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  Our lives, their lives  

  Vol I : issue 2

  Noam Chomsky
  Amitav Ghosh
  Nirmal Verma
  MT Vasudevan Nair
Mrinal Sen
  Urvashi Butalia

Sunil Gangopadhyay
  Only in Print

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Mrinal Sen

Caricature by GOPI GAJWANI

One day many years ago, we were sitting in a public square in south Calcutta. My son, then five, and I. It was late in the afternoon on a cloudy summer day. The sky was dark. We apprehended a kalbaisakhi — a raging nor’wester where the furious winds unsettles all that is calm and quiet until it blurs the horizon and subsides soon after. Suddenly, the stormy wind was heralded by a terrifying flash of lightning. My son looked at the flash, amazed. So did I, frightened. It was tremendous in scale, stretching from one end of the northern horizon to the other. My five-year-old boy turned to me and screamed: "70-mm screen!"

I was taken aback and felt hugely intrigued.

I can imagine that in an identical situation my grandfather, at the same age as my son, would have probably compared the lightning to, who knows, a huge mythical bird spreading its vast wings. Or, for that matter, a Muslim grandfather may have drawn a parallel with the angel Jibrail.

But now, with science and technology dominating the social and cultural scene, my son used an expression that came naturally to him and which belonged essentially to the technological world. Interestingly, he had been exposed to the 70-mm screen in a city theatre only a week before. So he quickly rushed to something that grew out of his newly acquired experience — an expression which is no nation’s exclusive possession and which is everybody’s property. Obviously, it was a new addition to his vocabulary, and had no barrier — national, regional or linguistic. My son and I, both incorruptibly Indian, found it absolutely valid at the time, like anyone anywhere else in the world. Anywhere, to temper the statement with caution, that science and technology had made headway and anyone who had, in this specific case, seen a 70-mm screen. My son said it and instantly I realised that the world had come to our doorstep.

Simultaneously, I felt that as a communicator, which I had been for many years, I was at the crossroads. I will explain why I felt so...

Take a farmer boy living in a village who has heard of cinema and has watched perhaps only a few films or none, and obviously has no concept of the 70-mm screen. My son’s instant statement about that enormous flash of lightning would carry absolutely no meaning for him. In other words, this particular expression, which defies all conceivable national, regional and linguistic barriers, cannot be accommodated in his vocabulary. It’s the same for all those who, so far, have not been privileged with encounters of my son’s kind. And the farmer boy’s class throughout the country has far outnumbered the privileged class of my son.

So, I think, I am right in saying that this vast majority living in rural India, when faced with similar lightning, would certainly be amazed and amused like my son or be frightened as I was, but would, understandably, use an equally expressive word or phrase handed down to them by their predecessors. They could liken it to Jatayu or Garuda, both Hindu mythical birds, or Jibrail, Allah’s messenger. And the picture must remain more or less the same even to this day. The mushrooming of video parlours in the villages and small towns must have introduced quite a few words to the rural vocabulary. But ‘70-mm screen’, I am afraid, is still to find a place there.

What I am trying to say here does not concern the lightning, or the 70-mm screen, or, for that matter, the mushroom growth of video parlours. I am trying to focus on the communication gap that exists and has been steadily widening between the urban and the rural clientele that my community — the communicators — addresses.

My question is a very vital one: whom do I, the communicator, address? The metropolitan variety or the rural masses? Which vocabulary, and going further, which wavelength, as a necessary adjunct, do I choose? To work out an ideal situation, should I try a middle path — both in terms of words and images, and in terms of attitudes? In other words, do I have no choice but to compromise?

All these are likely to raise diverse issues on the aesthetic front with hardly any easy solution. Or, can such a debate as I envisage lead to any tangible conclusion? I wonder.

As a communicator, I need to cultivate a wider communication area. I must. But given the situation, how do I do it?

Certainly not by taking the middle path. Not by compromise either. Does it, then, mean I have no choice but to thrust metropolitan culture on the rural mindset? Is it possible? Taking a strictly moral position from which to look at the world, do I have the moral right to be party to the ruthless business of eclipsing the sky and the space and air, and the forests, the waters, fruit and the fish and all that offers life to the villagers?

I simply cannot. Which is why I say, as I take an aesthetic position that derives from the moral position, it is a continuing debate assuring no easy solution.

In this context, I am tempted to quote a fascinating comment of Rabindranath Tagore’s (Rabindra Rachanabali, volume 10/page 591). How about, he mused, sending a champion of the rural masses to invade a village with the sole intention of reading out to them a passage or the whole of Kalidasa’s Meghdoot? How long, Tagore doubts, they will suffer such torture. He suspects that it is quite possible that the listeners will treat this ordeal as a cognisable criminal offence. In his own language, with his inimitable sense of humour, he says:

‘I don’t know what category of poets Kalidas falls in, but as a poet he is praised by everyone. I ask you, if one gathers villagers together and subjects them to Kalidas, then can one not be charged under the Indian Penal Code? If in the time of Kalidas, the counsel of the masses overthrew Vikramaditya and forced Kalidas to produce assigned pieces, then would time put up with that poetry?’

Allow me to digress a bit and narrate an incident that nearly besieged me. No, it does not focus on the communication gap, but it relates directly to an issue that demands immediate attention — mine and yours.

In the mid-’70s I was filming a fictional work featuring the tribals — which I had never done before. The village we selected for shooting was thinly populated, with hills and forests all around. It had no electricity and was situated a kilometre away from a barrage.

My crew, my actors and I reached the location five days before shooting was to begin. I thought it would be necessary for all of us to familiarise ourselves with the people and the place where we planned to work for at least four weeks. All members of the unit were left to themselves. I gave my main actor a very special task — to take lessons on archery from the young tribals. And before we started shooting, my actor assured me that he had been given adequate training in archery and I could safely go ahead.

We started shooting on a certain day. The first shot was set in a bush with a waterfall flowing down a hill through the forest. The shot was that of my main character, a tribal and accomplished archer, aiming his arrow at an antelope hiding behind the bush. My actor was perfect in his mannes and remained intense before releasing the arrow. The moment I raised my finger — and that was the indication — the ‘archer’ released his arrow and I shouted "Cut!" It was an excellent performance and an excellent shot. "Great!" I said.

"No, it is not," said a tribal watching the shooting from a distance. "It is all wrong," he said in disgust. As he turned to leave, I asked one of my unit members to bring him to me. He came and was visibly agitated. He said, "Your man should not have used his thumb to hold the end of the arrow." On my asking why not, the tribal explained through gestures that the edge of the arrow should have been placed between the forefinger and the middle finger. "Why not the thumb?" I asked. He almost shouted at me and said, "Are we not the children of Ekalavya?"* I was stunned. I realised how strong and deep the roots of tradition were. How through centuries, this ancient story of a dedicated Ekalavya and a cunning Dronacharya had been handed down to these unlettered Santhals of an interior village in Bihar. I was overwhelmed. But what was most shocking and incredibly revealing came to me a year later.

I was in Paris. In an informal get-together where I did most of the talking, I narrated the story of my days with the tribals and eventually told a bit of the Mahabharata story involving Ekalavya and Dronacharya. When, at last, I told them about the connection that an illiterate tribal in a backward village could make with an age-old myth, most of my listeners, all French, responded enthusiastically. But a distant acquaintance of mine, who has an African mother and a French father, came out with a shattering truth. He was, in fact, somewhat of a professional archer too and appeared to know absolutely everything about archery. From a position, which neither my friends nor I could contest, it was he who said that my Ekalavya-Dronacharya story of thumb-cutting was highly suspect. Archers all over the world including the African tribals and Australian aborigines, he asked me to note, would never use their thumbs. He added, "Go anywhere, in any part of the world, even to the interiors of the inaccessible tribal belts, and you will see the archers placing the edge of the arrow between the index fingers and middle fingers." And from him I learnt that anybody found with a thumb on an arrow during archery could be safely treated as a pretender.

This was an eye-opener to me. To my utter surprise, I realised how a myth having no bearing with the basics of archery came to our culture through the Mahabharata. And nobody, neither our predecessors nor our contemporary academics, ever questioned it. Based on what I have just described, could I then arrive at a drastic conclusion that myths unrelated to life and reality must not be allowed to shape our history and tradition?

Here, again, I cite another example — another anecdote — which made me sit up. What baffled me and made me wonder was how a 20-year-old tribal boy of the same village, unlettered and uninitiated, reacted splendidly to a provocative question by me.

That was a day of festivity, the day before the villagers would start ploughing. They offered services to their gods, they sacrificed one pig, just one, to propitiate the gods — just one pig, for they could not afford more. They performed their rituals and drank a lot and danced a lot. With the first rain of the season the village women, young and old, queued up in a circle in a sprawling courtyard and danced. It was a kind of gentle ‘twist’ with graceful movements of the pelvis. Hypothetically, the land turned fertile with the first rain or, in other words, the land attained puberty. The young women’s pelvises moved in a kind of exercise that would ensure an uncomplicated childbirth. This, as an anthropologist friend pointed out to me later, indicated the existence of a fertility cult that has its roots in antiquity.

As the festivities gathered head, the people — men and women — went wild. Having worked for a couple of hours with great difficulty we decided to pack up for the day and watch the festival. My technicians and the actors were left to themselves. I sat with a group of people, and at a certain point asked them if they would be expecting a bountiful crop that year. The old man of the village, drunk to the full, looked at me and then, looking up at the sky — the abode of the gods — looked back at me. Sadly, he shook his head and replied in a monosyllable: "No". I feigned innocence and said, "You cannot propitiate the gods by sacrificing just one pig, can you?" The old man agreed. Right at that moment, a young boy, hardly 20 or even younger, looked up at me and said sardonically, "To propitiate the gods, babu, we do not have to look up these days. All we need to do is to cross the hills and the barrage and meet the gods sitting immaculately dressed in the irrigation office and pray. If only they are pleased" — the boy gave a mischievous smile — "grace will fall on us and water and fertiliser will be released."

I was shaken and amazed. So, here, in a tribal village — untouched to a large extent — without even in a primary school, with no NGOs or political parties invading the scene, a young boy with no education actually identified his gods not in heaven but at the irrigation office. Splendid!

I am not ashamed to confess that I am no researcher, not an academic either. It’s a pity. Had I been professionally equipped, I would have certainly rushed to the village of these tribals immediately on my return from Paris. I would have located that particular boy, one who had no problem in identifying his gods, would have taken him into my confidence and asked him a straight question, "If your society offers you a free choice, will you ever use your thumb to hold your arrow? Are you sure you will feel comfortable with the thumb?" And then, going a step further, depending, however, on his answer to my question, I would have asked him to confide in me and tell me what he thought of the Ekalavya myth. I wish he turned heretic.

I wonder if I have left the story of my son and the lightning far behind. Have I? I am not quite sure. But this particular story and several more of diverse natures have taught me many things and made me more cautious, if not wiser.

Now, I move over to another of my encounters with my son. This is my favourite!

It happened in 1983. Shortly after Satyajit Ray suffered a near-fatal heart attack, a letter was delivered to our tiny apartment. It had travelled a long way, from Chicago, USA, where our only son was working while he preparted for his thesis in electronics and computer science. The letter was addressed to my wife but it was meant for both of us.

My wife was busy cooking in the kitchen. She asked me to read it out. I pulled out a stool, sat on it and opened the envelope. I started reading it aloud.

It was a letter written, as I could see, in great haste while working in the laboratory. "Ma," he wrote, "you remember you once took me to a neighbouring theatre to see a film. I was a child then, five years old. It was your third viewing, you said, and my first — Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito. As you were watching the film, I saw you crying. Coming home, you cried a lot. You drew me close. You hugged me and said, ‘When you will be Apu’s age, will you do the same? Will you go the same way as Apu did? Will you run away from me and go far away to study? If you do, I warn you, the same thing will happen to us as in the film. When you come back, you will no longer see me. I shall be no more.’"

I paused and looked at my wife who was looking at me. Both of us were wondering what our son was coming to. I continued to read:

"Last night a few of my friends, all Indians, and Nisha and I went to the Chicago University Film Club to see Aparajito. It was my first viewing abroad. This time I cried a lot — as much as you did in Calcutta years ago. After the screening, my friends came to our apartment and Nisha made dinner for all of us. We had a heated debate after dinner and it went on into the early hours of the morning. Those of my friends who have decided to settle down here — and some of them have already secured respectable jobs — argued that mothers must not expect that much from their sons. They must not. Shouldn’t the sons care about their own careers? Mothers have no right to be so selfish. They must not tie their sons to their apron strings. It really is terribly unfair of them, the mothers, to take revenge by dying."

Revenge! So, my son and his friends got it right!

I looked at my wife and went back to the letter.

"Ma, believe me, I did not agree with them, I promise I shall return, I must. As soon as I finish my work."

At that point I distinctly recall feeling a lump in my throat. I looked at my wife. She got busy cooking to hide her embarrassment. She was crying.

Obviously, my son and his friends had no first-hand knowledge of the physical world where Apu was made to live. And, true, the story of Aparajito dates back to the late ’20s and the early ’30s, and the film was made in the mid-’50s. Finally, it was close to the mid-’80s that a batch of vibrant Indians studying in Chicago were watching the film and reacting with adequate intensity. The periods remaining far apart, the world of Apu had mysteriously come within easy reach of young viewers of diverse backgrounds in Chicago. They reacted, they argued, some differed, the rest agreed, and those who differed built their defence as if to contest an unspoken challenge.

I saw Sarbajaya, Apu’s mother, standing before me and wiping her tears. As we looked at each other, a kind of tribute surged in me, and most certainly, in my wife too — a glowing tribute to the master and his masterpiece.

I, the father of my son, can never escape Aparajito. Every time I watch the film, I discover in it a stupendous journey through distressed adolescence, stepping into refreshing youth and always looking into the wide unknown world. Here, in Aparajito, I watch the master’s unorthodox approach to the analysis and unfolding of the relationship between a mother and her only son, growing into adulthood. In our own regional set-up I discovered in the film the slow but inevitable disintegration of a seemingly unalterable relationship — with constant stresses and strains acting within — until the son finds new moorings in a metropolitan milieu in a changing time — intimidating, infernal and yet not so unfriendly.

Going through the hurriedly-written letter of our son, written in a computer lab, I ask myself if my son and his Chicago-based friends passed through the same experiences in their time as I did in my own time. I have a strong feeling that they had undergone the same experience but had reacted in diverse manners depending, by and large, on their knowledge and perception.

And this is where Ray’s Aparajito scores as a mighty human document valid for all time. Not that I was unaware of it, but the letter written by our son on an impulse — and written from a totally alien environment — lends a different dimension to my realisation. The letter re-affirms my views on Aparajito.

To conclude and to reiterate, Aparajito is the most contemporaneous of Ray’s films. The contemporaneity, as I see it — and my son’s letter proves it — is determined much less by the period captured but dominantly by the attitudes that are invested in exploring the characters and the relationships. My son, my wife and I keep in regular touch — on e-mail — he from Chicago, the same old Chicago, and we from Calcutta, my EI Dorado.

On July 21, 1999, I received one such e-mail in reply to mine. Here is his text:

‘In a mail last week you mentioned some polls that you saw about cinema. You said: "I am appalled by the colossal decline in audience taste — all over the world. Look at an opinion poll held last week in England among 60,000 people… In a list of 100 best films in the last 100 years the first place was that of Star Wars, the second was Titanic and then in the list was Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Godfather, Sound of Music, Schindler’s List etc etc. Nowhere in the list was Chaplin, nor was Woody Allen. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was towards the end, Cinema Paradiso was 95th."

I think you are drawing the wrong conclusion from this. This is a popular vote, so why should the results be any different? Any time in our history if we took a random opinion poll, you would have seen something very similar. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but art is an elitist entity — it always was and still is. [I must point out that I do not agree with my son on this.] If this was a poll of serious cinema enthusiasts, then you could have reason to be alarmed. Of course, it is possible that there is a general decline in audience taste, but this poll definitely doesn’t prove that. All it proves is that Star Wars is a very popular film, just as Harold Robbins is more popular than Camus or Shaw.

The same thing can be said about your other observation: "Recently, a television channel conducted an opinion poll on the world’s best actor in the last 100 years: in the first place was Amitabh Bachchan. Chaplin was fourth or fifth in the list, Govinda was ninth or tenth."

Why does it surprise you to see that Amitabh Bachchan is very popular? You already know that his films drew more crowds than anything else. If you poll the same people who crowded those theatres, then this is the expected result. There is nothing surprising or upsetting about it.

The bottomline is that democracy has its limits. There are certain things where majority opinion is real but meaningless. If astronomical principles had to be decided democratically then we may still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth.’

Unlike science, however, cultural preferences may be difficult to resolve in black and white. It is up to each communicator to choose his or her own shade of grey.

Mrinal Sen is one of India's most influential filmmakers. He lives in Calcutta