24 January 2014
Genre readings of Michael Mann’s debut feature film Thief are relatively inclined to explore both the crime film and neo noir which seem to intersect as a form of postmodern existential hybridity. Mann could have easily worked in the Hollywood studio era since he works specifically within genres. Separation for Mann from his contemporaries especially when it comes to the crime film is authorial preoccupations are lucid, intellectual and existential enough to transform the most ordinary or formulaic of situations into a kind of poetic rapture. Thief is a virtual template for Mann thematics he would regularly explore in the crime film genre. Yet in the midst of a narrative that could only be described as an urban western, Frank’s refusal to conform and to be assimilated into a much wider capitalist system of working class exploitation requires further elucidation as an early marker of Mann’s politics.
One of the more interesting exchanges in terms of political dialogic occurs towards the end of the film between Frank, the worker in this case, and Leo, the master and boss. Having completed his final job as a high line safe cracker, Frank comes to see Leo, his new friend, for his cut. However, when Frank looks through the envelope full of cash he realises Leo’s idea of friendship is cynically unveiled as a form of ownership antithetical to Frank’s very existence. Frank’s defense of his ideological position is very revealing as it harbours a semi Marxist tone: ‘I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labour’. When conflated with his ‘state raised’ background, a picture emerges of the proletariat rallying against the exploitation of labour which he must sell in order to survive and function in a capitalist American society. In many ways, this is Frank at his most political and the resistance he vigorously demonstrates to the humiliating demands of Leo, who wants to own Frank and thereby control him, is an extension of such a working class protest. Notably, Frank also furthers his argument about working class exploitation, saying: ‘You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat’. Oddly enough the tone of Frank’s criticisms concerning profits and his sweat is overly familiar in the context of corporation exploitation and most significantly the element of greed. Although Leo could be interpreted as the domineering crime boss, his conflict with Frank at this point in the film becomes an ideological one and thus can be a symbolic extension of the capitalist system attempting through initially coercion and finally violence to subjugate the consciousness of the proletariat spirit. Leo’s response to Frank is glib, condescending and politically loaded, ‘Why don’t you join a labour union?’, he says.
Existence in the world of Mann for the male loner is defined by anonymity. By partnering with Leo, Frank realises he is jeopardising the anonymity he has struggled to protect but he is also putting at risk his belief system. Unsurprisingly, Frank’s proletarian politics become a source of ridicule. Leo feels threatened by Frank’s unwavering professionalism and deadening adherence to a strict moral code and by rubbishing his politics, Leo tries to humiliate Frank in every way possible whereby he is made into a relic in an age of corporate power. However, Frank resists. The resistance exemplified at the end appears like uncontrollable rage. Framed politically as an act of proletariat protest, the violence unleashed by Frank sees him annihilating a fragile past forged on a notion of personal integrity now tainted by Leo’s betrayal. By destroying the house, the bar and the car lot Frank’s self destruction read ideologically becomes a politicised act of symbolic resistance since he does not want Leo, the zealous corporate capitalist, to claim and exploit the ‘yield of his labour’. In fact, an indifference to conformity is what sets Frank apart but by walking away at the end sets him up as an outcast doomed to drift like the cowboy on the margins of a society that disgusts him. In other words, Frank is a worker, a stand up guy and that counts for everything in the films of Michael Mann.
20 January 2014
|Director Hammad Khan knows his cinema, referencing the works of Godard and Teshigahara.|
Revival, resurgence, rebirth, a new era are some of the ways in which Pakistani cinema has been described as of late. Since the academic discourse on Pakistani cinema is so narrow, incomplete and barely existent makes it problematic for anyone trying to offer an adequate historiography and even more impossible when situating contemporary Pakistan cinema.
Progressive initiatives facilitating the reconfiguration of the Pakistani film industry emerging against an unstable political and economic framework are welcoming. This includes the establishment of film/media related courses at Universities, the emergence of television as an alternative source of financing and distribution, Indo-Pak cross border collaborations, the promotion of film as part of a wider cultural agenda and the increase in cinema screens and development of Multiplexes. A question of significance and one that needs to be asked repeatedly is if this new wave or new cinema questions a status quo that has and continues to bludgeon the masses into submission. It is difficult for me to adequately answer the question when I have yet to see many of the recent Pakistani films garnering critical and commercial attention. (Refer to my previous posts on Pakistani Cinema: Khuda Kay Liye and Ramchand Pakistani).
Given the unending moral consternation in a semi-oppressive nation that appears more fragmented and disjointed than ever before, the space for oppositional cinema could despondently be extinct. The populism of mainstream cinema is in fact a validation of the embarrassment of riches often associated with independent cinema. The relative absence of independent filmmaking in Pakistan does not necessarily mean there are no filmmakers engaged in such an ethos. The way Pakistani cinema is disseminated in the media and outside means it is a silent cinematic act potentially unfolding on new media platforms with an immediacy gone unrecognised by a discourse gravitating to mediocrity. Writer Rafay Mahmood had the following to say about the 2012 Pakistani blockbuster Waar (currently playing in the UK): 'It’s disheartening to see Pakistan’s most awaited film turn out to be a bland, peculiar and uninspiring piece of propaganda'.
Anima State, indie filmmaker Hammad Khan’s latest film, refuses to imitate to the medians of new Pakistani cinema, constructing an oppositional voice brimming with discontent and outrage at the state of a nation. Film history suggests it is the margins which offer the more prescient, ideological and innovative cinema. Slackistan, Khan’s promising debut feature, sensitively explored the specific milieu of middle class Islamabadi youth. Although Slackistan was banned from being shown in Pakistani cinemas, the film was warmly embraced by the film festival circuit and received a limited release in the UK. Slackistan as an indie film demonstrated it was possible to work outside the mainstream in Pakistan and be able to say something original.
Whereas Slackistan models itself on American indie cinema, Anima State is an altogether different and at times experimental film that is both a reflexive commentary on his first film and elliptical taboo breaking meditation on politics, the media and identity. The narrative revolves around a cipher, a man with a bandaged face, who begins by randomly massacring a group of Pakistani youth (the cast of Slackistan) as a means of underlining a pervasive cultural numbness to acts of violence. The cipher’s invisibility to the police and media metaphorically reinstates a commentary on the failure of institutional power. It is a metaphor doubly visible in the way Khan makes the gun and camera interchangeable as a source of oppression and liberation.
Anima State moves with a frenzied episodic trajectory through Pakistani society, offering us a timely nightmarish journey in which everyone seems utterly disconnected and resolutely apathetic. If this is Khan taking the pulse of a nation then the diagnosis is critical. A female character, credited as ‘The Archetypes of Women’, appears in several guises, functioning as an allegorical representation of pluralistic femininity critiquing a nation severely at odds with the rights of women. In a controversial sequence, the stranger is shown masturbating to an old video recording of Pakistan’s world cup victory. Although it is a deeply comical moment, the juxtaposition of male sexual gratification and cricket proposes a ritualistic equation in which dreams of a great nation state remain suspended in time. Even more chilling is that the stranger’s random acts of violence go unheeded in a nation accustomed to and numbed by terrorism perpetrated by America and the Taliban. The extent of such normalised violence registers satirically when the stranger is invited on live TV with the grotesque promise of committing suicide.
If the banality of the media seems almost like a universal norm today then the stranger’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a filmmaker in the final act and his subsequent persecution suggests art (cinema in this case) is more radical than violence given the ideological intent can in some cases lead to the reawakening of a people. Director Hammad Khan is certainly one of Pakistani cinema’s boldest critics but what sets him apart from his fellow contemporaries is his capacity to fuse European aesthetic/stylistic devices with an affecting socio-political sensibility. Anima State like Slackistan is likely to garner screenings at film festivals but the real breakthrough would come if his films are screened in Pakistan to an audience that urgently needs to see them. I was privileged to see the film as an exclusive by director Hammad Khan and I thank him for such an opportunity. Anima State is unlike any other Pakistani film; bold, idiosyncratic, agitprop, experimental.
Anima State from Anima State on Vimeo.
19 January 2014
VISIBILITIES & INVISIBILITIES: DIACHRONIC CONSTRUCTONS OF SUBALTERNTIY IN CONTEMPORARY INDIAN ‘INDIE’ CINEMA
Introduction: Can the Subaltern finally speak?
Antonio Gramsci used the term ‘subaltern’ (meaning inferior) in his work on hegemony to delineate power relations and as ‘a convenient shorthand for a variety of subordinate classes’ (Arnold, 2012: 33). The term was later appropriated by postcolonial theory to underline marginalised groups, an invisible mass that under colonialism were denied a voice. Today it seems almost unfashionable to speak of subalternity. Opportunities for self representation across new media platforms such as YouTube has reconstructed a historiography of the subaltern in which a traditional mediation by a middle class elite has become less relevant: ‘Indigenous as well as western voices are now free to negotiate and contest such representations on what has become a worldwide cultural stage’ (O’Hanlon & Washbrook, 2012: 211). Whereas O’Hanlon and Washbrook’s argument concentrates on ethnographic texts, the ideas of negotiation and contestation seem especially pertinent in a postmodern context. The remapping of authentic, indigenous voices appear in the discourse of postcolonialism as a totalizing means of concluding such a major theoretical movement.
But does this mean the subaltern can finally speak? In her 1988 essay ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’ Spivak challenged Focualt and Delueze’s claim that ‘the oppressed if given the chance can speak and know their conditions’. What Spivak proposed related to her reading of gender differences in the subaltern classes, ‘If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. In the late 1960s, parallel cinema tried to explore, if not answer, Spivak’s radical thesis, using film as ‘sites of contending histories and contending politics’ (Pandey, 2012: 285). In this essay I want to reframe Spivak’s theory of the silenced subaltern in the context of an emerging new wave of independent films dubbed Indian ‘indie’ cinema. Two questions will be central to my approach. Firstly, to what extent has Indian indie cinema reinstated the subaltern agenda and thus reopened the discourse of subaltern historiography in a neo colonialist context? Secondly, is it true that the attempts made by parallel cinema in the 1960s onwards to externalise the consciousness of the subaltern in the form of women, Dalits, Naxalites have regressed to such an extent that today’s equivalent type of ideologically engaged cinema has rendered them invisible?
Before I move on, I want to outline the structure of this essay. In terms of contemporary films, I will focus on: Peepli Live (Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, 2010) and Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries, Kiran Rao, 2010), and as part of comparative analysis with parallel cinema, I will also consider Manthan (The Churning, Shyam Benegal, 1976), Khandhar (The Ruins, Mrinal Sen, 1984) and Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, Mrinal Sen, 1981). The first section will map a filmic genealogy of subalternity in Indian cinema, tracing a lineage to the 1940s and proposing that parallel cinema and later middle cinema are in fact united by a continual interest in subalternity. The second section will explore old and new ways of categorising subaltern constructions with a particular focus on peasant farmers, women and the migratory worker. The penultimate section will expand on the politics of subaltern construction, underlining modes of class interaction and elucidating Otherness, mediation and co-option of the subaltern. The final section will aim to address polycentric accounts of self representation and conclude by briefly exploring if the growing presence of women directors signals a plea to reassess the significance and applicability of a Third Cinema theoretical discourse.
Filmic genealogies of Subalternity: Indian independent cinema, old and new.
The discourse on parallel cinema, including the work by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ira Bhaskar and Anthony R. Guneratne is preoccupied with institutional and aesthetic dialogic, but little consideration has been paid to thematic recurrences. Why this exists requires further elaboration. To begin with, I would argue parallel cinema has to be re-theorised as contemporaneous not just to the Indian Emergency but also ideologically to the ways in which Subaltern Studies reshaped postcolonial thinking. In fact, what if the correlation between parallel cinema and subalternity was a mutual one, whereby they affected each other while working in parallel? It is a question necessitating further study. Eurocentrism ‘envisions the world from a single privileged point’ (Shoat & Stam, 1994: 2) clarifying why parallel cinema is often viewed in such a prescriptive context. The implications of reading parallel cinema and Indian cinema as a whole through a Eurocentric perspective is criticised by Ashish Rajadhyaksha (2009: 13) for its innate complications: ‘functioning systems in India apparently have to define themselves through the refracted gaze of the ‘west’: an old political issue that still cuts to the bone in the cinema’. This is a point formerly outlined by film critic Chidananda Das Gupta (1958: 9-14) who cautioned Indian filmmakers against relying on ‘too many preconceived notions from the form of the film as seen in the west’.
The sidelining of subalternity in parallel cinema is a contradictory one since the term subaltern comes from Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Deliberately choosing to exclude readings of subalternity in the context of Indian cinema adheres to a discourse of resistance disseminated by postcolonial thinkers suspicious of western theories replicating familiar modes of cultural indoctrination: ‘Eurocentrism sanitises western history while patronising and even demonising the non-West’ (Shoat & Stam, 1994: 3). The relationship between Subaltern Studies and parallel cinema is complicated further with parallel cinema predating Subaltern Studies by at least ten years. Parallel cinema’s severance from radical politics of Third Cinema finds legitimacy when you account for the presence of the subaltern in popular Hindi cinema, beginning with 1950s and the cinema of Raj Kapoor (Shree 420, 1955 & Jagte Raho, 1956) and Bimal Roy (Do Bigha Zamin, 1953 & Sujata, 1959), and later in the 1970s with the metonymic specter of the angry young man (Deewaar, 1975). Subalternity, filtered through the prism of popular Hindi cinema, is ideologically contained in opposition to the heterogeneous representations in parallel, middle and independent cinema. Nonetheless, ideological containment is not as unconditional as it seems in the mainstream. Fareed Kazmi (1999: 67) contends, ‘conventional cinema is concerned with the values, attitudes and the beliefs of the subordinate classes’. This may have been true in the past. Conventional cinema, defined as populist Hindi cinema, effectually reinstates the status quo. The social politics critiqued are typically forgotten by the explicit ‘ideological closure’ (Neupert, 1995) of the film text. However, Mani Kaul says, ‘Intellectuals, have never appreciated the monumental achievement of the rambunctious popular films’ (Guneratne, 2003: 24), implying it may wrong to simply dismiss mainstream cinema as limiting. Crucially, it is the reproduction of conventionality that separates populist cinema from parallel cinema. The emergence of an expanding independent cinema has the potential to open a new space for the subaltern similar to parallel cinema in the past.
Appositely, the cinema of Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen is that of the subaltern. Yet
perceptions are antithetical in academic discourse. Whereas Benegal’s work attracts the label of middle cinema, ‘a shady compromise’ (Guneratne, 2003: 24) argues Mani Kaul, Sen’s films are framed in a radical political paradigm as claimed by Ashis Nandy (2001: 86): ‘Once Ghatak died in 1976, Mrinal Sen became the elder statesman of radical Indian cinema’. In both instances, subaltern politics, surpassed by authorial and institutional interpretations of their work, demand a recontextualisation of both Benegal and Sen’s work as key to the historiography of Subaltern Cinema. The term ‘Subaltern Cinema’ is a contentious one and needs to be used cautiously. Many of the filmmakers including Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shahani, Ketan Mehta, Mani Kaul, positioned under the banner of parallel cinema, shared a mutual middle class background. In other words, the middle class mediated subaltern concerns. In this case, Subaltern Cinema can only truly exist when self-representation of the subaltern occurs front and behind the camera, an idealistic paradigm that could counter ‘the powerlessness of historically marginalised groups to control their own representation’ (Shoat & Stam, 1994: 184).
To claim the subaltern presence in parallel cinema was a thematic innovation would mean discounting the semi-realist vein, masquerading as popular melodrama, in Hindi cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. For example, Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953) depicts the oppressed peasant farmer in a class struggle, dehumanised by modernity in the city promoting ‘self aggrandizement, sophistication, unsuppressed greed, and utter lack of moral restraints’ (Lal, 2010: 64). Bimal Roy’s film established a precedent in terms of the migratory worker, making the subaltern visible in both a neo realist aesthetic and mainstream context. Constructing a cinematic historiography of the subaltern in counter Indian cinema traces a lineage that begins in earnest with parallel cinema in the late 1960s. Parallel cinema, ‘the result of a political miscalculation on the part of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’ and her pursuit of ‘progressive, internationalist politics’ (Guneratne, 2003: 21), led to the establishment of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Such a funding body supported indigenous filmmaking, politicising the subaltern. The peasant as a monolithic postcolonial category opened out in the broadest possible sense, incorporating a silenced underclass of women, political radicals, religious minorities and Dalits. The inclusivity of the term subaltern came to represent a new way of looking at a progressive India.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha rejects the term parallel cinema, preferring instead ‘New Indian Cinema’ (2009: 242). Further still, he situates New Indian Cinema as part of independent cinema and goes on to suggest the avant garde and middle cinema collided because of differing aesthetic and political doctrines (2009: 242). Rajadhyaksha uses the work of Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul to negotiate ‘an explicit agenda for an avant garde filmmaking practice’ (Rajadhyaksha, 2009: 243) from an aesthetic and stylistic approach. Albeit parallel cinema and New Indian Cinema are interchangeable, the use of the word parallel seems particularly illustrative of the way the movement was not simply oppositional but critical in opening a new space, a parallel space adjunct to mainstream cinema. Guneratne (2003: 21) argues the initial Third Cinema flourishes were ‘akin to the radicalized collective cinema that Solanas and Getino demanded with such optimistic commitment in their manifesto’. The FFC had been established since the early 1960s but it was not until 1969 Indian independent cinema ‘struck a completely new path’ (Rajadhyaksha, 2009: 233). Parallel cinema reached its peak in the late 70s but criticisms of Benegal’s middle cinema as typifying a ‘cathartic realism’ (Rajadhyaksha, 2009: 243) was accused of co-opting parallel cinema. Guneratne (2003: 21) is much clearer, stating middle cinema ‘combined the more palatable morsels of Third Cinema with concessions to fairly conservative popular conventions’. Benegal’s work especially his rural trilogy was just as radical in its ideological attempts to represent the subaltern voice. If the middle cinema of Benegal co-opted parallel cinema, muting the radical political urgency of the avant garde then why is that the subaltern agenda remained consistent throughout, even surfacing in the populist cinema of The Angry Young Man, and today in the new wave of Indian ‘indie’ films?
Given the emergence of a vibrant and evolving Indian ‘indie’ cinema, the term ‘indie’ is fraught with the perils of cinematic euphemisms. Whereas state funding in the form of the NFDC still supports edgy and experimental work, the rise of indie cinema has coincided with investment from media conglomerates like UTV Motion Pictures. The involvement of film studios with independent cinema mirrors the phenomenon of ‘indiewood’ in American cinema that saw major studios establishing their own subsidiary indie labels such as Warner Independent Pictures. An affluent middle class Multiplex crowd in India has also raised interests in independent cinema. Film critics such as Anupama Chopra (Verma, 2011) argue the term indie equates to ‘content and storytelling’, not ‘finance or distribution’, further complicating perceptions of what it means to be ‘indie’. Bollywood film stars such as Aamir Khan have too moved into independent film production, using star power to pre-sell the rights of a film and turning a profit before the film even reaches the distribution-exhibition chain.
A chief complication in tracing the historiography of subalternity is the way it is constructed, controlled and imagined by an elite: ‘The narratives most commonly used by historians belong overwhelmingly to the ruling class, and owe their existence largely to a ruling class’s need for security and control’ (Pandey, 2012: 282). The exclusion of subalterns in determining their own representations obfuscates any claims to verisimilitude. A recent transition in the authorial status of the director has come with a gender shift and so it is not without reason that this study of subalternity is predicated on contemporary ‘indie’ films directed by women; Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat. If the avant garde, parallel cinema and middle cinema were distinctive styles of filmmaking, a unifying thematic principle is the figure of the subaltern. It is through such a thematic that permits the tracing of a historiography that can be used to accentuate the heterogeneity of the subaltern, making it at once visible and invisible.
Re-categorising the Subaltern in the context of Indian ‘indie’ cinema
Defining the subaltern, like postcolonialism and indie cinema, is fraught with problems since multiple interpretations have rendered it a subjective term. A conventional view of the subaltern is that it ‘came to mean groups of persons cut off from upwards and in a sense outward social mobility’ (Spivak, 2012: 325). The absence of social mobility is a real marker of the subaltern’s exclusion from the mainstream, constructing an Otherness. A more progressive hypothesis by Tom Brass (2012: 134) frames ‘the subaltern as an all-encompassing neo populist category’, reiterating the totality of class struggle as a consolidating attribute. I want to next take some time to consider the ways in which subaltern identity has been categorised over time focusing on unequivocal subaltern categories including the Dalit farmer/peasant, the lower caste woman and the migratory worker. Firstly, I want to address ‘the specificities of the construction of the subaltern voice’ (Pandey, 2012: 287) in Peepli Live, focusing on representations of the lower caste peasant farmers that extend to parallel cinema.
In Peepli Live, the central protagonists are two peasant farmers; Budhia (Rughuvir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das). The bank is about to auction their land since they are defaulting on loan payments. A government scheme, paying farmers 100,000 rupees, if they commit suicide, forces Natha, with the support of Budhia, to contemplate such an act. When the news media find out, they converge on the village of Peepli, sensationalising the story of Natha’s impending suicide. A criticism of Natha’s construction as an agency of subalternity is his depiction as a simpleton and comic buffoon, which is arguably exaggerated by the media. The allusions to buffoonery are tenuous but the coon caricature is important in stating that Natha is ‘too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position’ (Ferris, 2012). Altogether, Natha never really defies his subjugated position and remains a largely apolitical construct. In fact, as a means of underlining the ways subalternity is controlled by the media in the film is the ‘invisible’ story of Hori Mahto, the authentic, indigenous subaltern farmer. If the media make Natha more visible, his visibility lacks the requisite ideological fervour, needed to make him into a radical political symbol of subalternity. In contrast to Natha’s momentary celebrity status, Mahto’s oppression lingers in the background as a means of criticising the media’s unhealthy fixation with sensationalism. In many ways, Mahto is the real victim of the film not Natha whose status as a middle class peasant is exemplified by his ability to escape at the end. Escape for Natha to the city is shown to be another form of social oppression, but for Mahto, death is the only way of escaping his wretched degradation.
A point of comparison with Peepli Live is Benegal’s Manthan (The Churning, 1976). Dr. Rao and his team go to a village in the hope of convincing the Dalit farmers to form a Milk cooperative. At first, Dalit farmers, Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah) and Bindhu (Smita Patil), are skeptical of Dr. Rao but gradually realise the value of economic independence. Eventually, it is Bhola, deeply radicalised, who takes on the feudal caste system of the village. Parallel cinema’s sympathetic construction of the low caste peasant farmer comes from a Marxist vein in tune with the origins of Subaltern Studies which ‘emerged in the 1980s in a dissident-left milieu, where sharp criticism of orthodox Marxist practice and theory was still combined with the retention of a broad socialist and Marxian horizon’ (Sarkar, 2012: 300). In a way, Mahto and some aspects of Natha recall Benegal’s construction of the peasant. However, such parallels are partial since Indian capitalism has suppressed the idea of peasant resistance, demonizing political radicalism as an adjunct of terrorism: ‘Anybody who resists today is called a terrorist. Poverty and terrorism have been conflated’ (Roy, 2012).
In Peepli Live, the final narrative trajectories of the subaltern reinstate the status quo: Mahto dies, Budhia is left alone while Natha escapes to the city only to become trapped again. Peepli Live’s pessimistic ending echoes Do Bigha Zamin whereas the Marxist perspective of Manthan fits into the mode of Third Cinema which aimed not only to give a voice to the repressed but offer political solutions/approaches in which resistance was possible: ‘Many third worldist films are preoccupied with the relations between intellectuals and the marginalised masses to whom they offer what Benjamin called mediated solidarity’ (Shoat & Stam, 1994: 279). Even a film doctrine as radical as Third Cinema still has to ‘mediate’, impeding opportunities for self-representation, and offering a constructedness that undermines the very loose Marxist aim of solidarity. A film like Manthan underlines ‘all the difficulties and contradictions’ (Guneratne, 2003: 20) inherent in Third Cinema mediation.
What we also see in Peepli Live is the ways in which the subaltern has been co-opted into the mainstream, and treated as a source of votes for politicians. For instance, Pupulaal, the ‘messiah of the backward castes’ offers his support to Natha but only as a means of attaining media visibility to attract voters. The once exploited, the Dalits in this case, now exploiting the misery of their own people points to the disunity, divisions and hierarchy that operates in the subaltern realm. Pupulaal’s visibility solicits the interests of the Chief Minister who forms an alliance with him. However, the price for such accelerated social mobility is by co-opting subalternity into the mainstream renders it altogether apolitical. Pupulaal who dresses and behaves more like a film star than a politician questions the way subalternity typically equated with the politics of a united front and revolutionary ideology has given way to the subaltern as an empty, fashionable symbol of the now. In this case, Manthan’s representation of the Dalit as radicalised subaltern is indicative of the 1970s politicised concerns with the subaltern, a concern now largely filtered through a media consumed by hyperbole.
Re-theorising the Subaltern: the neo colonialist migratory construction worker.
The final moments of Peepli Live are of real significance when it comes to the character of Natha, mapping a contemporary link to the migratory construction worker. The ending traces a journey from the village to the ‘liberating anonymity’ (Nandy, 2001: 72) of the city, a journey that is made by thousands of farmers each year. With few choices left, Natha leaves for the city and he is forced to do so by the bank. A dual economic exploitation made altogether more vindictive by Indian capitalism suggests that although the village and the city may still be separated by feudalism, capitalist exploitation affects both equally. In the closing shots, Natha is seen on a construction site with his face caked in a layer of dirt. Totally dejected, his invisibility is arguably more acute. The actions of the workers around him, digging, mirror that of Mahto, implying that no matter which milieu the subaltern occupies their contribution to the history of a new India will be forgotten. Final shots of the ‘real’ faces of migrant workers on a construction site expose the constructedness of Natha’s subalternity, reminding us of a continuous yet hidden historiography of the migratory construction worker. Since the faces are anonymous and do not speak, are repressed again, reinstates the subaltern as without a voice, implying the filmic voice of the subaltern is momentary and self-contained.
Both Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat are Aamir Khan productions. So it is not without reason the ending of Peepli Live with Natha’s transformation into the migratory worker is a subaltern representation that finds thematic continuity in the opening to Dhobi Ghat with the character of Selva, a construction worker in Mumbai. Dhobi Ghat was originally composed of five characters but director Kiran Rao took the decision to excise Selva’s character from the finished film. By doing so, Rao’s exclusion of the most prescient of subaltern representations, the migratory construction worker, raises many ideological questions. What remains in the films are two types of subaltern constructions: Munna, the Dhobi-migratory worker, and Yasmin, the oppressed Muslim housewife. Rao jeapordises the subaltern politics of her film by excluding Selva. Munna’s character is also a migrant worker but his subaltern construction is complicated by the allusions to the Tapori stereotype found in mainstream Hindi films. Rao includes the narrative of Selva as a five-minute deleted scene on the DVD. Selva’s story would have been incorporated into the film as silent moments but Rao argues the ‘punctuations became big pauses in the narrative’, leading to their eventual exclusion.
In fact, we do briefly glimpse Selva in the opening titles, working on a construction site, and in one shot he is juxtaposed to the image of the sun rising across Mumbai. The staging of such shots is questionable in terms of subaltern constructivism. Selva is framed at a distance, denied a close up and becomes just another part of the city. Given Selva is being constructed through the eyes of Rao, a member of the middle class, makes his Otherness altogether more ideologically contentious. The deleted scene is merely a snapshot of Selva’s routine as a worker. With no visible suffering other than pointing out selective conditions of loneliness and a desire to return home often connected with migratory workers presents Selva’s experience as merely cosmetic. The montage ends with Selva boarding a bus and leaving the city. At the same time, another worker who has just arrived in the city steps down from the same bus. Conversely, the implication of a vicious cycle cannot really be described in such terms since the montage is devoid of such censures, contradicting the bleak reality of the many workers killed on construction sites in Mumbai each year.
Lucia Nagib (2011: 1) says 'different cinemas of the world can generate their own, original theories'. If so, then would it be right to theorise a new subaltern neo colonialist category: the migratory construction worker who has been rendered completely invisible by Indian cinema? Also, would it be right to say that such exclusion suggests the subaltern is incompatible with a new historiography of Mumbai and India? If Selva’s absence raises problematic sociopolitical issues then what role do the characters of Munna and Yasmin fulfill in terms of contesting subaltern visibility? I want to return to Yasmin’s character later when I address polycentric subalternity but next I want to very briefly focus on Munna as a hybrid of subaltern and Tapori politics. Munna like Selva is a migratory worker but attempts to categorise him as one is complicated by his Taporiness: ‘Part small-time street hood and part social conscience of the neighbourhood, the tapori embodies a fragile masculinity that is narrated through a series of encounters with the upper class and the figure of a woman’ (Mazumdar, 2007: 41). Attempts to mask a subaltern identity with the veil of stardom presents Munna as a vulnerable migrant easily susceptible to middle class exploitation. The embarrassment Munna feels about his impoverishment makes him try to hide his subaltern identity. This deception becomes impossible to sustain in the face of Shai’s judgemental photographic gaze. In terms of exploitation, his subordinate position is doubly exploited. Firstly, by Shai, as a subject, and secondly by a housewife who views Munna purely as a sex object. Munna’s sexualisation by the women in the film is a significant reversal, remonstrating traditional assumptions of gender exploitation in terms of the subaltern. This claim is supported by Benegal’s rural trilogy, depicting a homogeneous sexual exploitation of subaltern women, consistent in many parallel films dealing with subaltern anxieties. Critically, Munna’s subaltern identity lacks a political voice. If Munna’s inferiority remains static and stereotypically constructed then Bhola’s liberation in Manthan seems iconoclastic. Such an ideological disparity reiterates the stagnation of subaltern representations.
Class Interactions as a means of defining the Subaltern
Another way the subaltern is defined in the films I have explored is through class interaction, which in the view of Andrew Dix (2008: 227) is an antagonistic concept, ‘The presence of class as an analytical category within film studies has been tenuous and intermittent’. The suppression of class in terms of film analysis is problematised by caste divisions, which determines subordinate and dominant groups. Class interaction and its relationship with an ethnographic gaze, Otherness and co-opting of subalternity needs further accentuation, which is what I will aim to do next. In Peepli Live, director Anush Rizvi critiques the indifference of the middle class media towards the subaltern. The camera, used by Nandita, a high profile news reporter, disavows the guilt of exploiting Natha’s misery. The camera creates a barrier between the middle class media and the subaltern farmers, resulting in minimal class interaction and reaffirming a familiar Otherness. Such minimal class interaction is echoed in the character of the Chief Minister, a symbol of the political elite, who is shown to operate at a further distance than the media, using intermediaries to consolidate power. Class interaction in Peepli Live is problematised by the deployment of a selective ethnographic gaze controlled by Nandita. When Rakesh, a local reporter, brings the story of Mahto to the attention of Nandita, her dismissive attitude is not only emblematic of media apathy but frames a pernicious middle class contempt demonstrative of a wider social malaise. Nandita’s discriminatory ethnographic gaze excluding Mahto from the news agenda contrasts with director Rizvi who attempts to go outside the periphery of subaltern representations. This is most striking in the final shots of the film in which the ethnographic gaze becomes most transparent with the documentation of actual migrant construction workers. This lapse into actuality is significant, showing a ‘mediated solidarity’, this time with an invisible mass.
Class interaction in Dhobi Ghat and particularly middle class constructions are even more pertinent and complex than those in Peepli Live, drawing on the work of Mrinal Sen, to underline subalternity. In Dhobi Ghat, looking at the subaltern through an artistic gaze unites the characters of Shai and Arun. For Shai, her relationship with Munna is through the photographic lens of her camera whereas Arun’s class interactions are defined through introspective painting. Unlike Shai who interacts on a physical level with Munna, Arun’s interactions with the subaltern are mediated through a series of video diaries made by Yasmin. Arun’s phantasmal interaction with Yasmin is mediated to inscribe traditional power relations. Mediation also means the subaltern is on display; entertainment for the middle class. Shai also re-imagines and projects the subaltern as spectacle. When Shai takes photos of Munna as a dhobi, she re-establishes a subaltern identity Munna is trying to disguise. The separation between the middle class elite and subaltern groups of Mumbai is underlined when Munna goes to deliver clothes to Arun. Arun opens the door and Munna sees Shai drinking coffee. Just as Munna is about to acknowledge Shai, Arun closes the door on Munna, excluding him from their world. If Munna is a project for Shai’s middle class photographic interests, a passing phase so to speak, then such a vein of repressed exploitation is also paralleled in Arun’s obsession with Yasmin. In fact, Arun starts to re-imagine himself as Yasmin, wearing the jewellery she has left behind in the apartment. However, Arun’s re-imagining of the subaltern is not predicated on political grounds but emotional and artistic ones, stressing yet again the subaltern is merely decorative.
For both Shai and Arun, disavowal happens through the safe distance of their artistic gaze thereby freeing them of any guilt with objectifying the subaltern. The gaze of the artist that results in subaltern objectification is strikingly evident in Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar (The Ruins, 1983). Shai’s photographic gazing recalls the character of photojournalist Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) in Khandhar, another middle class character who uses his camera as a defense mechanism to enforce disavowal from the subaltern subject. In Khandhar, a disassociation from the subaltern woman is enacted by the closing shot of the film; a photo of Jamini (Shabana Azmi) taken by Subhash on his departure from the ruins. Jamini, a prisoner of the feudal past, is suspended as a figure of dread and becomes imprisoned like Yasmin and Munna by a gaze that could be labelled as an example of ‘fascinating cannibalism’ (Rony, 1996: 10). Fatimah Rony’s theory concerning the Other is applicable in the context of the subaltern in both parallel and Indian ‘indie’ cinema: ‘The cannibalism is not that of the people who are labelled savages, but that of the consumers of the images of the bodies - as well as actual bodies on display - of native peoples offered up by popular media and science’ (Rony, 1996: 10). Rony’s idea of consumers as cannibals encompasses the middle class characters in the film and also the filmmakers. This is an idea explored at length by director Mrinal Sen in Akalaer Sandhane in which he uses the interaction between a film crew and villagers as a way of interrogating his own culpability in exploiting the subaltern for a purely artistic agenda. In theory, Munna is merely a source of ‘fascination’ for Shai whereas in Peepli Live Natha’s story is indicative of media ‘cannibalism’. In Akalaer Sandhane, a montage titled ‘faces of famine’ depicting real villagers simply looking at the camera deploys the ethnographic gaze yet transforms the subaltern subject into another example of ‘fascinating cannibalism’ for the film crew. Rony’s theory brings us back to the subaltern as spectacle, which is troubling for the spectator with the uneasy representations of subaltern identity on display.
Veritably, a brief discussion of class interaction in Benegal’s Manthan would suffice in demonstrating contemporary indie cinema’s refusal to challenge the status quo has meant subaltern constructions are ideologically contained by their very pessimism. Unlike directors Rao and Rizvi, Benegal approaches the political contestation of the village through a neo realist prism, dignifying the Dalit farmers as new egalitarian citizens. Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat is ambiguous about the interaction between the middle class and subaltern whereas Manthan is more optimistic. Dr. Rao is not out to exploit and as a symbolic extension of the middle class, his interventionism seeks to empower the subaltern. The role of ‘intellectuals’ as theorised by Gramsci in relation to hegemony is applicable in the context of Benegal, framing in particular Manthan as the work of an organic intellectual who speaks in a counter-hegemonic way for the subaltern. In contrast, directors Rao and Rizvi could arguably be labeled as traditional intellectuals who act as a voice for the subaltern but fail in doing so because of a reluctance to politicise the narrative.
Polycentric Subalternity & Reflexivity
I have already established the contestation of subaltern voices in Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat are somewhat limited in their ideological construction when compared to films such as Manthan from parallel cinema. Shohat and Stam (1994: 48) contend ‘within a polycentric vision, the world has many dynamic cultural locations, many possible vantage points’. Polycentrism is about ‘power’ and ‘struggle’, and films like Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat arguably represent the subaltern experience from multiple historiographies. The representation of Yasmin in Dhobi Ghat is articulated in the most innovative of ways and needs exploring in terms of polycentric subalternity, self-representation and self-reflexivity. In some ways, Yasmin is the most visible and invisible of the subaltern representations I have discussed so far. Yasmin contests her invisibility imposed by her status as a woman, housewife and Muslim, through the act of self-representation. She records her experiences as video diaries, addressing the camera and also the audience, thus actively making herself visible (although only to Arun). If the video camera is technology as liberation, empowering the subaltern with a voice then a further interpretation points to the potential of new media technology offering polycentric opportunities for authentic subaltern self-representations. In many ways, it is the act and not the experience that is of significance since the gaze in the context of a video diary is controlled and determined by the subaltern, not a mediator. Nonetheless, the video diaries also suggest the suffering of women like Yasmin are simply rendered invisible in the city of Mumbai. In fact, the first view of Mumbai in Dhobi Ghat, is through the eyes of the subaltern, and though we can’t see Yasmin, the fact that it is her point of view sets up a precedence of privileging the subaltern voice over more dominant groups. One can detect a degree of reflexivity in Yasmin’s character, especially given the use of the video camera, direct camera address and near dissolution of the fourth wall. However, on closer inspection, it is the relationship between Shai and Munna that Rao uses in the interrogation of her own status as a filmmaker and relationship with the subaltern. A parallel surfaces in Peepli Live as the character of Nandita, the journalist, stands in for director Rizvi, thus allowing her to adopt a similar interrogatory approach that recalls the work of Sen and in particular Akaler Sandhane.
In Akaler Sandhane, a film crew arrives at a village with intentions to make a film on the Bengal famine of 1943 that resulted in the deaths of at least three million people. Unlike Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat, Sen’s reflexivity is explicitly stated. The film director (Dhritiman Chatterjee), who represents the anxieties of Sen, questions the legitimacy of the film crew in their exploitation of the impoverished village. Reflexivity in terms of subaltern construction is evident in a number of ways. Firstly, the subalterns look on as actors perform their history for them. The actors extenuate such disempowerment, many playing themselves, such as Smita Patil, who mimics the subaltern experience. Sen uses Patil to criticise the unreal, superficial processes actors go through before they can perform competently. Sen does this by having Smita Patil interact with two seemingly dispossessed women in the village: a lonely old woman (Gita Sen) and a struggling mother, Durga (Sreela Majumdar). Secondly, the impact the film production has upon the village is starkly realised in the metaphorical assertion that it is the urban educated elite who accelerate poverty. The pressure on village resources leads to a key question; is the film crew in fact corrupting their identity, traditions and way of life? Thirdly, and most importantly, to make a film about the famine of 1943 masks another reality; an inability to comprehend and accommodate for the poverty of the now. The directorial self-criticism of this last point suggests the crew use the lens as a means of disguising shame and even guilt. However, the subaltern is defiant, and resist, opposing such exploitation, forcing the film crew to abandon the production. The final moments are given to Durga, the virtually silent peasant woman. Durga’s familiar story of subaltern oppression and loneliness is initially enacted by Smita Patil, but by the end, reality seems to imitate art, as we are told Durga’s son died three days later, her husband went missing and that she is now alone. Durga as the subaltern woman becomes an agency of marginalisation, implying that while the film crew can simply retreat from such impoverishment to the comforts of their privileged lifestyles, invisibility for the same subalterns being re-presented and re-imagined in a filmic world is fixed in time.
Conclusion: Freeing the Subaltern
If we are witnessing the reconfigurement of independent cinema then the proliferation of opportunities for oppositional representations is going to be intrinsic to the way subaltern identity is likely to be reconfigured in a neo colonialist context. Indian indie cinema has arguably re-opened the discourse of subaltern historiography but it has been problematised by a disconcerting lack of ideological engagement, apolitical constructions and a middle class meditation. Questions concerning regression and the invisibility of the subaltern are also largely true if one uses parallel cinema as a point of comparison. Parallel cinema arguably benefited from the Subaltern Studies project. The re-engagement with such a theoretical discourse from a cultural studies perspective may in fact be imperative if we are to see the intellectualisation of Indian indie cinema and subsequently the emergence of the subaltern as a collective agency of resistance, change and oppositional sentiments. Perhaps the clearest indicator that such a political shift could occur is gender related. Guneratne (2003: 23) argues ‘the films of women filmmakers Prema Karanth and Aparna Sen, remains among the most sensitively observed examples of India’s Third Cinema’. Given women are still considered by some to be a subaltern group, there increasing involvement with Indian indie cinema projects a radical proposition: that film can liberate the oppressed, empowering them to construct their own histories, identities and most importantly, speak with their own voice. In addition to Kiran Rao and Anush Rizvi, we can include Mehreen Jabbar (Ramchand Pakistani, 2008), Sabiha Sumar (Khamosh Pani, 2003), Nandita Das (Firaaq, 2008), and Rajshree Ojha (Chaurahen, 2007). In the context of the subaltern, speaking on behalf of the subaltern is progressive but when a group speaks for themselves, this is the point at which mediation gives way to a genuinely radical form of filmic emancipation, setting free the subaltern.
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Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953, Bimal Roy)
Shree 420 (Mr. 420, 1955, Raj Kapoor)
Jagte Raho (Stay Alert, 1956, Sombhu Mitra & Amit Mitra)
Sujata (1959, Bimal Roy)
Deewaar (The Wall, 1975, Yash Chopra)
Manthan (The Churning, 1979, Shyam Benegal)
Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, 1980, Mrinal Sen)
Kandahar (The Ruins, 1983, Mrinal Sen)
Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters, 2003, Sabiha Sumar)
Chaurahen (Crossroads, 2007, Rajshree Ojha)
Ramchand Pakistani (2008, Mehreen Jabbar)
Firaaq (Separation, 2008, Nandita Das)
Peepli Live (2010, Anush Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui)
Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries, 2010, Kiran Rao)
 Unfortunately, this essay cannot accommodate a defense of Benegal’s work, but the use of Manthan, Benegal’s most radical work, will underline his crucial role in the historiography of Subaltern visibilities.
 In 1980, the FFC merged with the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation, becoming the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation).
 The involvement of studio financing has fused commercial elements with the art film, replicating characteristics more akin to Shyam Benegal’s middle cinema of the 1980s.
 Hori Mahto is the name of the exploited peasant in writer Munshi Premchand’s classic Hindi novel Godaan (The Gift of a Cow).
 Do Bigha Zamin ends with the subaltern Sambhu (Balraj Sahni) looking despairingly at a factory built on land effectively stolen from him; industrial capitalism triumphs over the oppressed peasant farmer.
 I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Rao’s reasoning. Five minutes would not have seriously affected the overall shape of the film’s narrative. Besides, such punctuations would have been important in depicting the city as a site of contesting voices, struggling to be heard in Rao’s transient Mumbai.