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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 44 New Delhi October 19, 2019

A Fresh Look at an Off-beat Genre-docu-feature Film

Sunday 20 October 2019, by Sumanta Banerjee



Nibandha Chalachchitra by Iqbal Karim Hasnu; published by Aninda Rahman on behalf of Curious Dhaka, Dhaka; 2018; pp. 152; 300 Taka.

This slender book entitled Nibandha Chalach-chitra (Essays on Films) is a collection of Bengali essays on cinema by Iqbal Karim Hasnu, a Canada-based Bangladeshi writer who had been bringing out a bilingual magazine called Bangla Journal  from Toronto for the last several years, with the aim of bringing together members of both the Bengali diaspora abroad as well as non-Bengalis on a platform for free, innovative and critical discussion.

Hasnu begins by looking at a particular genre of cinematography—docu-feature film, a form where the film-maker combines on the spot documentation of live events with a fictional account associated or based on such documentation. The best representative of this trend is the French film-maker Jean Luc Godard. The author examines two films —La Chinoise, made by Godard alone, and Lejos De Vietnam, made by him in collaboration with Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Chris Marker. Both the films were made in 1967. The latter film brings to the screen footage of contemporary interviews with the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, and Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, where both predict that the powerful US can never defeat the Vietnamese who will win at the end—a prediction that came true a few years later. Mainly documentary in style, the film juxtaposes close-ups of bombs and armaments stored by the US naval forces with shots of Vietnamese entering underground shelters. Children look out from the windows of the shelters with fear in their eyes. (Hasnu uses a face of one such child, which will haunt you for long, as a cover for his book.) This is suddenly followed by 30 seconds of a totally black screen with sounds of bombing on the sound track only. What makes Hasnu’s book stand out from the general run of film criticism is the narration of his personal sentiments while he watched the films. Thus, writing about his response to Lejos De Vietnam, he tells us how he was “emotionally over-whelmed by the thrill and revolutionary romance” of the Vietnamese war of liberation, which found echo in his aspirations, as a Bangla-deshi.

Godard’s La Chinoise is made on a slightly different note—describing the experiences of five young French men and women, who are fascinated by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and hold up the then famous (or considered notorious by its critics) Red Book. In a Brechtian style, Godard here invites and involves his audience, by posing questions and asking them to enter into a dialogue.

After examining the French films made during the years of war and socio-cultural turbulence in South Asia in the 1960s, Hasnu turns his attention to the films by other European film-makers of the present times— films dealing with self-introspection. One of these films, which he chooses, is Mephisto, directed in 1981 by Istvan Szabo who searches for the origins of autocratic despotism, choosing Hitler’s Germany as a background. The main character is an actor who seeks patronage from the Nazi regime. Explaining the actor’s submission to the ruling powers, Istvan Szabo said: “For him the important thing is to have success all the time, whatever cost... Are not there many people like this who are not professional actors?” He then warns us : “But the moral is almost universal: you should painfully not strive for success at any cost.”  This advice, sounded some three decades ago, needs to be addressed to those actors, academics and journalists in India who are selling their souls today to either Modi or Mamata, ‘for success at any cost’.

Mephisto was based on a novel written by Claus Mann, son of the famous German novelist Thomas Mann. Although the novel was weak in structure, Szabo chose it because he felt that while reading it, he “was drawing a certain strength from the inadequacies of the novel.” He added an extremely important observation that is relevant for film-makers who derive inspiration from novels, or short stories or any other form of fiction. He said: “Films should be made from novels that have not crystallised into this authentic form, but which still have something important that can be developed:—a character, a story, a leitmotif, etc.”

Taking off from this cue, Hasnu devotes two chapters to Satyajit Ray and his mode of film-making, a significant part of which was derived from fiction—novels and short stories. One chapter is a Bengali translation of Andrew Robinson’s impressions about Ray and a series of long interviews with him from 1982 to 1988, where Ray explains how he translated ‘characters, stories and leitmotifs’ from the original fiction into cinematic language. In the other chapter entitled ‘Ray-er Obhijog’ (Ray’s Complaint), Hasnu writes about his own personal complaint about some of the films made by Ray during his last years. Ray complained about the distance between good films and the majority of the film audience. Regarding these later films, Hasnu complains that they do not reflect Ray’s earlier artistic excellence. Citing his films made during this period—Heerak Rajar Deshe, Ganoshatru, Ghare Baire, Shakha-proshaka—Hasnu thinks that they are more message-oriented than artistically satisfying. He then comes out with a challenging observation: “The way that these films of Ray can easily gain an audience is due to the market value of Ray’s name, not because of their inherent artistic quality.” Hasnu then voices his complaint: “On behalf of the younger generation audience, we want to voice our counter-complaint against Ray—why can’t we get that taste of the classical film in his later films?”

Satyajit Ray is no more here to answer Hasnu’s question. But it is really important to delve into the issue that he raises. Did his style of film-making in the Apu trilogy, Charulata and Ghare Baire (all based on novels) differ from that in his later ventures like Ganoshatru or Shakha Prashakha or Agantook, mostly based on his own film-scripts?

The next interesting chapter in Hasnu’s book is devoted to Aparna Sen’s films, which he examines through the framework of feminist discourse. Tracing her films from 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), through Paroma (1985), to Juganto (1995), Hasnu discovers that her heroines had progressed from “complex and more complicated roles and been adorned with a multi-dimensional image”. As with his other essays, he ends his article on Aparna Sen with a query: “Is it a futile hope that she may in future take up for her films the lives of the women of the religious and other minorities in West Bengal?”

Iqbal Karim Hasnu ends his book with a chapter written in what is known as ‘sadhu bhasha’ (literally meaning chaste Bengali which is more Sanskritised than colloquial Bengali (known as ‘chalti bhasha’) in which he has written his earlier chapters. Explaining his choice, Hasnu says that he prefers to spin a lighter tone into a serious dissertation, reifying the abstract to the concrete. Is it to interrupt gravity with levity—to bring down the readers from the heights of theories to the ground level of reality? He follows the satirical style that Bankim Chattopadhyay adopted in his writings like Lok-Rahashya. In this final chapter, Hasnu takes up three films—Tokyo Sonata made by the famous Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurusawa in 2008; Capitalism: A Love Story made by Michael Moore, the rebel American documentary filmmaker in 2009; and Last Train Home, a film by Lixin Fan made in 2010 on present-day China. All the three films, although made in different places and situations, from different viewpoints, stress certain common themes—the precarious position of the working class, facing retrenchment and depending on odd jobs, which turn them from the ‘proletariat’ into the ‘precariate’ (a term invented by the German sociologist, Julia Obinger); corruption in the administrative, judicial and other institutions of the capitalist state which deprives the common citizens of their privileges and rights; large-scale migration of people from villages to cities in search of jobs, creating a distance from their roots and leaving rural society in disarray. All these trends depicted in the three films find echoes in our sub-continent, which is following a model of development that leads to the above-mentioned situations. Quite appropriately, Iqbal Karim Hasnu concludes by quoting from a story by the Bangladeshi author, Hasan Ajijul Haq, entitled ‘Khanan’ (Excavation), where two friends argue about development of the nation. While one of them insists that the nation should stand on its own feet, the other responds: “By putting the feet on the poor man’s chest!”

Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of  In The Wake of Naxalbari (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989); and Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanisation to Global Modernisation (2016). He is based in Hyderabad.

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