was swimming. Ben Johnson had been just stripped off of his 100 meter record and Carl Lewis was still running. Then Ramayan happened and it was a different world then altogether.

(David Boon one of my favorite crickers)

Ramayan changed the topography of India. It reunited India in the line of a common imagination called Ramayan, the cultural saga that ran through the veins of India’s collective memory. Arun Govil became Rama incarnated and Dipika Chikhalia was unparalleled in her Sita avtar. Wrestler Dhara Singh got a second life through his Hanuman and many others got their second lease of acting life with Ramayan. But who cared about the other actors? Rama, Sita, Laxman, Hanuman and Ravan had filled the imagination of the people. For Ramanand Sagar it was not a difficult thing to make a series like that. There was no foregrounding to the story needed; the audience was already into narrative of Ramayan through its various incarnations and version in various parts of the country. Sagar based his work on Tulsidas Ramayan which in fact had forwarded a Maryada Purushottam Ram, a flawless king who was neither defeated by any nor doubted by his people or his wife herself despite his desertion at some point. It was a clean narrative and people suddenly found an anchor to their lives; no other work of visual narrative had held the nation in thrall like that before; Sholay had but it had the overtones of Ramayan. The secularization of Sholay’s narrative was good for the post –independent India where the good and bad were at loggerheads and the Hindu and Muslim were still finding their co-existence under the benevolent landlords who by hook or crook would take revenge on the wrong doers. Veeru and Vijai were perfect Ram-Laxman combination.

(Sanjay Kumar as Thakur in Sholay)

Ramayan’s success re-wrote the urban as well as rural life and its organizations. People looked forward to Sunday mornings with a new set of rituals and none moved when the serial was on. If there was a power failure there would have been a riot. A secular country overworked to keep things smooth for the transmission of an epic which had religious ramifications. But nobody was looking at the Hindutva side of it as it unraveled the cathartic plights of Rama and Sita. However, the narrative definitely worked for consolidating the Hindu sentiments in the country. Ravan was no Muslim invader but finding a common enemy in a narrative was something that the fledgling Hindutva forces wanted at that time. The success of Ramayan soon brought B.R.Chopra into action who in the following year (1988) launched his Mahabharat serial that further became the rallying point of Hindutva ideology. People with tender feeling rekindled for the ‘sanatan’ values by the serials were game for establishing a Hindu India or rather they could have been easily cajoled into the epic narratives that had taken political meanings sooner than later. Demolishing Babri Masjid on 6th December 1992 was just three years away and as in Sholay the Takur said, the Hindu leaders could say, ‘loha garam hai maardo hatoda’. The ground was prepared it was just a question of time that the Masjid fell.

(Dipika Chikhalia who acted as Sita in Ramayan serial with Mr.Narendra Modi)

I was not too fond of Ramayan. I used to take my red BSA cycle and used to ride around the village which was almost deserted during those hours. During Mahabharat times I was already moved to the city leaving the village home locked, and the same BSA cycle was my companion in the city roads on those Sundays, lying absolutely empty. They used to look like the Corona locked down days today. The city looked like George Di Chirico’s surreal paintings. I could touch my shadow for it was so thick in its loneliness and I used to enjoy that aloneness tremendously. I got much of the Ramayan and Mahabharat details from the film magazines (I was a subscriber of the film news weekly paper called Screen, published by the Indian Express). The politics of Ramayan had intrigued me though I could not put my fingers right into the eye of it. I remember writing a critique of Ramayan and sending it to the then famous cultural weekly Kalakaumudi edited by S.Jayachandran Nair only to get it back in the return mail. I still do not know whether it was the immature arguments that caused the rejection or the absolute anonymity of the author (almost a decade later I worked under the same editor as a special correspondent from Delhi).

(S.Jayachandran Nair, one of the prominent magazine editors in India)

Now it is said that Ramayan is in for a re-telecast through the same government interface. Interestingly, with the arrival of competitive private channels, both Ramayan and Mahabharat got remade and re-televised using new anchors and new gen actors only find no place in the minds of the audience. They got widely dubbed into various regional languages which became a time pass than some serious stuff that could engage the audience the way their pioneering tele versions had done a decade and half back. The re-telecast of the original Ramayan serial is said to be to fill the vacant times of the people who are caught in their homes with nothing much to do due to the corona lock down. But the suggestion is ominous, at least it looks like that to me for the right wing government at the center has lost a polarizing narrative with the relentless Anti –CAA protests followed by the quite unexpected historical and fateful leveler, Covid 19. An empty mind is a Devil’s workshop, so goes the adage. Ramayan serial is given to empty minds where Ramayan could do some Devil’s job; instead of elevating the minds of the people to embrace the world with a new vigor and perspective it could make people sectarian in the worst way possible by providing some ether moments to think about an all Hindu country where an imaginary Ram could rule once again and bring prosperity and patriarchy with added strength. It could be detrimental to the post-Corona mindset of the Indians, while the whole world is debating the possible ways of rechanneling the life energy in the post-catastrophe scenario. It can’t be religious by all means necessary, but India government thinks that it could be religious in many ways for their nefarious political ends. I cross my fingers and wait to see what people would make out of it. Watching a serial for the sake of nostalgia is one thing and for conscious ideological deliberation is another thing altogether. Still we need to see how many us have the mind to spend an hour with that when there are more pressing matters to deal with or interesting things to engage with elsewhere in the smartphones.

-          JohnyML

Hearing through Eyes and Sculpting through Lines: Satish Gujral (1925-2020)

(Satish Gujral (1925-2020)

Satish Gujral is no more. He was 94 years old. Born in Jhelum, Punjab in the British India on the Christmas Day of 1925, Gujral was a strong presence in Indian art scene even if he was not affiliated to any of the art movements including the Bombay Progressives Artists Group led by Francis Newton Souza. Gujral attended Mayo School in Lahore initially and then moved to Sir J.J.School of Art in Bombay. An accident rendered him short at hearing and he overcame that issue with his heightened sense of visual as well as spatial art. He also had a short stint at the Art College in Chandigarh though his name was strongly associated with the Palacio de Bellas Artes in the Mexico City where he could work under the great muralists namely Diego Rivera and Alfaro Siqueiros. Gujral also developed his taste for architecture and he designed the famous building of the Belgium Embassy in New Delhi.

I met Satish Gujral sometime in 1998 at his self-designed home in Defense Colony/Lajpat Nagar. I was supposed to write a cover story based on Gujral’s life and art for the Malayalam Vaarika, a New Indian Express publication. Hard at hearing though he welcomed me into home and his wife, Kiran Gujral played the interlocutor’s role between us. She has been so ever since she was married to him. A devoted companion to Gujral, Mrs.Gujral accompanied him everywhere including the high end parties in Delhi. Gujral loved life and also started working in various mediums including granite and marble apart from his favorite mediums such as drawings and oil on canvas. During the interview Gujral revealed to me that there were two traumatic incidents in his life; one, the accident that rendered him hearing impaired and two, the partition of India.

(an early painting by Satish Gujral)

Gujral was the son of a unified India. Though there were rumors doing the rounds about an imminent partition of India, Gujral learned to believe that nothing of that sort would happen. He remained optimistic despite all the personal troubles that he was facing due to bad health conditions. He had to shift cities and colleges, and he got back to his track only when he found his voyage to Mexico. The city of the muralists filled him with a new energy and he could put all his angst into the canvases and the drawings. The works that he did during the partition years and till the early seventies had all the gloom of the partition pangs. His canvases were dominated by black and red colors that embodied the dark days that shrouded both the countries and the blood and gore spilled everywhere. He had seen violence that shook the subcontinent and painting them again and again was the only way to exorcise his personal ghosts haunted him everywhere. Even the self-portraits that he did during those days had this overall gloom.

In 1980s, Gujral seems to have overcome the traumas to certain extent though his ears failed him. But by then he had been a settled family man with a devoted lady to accompany him in all his tasks. This brought sunshine once again to his life and his works started changing. He turned his eyes to the life of the rural folk and the wandering minstrels who danced and sang both in pain and joy. He developed a personal style in portraying them and the emblematic figures thus created started defining the new Gujral paintings. Like a master craftsman he went on drawing and only a few of them were turned into painting. His contemporaries namely M.F.Husain, Kishen Khanna, Manjit Bawa, A.Ramachandran, Paramjit Singh and so on gained their personal momentum in 1980s and even before the blooming of the art market, these masters could find their patrons from among the business communities in India and elsewhere.

(painting by Satish Gujral)

Satish Gujral’s social relevance increased when his brother Inder Kumar Gujral became India’s Prime Minister in 1998. My interview with Satish Gujral had coincided with his brother becoming the Prime Minister of the country. Though he became doubly influential in the art scene with the growing political clout of the family, he remained grounded as before, working in his studio during the day and going out for parties in the evening. His art opened up further as he started experimenting with enduring mediums such as marble and granite. He did not go for fully developed three dimensional forms; instead he transported his paintings and drawings on to the durable mediums thereby giving them the appearance of a relief. He also went back to his drawing practice quite vehemently and surprisingly his drawings from the seventies and the same from the nineties looked the same. It showed his consistency but at the same time some kind of frozenness. Satish Gujral was turning more into a decorative artist than an original innovator in art by the new millennium.

(Painting by Satish Gujral)

The new art market and the new crop of artists who could aspire for global platforms left artists like Satish Gujral far behind. The interval between his shows increased and there was a time when he almost went absent from the art scene in early 2000s. A couple of shows here and there did not attract much appreciation though he had consistent collectors. His health must have been failing him also by that time. He has been out of action for some time. The repetition of motifs and the relative decorativeness were proving to be less competitive in the newly emerged art market. While his contemporaries were making moolah in the auction circuit, Satish Gujral was kept in waiting. Now with Satish Gujral’s departure, the art market and the auction circuit could take a fresh look at his works and make certain reassessments regarding the value. Satish Gujral was a tortured artist in the beginning and slowly overcame the pains and when he crossed the threshold his art became celebratory in all aspects. May be pure celebration in art is detrimental and it could either fall into decorativeness or into shallow metaphysics. Gujral did not go to the metaphysical way; he was too real to be spiritual and I do not think he ever used such jargon to explain his works. He remained an artist who found pleasure in the making, irrespective of its decorativeness. Was that a problem? Only the time will tell.

n  JohnyML