Editorial / Insider, outsider
Yawning in the darkness
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Wordplay is part of the armoury of any successful politician. Politicians use words to their convenience, sometimes to cover their tracks, sometimes to dissemble and sometimes to suggest something which is the opposite of their real beliefs and feelings. The better the politician at wordplay, the craftier he is. Indira Gandhi, in her time, was a master of saying one thing and meaning another. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee has slowed down physically, but has lost none of his skills in the use of words. The importance of wordplay was on display when the former prime minister, Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, and the current home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, deposed before the Liberhan commission, which is investigating the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Both Mr Rao and Mr Advani were key players in the horrible drama that was enacted in Ayodhya on that day. Mr Rao was then the prime minister and many felt that he, like the Roman emperor, Nero, had remained idle while an act of devastation was carried out. Mr Advani was on the other side. His critics have maintained that he was the real author of the demolition. It was his rathyatra that had roused the rabble. He had prepared the ground for the destruction of the mosque. Mr Advani had been present in Ayodhya and had witnessed the demolition. It is significant that both leaders, despite their innumerable political differences, used their appearances before the Liberhan commission to make political points.

The task of the commission is to find out what had happened in Ayodhya on December 6, to bring together a narrative based on a number of different versions of the event presented before it. Those who are being called to give testimony are supposed to help the commission in its task. Behind the commission is the will to truth. That truth may be elusive and multi-layered, but it harbours for its self-sustenance the illusion of impartiality. The testimonies of Mr Rao and Mr Advani emphasize this illusion. Both provided evidence that was self-serving. It might satisfy Mr Rao’s ego to say that he was “explaining to history”. But that was not why he had been called before the commission. History is quite capable of arriving at its own explanations without Mr Rao’s help. Similarly, the fact that Mr Advani had been profoundly depressed by the events of December 6, 1992 is of no consequence to the commission. Such a confession may absolve Mr Advani of his own feelings of guilt but it does not help in understanding the events of that day.

Mr Rao tried in his statement to explain his inactivity by passing on the responsibility to the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Kalyan Singh. Mr Advani decided to use the terms, de jure, and de facto to suggest what had been demolished was de jure — a temple with the superstructure of a mosque. Behind the Latin phrases is the refusal to explain or help explain why a structure dating back to the 16th century had to be brought down. That the anger of the crowd had precipitated the destruction is at one level self-evident, and at another deeper level, it is a refusal to answer the question why the mosque was the target and what had fuelled the anger. Mr Advani, because he wants to detract from his own role, glosses over the agenda of his rathyatra. Like Mr Rao, he is also content to pass the buck.

It is interesting to see the affects deployed in this act of whitewashing. History, Latin phrases, personal pain, court orders, betrayals are all called into play to help politicians project themselves in a favourable light. The self-serving character of both testimonies is to an extent expected since neither Mr Rao, nor Mr Advani would like to implicate themselves in the demolition of Babri Masjid. What is worth underlining is that the sites of their testimonies are complementary. Their personalities have become more important than the demolition: how they want to be judged by history has taken precedence over what was done to a historical building.


There is a rather magnificent image at the end of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!. Chaudhuri’s Gibbonian project is ending here, in sublime pomposity, with a vision of modern mediocrity. The scale of his vision is universal, apocalyptic. Yet, in the midst of it is this image, which could have come from the Roman satirists, or even from Shakespeare: “The intellectual world today is like a gigantic home for garrulous old men, who never mean what they say.” (It is tempting to recall that Thy Hand was published on Chaudhuri’s 90th birthday, and this is page 962.)

It would be unfair to Chaudhuri’s achievement in this book to associate this image, together with the great darkness that gathers at its end (“no observer can see a spot of light on the dark scene”), with the latest piece of cinematic pontification in Bengal. But Soumitra Chatterjee’s blind Shoshibhushon in Gautam Ghosh’s Dekha, and his protracted ragings against the dying of every kind of light, do look like a parody of Chaudhuri’s terminal vision. In fact, any grand vision of mediocrity is founded on a necessary disproportion — between the self-regarding grandeur of the vision itself and the puniness of what it looks down upon. And in this, Chaudhuri’s splendid apocalypse becomes its own caricature.

But what is Dekha symptomatic of, and why does this excruciating film embody the very malaise it is haunted by? Serious Bengali cinema — or the Bengali cinema that takes itself very, very seriously — is caught between technological progress and the death of cosmopolitanism. It has access to the best equipment, technical skills and local publicity, but has steadily cut itself off from global standards of artistic excellence. Reduced to a deeply provincial phenomenon, it produces, and is sustained by, an audience rendered increasingly incapable of informed and critical viewing, hailing the emperor’s — or empress’s — new clothes from a habit of unquestioning reverence and its more unsavoury form, craven sycophancy.

Paradoxically, the contemporary Bengali masters and their audience have been nurtured within a local cinematic tradition that was doggedly cosmopolitan, although largely determined by the artistic predilections of one man. The contemporary Bengali art film trails this heritage, like a “buried city of the past”, as Chaudhuri would say. But its incessant references to this body of work are part of a deadeningly narrow project. This is cinema in the age of regional television, holding the mirror up to a “Bengaliness” that could be packaged, with equal facility, for the apparently disparate worlds of fashion journalism, interior decoration, advertising, the TV soap, middle-to-high-brow fiction and poetry and the radical (or ex-radical) avant garde.

Dekha does consciously recall the dusk of the cosmopolitan god. It is impossible to sit through the film without continuously thinking of Ray’s last dismal trilogy. Ghosh’s use of Chatterjee, and of the staged sermon as a cinematic form constantly keeps that memory alive. In fact, a corridor of cinematic history opens out from the film, tunnelling through the entire Ray oeuvre — the lighter playing Für Elise (Jana Aranya), the empty cage (Devi and Charulata), the mists, hills, bird- calls and environmentalism of Kanchenjungha, Rupa Ganguly’s hair-do and dark glasses (middle-period Sharmila Tagore). There are parallel literary tunnels burrowing through little magazines, Krittibash, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath to Hutom Pyanchar Naksha. Political vistas open up from Ayodhya, through communism, Kamtapuri terrorism, Naxalism and Tebhaga, to the Partition. This is an exhaustive toyshop of the cultured Bengali heart.

The tonal parallels with the last Rays are also unmistakable: the highminded concern with ethical decline, the moralism, the potted anthropology, the soft- primitivist flirtation with subaltern local colour and the irresistible urge to educate. The audience must be taught that the lighter plays Beethoven, that Milton was a poet. Although the interiors and cinematography are much more technically accomplished than in Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha and Agantuk, the acting is similarly theatrical, the dubbing unnatural. This is a film that looks up from a deep, dank well; and instead of the croaking, we hear the exquisite Uma Bose, the “Nightingale of Bengal”. It is ironic that the mysterious uncle’s parting advice to the little boy in Agantuk is to constantly guard against the danger of becoming the frog in a well.

One could get away, of course, from the dourness of Gautam Ghosh’s self-flagellating Bengali to the slicker feel-good of the films of Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh. As cultural events, they are heralded with greater ceremony and take Calcutta by more lasting storms. It is also natural to mention these film-makers in the same breath because their films are increasingly beginning to look alike. One sees the same faces, hears the same intonations, ponders similar poignancies, explores the same interiors and visits the same emporiums. The films talk to one other with the same mutual admiration and familiarity as their makers do with each other on prime-time regional television.

These films hold a different kind of mirror up to their consumers. First, they too invoke the Ray-Tagore genealogy. (Chaudhuri makes a marvellous distinction between the real Rabindranath and the “fetish Rabindranath”.) Here again, allusive casting, among other things, could work very well upon an audience whose eye and sensibilities have been trained in the Bengali aesthetic pieties. Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab, for instance, brings back Charulata as well as Kanchenjungha’s Manisha. Bengaliness becomes here a claustrophobically incestuous hall of flattering mirrors.

Second, these films use a form of easy realism that could give to their audience the addictive pleasure of recognizing their familiar selves in the films’ polished surfaces. Rooms, clothes, makeup, speech, food, local references reflect back an everyday world that falls in exactly with the images designed for and distributed to a particular “niche market”. This phrase has been used recently by Rituparno Ghosh, who understands “the sentiment of the urban and educated Bengali who has purchasing power”. Like the packing in of cultural and political referents in Dekha, these films are usually centred around “issues”, whose political or sentimental imperatives usually distract the viewer’s attention from the aesthetic quality of their treatment. Paromitar Ek Din, for instance, affords a dizzying roller-coaster ride through menopause, the stigmatization of mental illness and the fate of spastic children.

Rituparno Ghosh’s canniness and candour in identifying this market are admirable. But what is lost in the process is a broader sense of the quality of the products that seem to be selling so well. As in the Hans Christian Anderson story, one misses a small voice in the general adulation, that would fearlessly ask a few basic questions. How good are these films? What is the reach of the market they are catering to? Who is praising them? By what standards are they being judged? It is really quite irrelevant whe- ther or not Rituparno Ghosh had seen Bergman’s Autumn Sonata before he made Unishe April. But it could, and should, be asked how the two films compare as works of art. On a ten-point scale, with Bhalobasa Ki Aage Bujhini at zero and La Dolce Vita at ten, how would Paromitar Ek Din score with a panel of, say, the world’s 20 most acclaimed artists, writers and thinkers? Why do all these perfectly natural questions, which are brought to bear on cultural artefacts all over the world, sound objectionably bloody-minded, snooty and even slightly blasphemous in this particular context?

But having risked this blasphemy, it might be worth coming back to Chaudhuri’s vision of universal mediocrity and actually taking its pomposity seriously. It could be a way into the apparent dichotomy of a technically accomplished and fairly prolific art cinema that seems to be mired in a fatal parochialism and cut off from global standards of excellence.

For Chaudhuri, mediocrity results from “a total upsetting of the balan- ce between man’s capacity to think and his capacity to make”, between Homo sapiens and Homo faber. The resounding title of the second volume of his autobiography is taken from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, a wonderful mock-epic satire of the literary and cultural shoddiness of 18th-century London. Before Pope’s poem ends with the curtain falling on a “Universal Darkness” (“Art after Art goes out, and all is Night”), there is an unforgettable moment, when the Goddess Dullness suddenly tires of her vast empire of half-wits, admirers, pretenders, dunces and their flatterers and patrons. Giving in to her monumental boredom, she makes herself comfortable in the gathering gloom, and then — simply yawns.



For art’s sake

Uneasy lies the head that wears the Chhattisgarh crown and unstable the mind. The CM of the baby state, is in a bad state himself. Ajit Jogi apparently is being hauled up in the assembly almost every other day. He even broke down alleging that he is being targetted for being a tribal. Ahem. Doubts here, particularly in the mind of the petroleum minister, Ram Naik, who has reportedly sworn to get more damning information on Ajit’s real identity and the “false affidavit”regarding it. To top it all, a sex scandal, involving Jogi’s close associates, has chosen this precise hour to spill out in Raipur. One of the ministers allegedly exploited a Chhattisgarhi film actress. The minister in question has claimed that he was merely trying to help the woman out as he is interested in art and culture. Jogi’s dear minister even went on to add that the honourable chief minister too had great interest in art, culture and the theatre. While the Congress president hasn’t yet taken exception to Jogi’s artistic leanings, she is in no mood to mollycoddle him any more. Madam has asked the CM bluntly to fold up his much cherished Balco campaign and set the house in order. It’s hard times for Jogi, and his detractors are pushing for the left-on-the-wayside SC Shukla to be made the Chhattisgarh Congress chief. That is for now. The CM’s chair is only a short jump from there.

A slightly different line

Mopping her tracks? After Mamata Banerjee left Rail Bhawan, her successor, Nitish Kumar, is said to be busy reviewing certain crucial administrative decisions of the Bengali lady. In the exalted circles of the capital, this is being viewed as some sort of a political vendetta. One alleged part of Nitish’s plan is to withdraw senior officers posted in Calcutta by Mamata. RK Singh, CEO of Eastern Railways, is said to lead this list. The officer was pulled out of Gorakhpur and given the coveted job. Singh is now being brought to Delhi. Another man to get the wrong end of the stick is the railway board secretary, BP Tripathi, also Banerjee’s favourite. He is being shunted out of the ministry into the food department. Sudhir Chandra, another senior bureaucrat posted in Calcutta, is also reportedly being removed from the city. Chandra was handpicked by Mamata from the South-Central railways. Nitish is alleged to be inquiring into a wagon deal as well. An inquiry is also supposed to be pending against Mamata’s aide, Alok Das. Is Nitish trying to spot didi’s gravy train then?

Making a superman

Congress ishtyle. But AICC general secretary, Mahabir Prasad still shocks most Congresswallahs visiting him. The former governor of Haryana, Prasad, apparently insists on being addressed as “maha mahim” (your excellency). Even senior leaders are not expected to meet him without prior appointment. The other day, the Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, was made to wait endlessly for the simple reason that he had dared to just “drop in”. There is another reason Prasad has suddenly become a centre of controversies. In Lucknow last week, the ex-guv severely castigated the former BJP chief, Bangaru Laxman, for accepting the bribe from men posing as arms dealers. But why single out Prasad for shooting his mouth when the rest of his gang have not reined in their tongues on the issue? Since Prasad also belongs to the weaker sections, he was probably expected to sympathize with Laxman’s fate. But it is too much to expect the maha mahim remember his humble beginnings, really.

Exit from the left

Red lights finally for the red brigade in West Bengal? The Party for Democratic Socialism which shelters CPI(M) dissidents has put up Bandana Nandy, niece of the late leftist veteran, Benoy Chowdhury, against CPI(M) heavyweight, Nirupam Sen, in the Burdwan (south) seat. The move is bound to embarrass Sen, who is being projected as the next finance minister in the left cabinet. Nandy, the PDS insists, is another comrade wronged by the party and in Nandy’s campaign the PDS is planning to harp on this. Saifuddin Chowdhury, the PDS chief, even claims that CPI(M) leaders are pressuring PDS candidates to withdraw from the fray. But more trouble. The convenor of the People’s Front, of which Jyoti Basu is the president, and Samajwadi Party chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav is seeing red after the left denied tickets to his party nominees. Yadav apparently telephoned Basu and even complained to Harkishen Singh Surjeet in Delhi, but to no avail. Yadav is now out to seek revenge. His party has decided to put up candidates against CPI(M) nominees in places it is confident about. “It’s the responsibility of the CPI(M) to ...concede seats to us for the sake of greater interest”, says a SP leader. Whose?

Footnote / And now for some electric blues

One thing’s for sure. Amartya Sen’s certificate of good conduct to the Madhya Pradesh CM, Digvijay Singh, doesn’t matter an iota to Bhopal’s residents who open their mouths only to curse the administration. Each day, there is a mandatory three-hour power-cut in the state. The water shortage is also acute, so much so that if Bhopalis don’t get up at 5 sharp in the morning to fill up their buckets, they go without water the rest of the day. But something more grievous has seemingly happened. For the first time, there was a power-cut in Kamal Nath’s Chindwara. The seven-time MP is obviously upset with Diggy raja, who says he cannot deprive the assembly, secretariat, or the governor to supply uninterrupted power to Nath. The war, however, is already on. Through his letter recently, Nath tried to incite some of Diggy’s ministers who favour free power supply to farmers. Digvijay is, however, adamant. He told his ministers that those who disagree with the cabinet were free to leave the government. Little surprise, no one moved a bone. Diggy’s won this round, but Nath is waiting to strike again. Let’s see who’s more powerful.    


Politics is in the stars

Sir — There has been a pattern in south India’s politics. Filmstars, who have reached the pinnacle of fame in their profession, switch over to politics after a time. This gives them another vocation, without impinging upon their status as heartthrobs of the masses. Giants like N.T. Rama Rao or Shivaji Ganesan apart, there are also those less wellknown artistes who have decided to follow the same path. These include Jaya Prada, Vijaya Shanti and so on. This has happened elsewhere in India too, as in the case of Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Raj Babbar and others. But what could the reason behind this be? Are our films so political that actors tend to equate the two professions?
Yours faithfully,
Jitesh Sonee, Calcutta

Prodigal daughter

Sir — It was great fun watching Mamata Banerjee and her cohorts striking up an alliance with the Congress for the forthcoming electoral battle in West Bengal. In the not-so-distant past, she had smugly marched out of the Congress and formed the Trinamool Congress, launching a scathing attack on the parent party and stating it had no “honesty” and was the “B team” of the Communist Part of India (Marxist).

What exactly has changed since then? Why has she changed her mind? Have the Congress leaders becoming more honest now? She thinks that this is her chance to become chief minister of West Bengal and she is bending over backwards to achieve this end. But these developments will bring into question Banerjee’s values. Her romance, alienation and divorce with other political parties is the leitmotif of her politics.

Yours faithfully,
C. Ghosh Choudhury, Calcutta

Sir — The prodigal daughter, Mamata Banerjee, has at last returned to the warm embrace of her Italian bhabiji, ostensibly to protest against the Tehelka disclosure. She first wanted a probe into the alleged deals and the resignation of leaders like George Fernandes, Jaya Jaitly and Bangaru Laxman as prea condition for her remaining with the National Democratic Alliance. But this too was not enough for her.

Banerjee has always been vain and has disregarded others in her dealings. When she presented the railway budget, she paid scant respect to revenue considerations. She insisted on a popular budget and in the end she got away with it.

Although she is talking about corruption, her main interest lies elsewhere: the chief minister’s chair. And for this, she needs the Muslim votes in West Bengal. Her alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party would hinder this. Therefore, she has had to cut off ties with this party.

Yours faithfully,
T. Das Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, has promised to root out corruption by providing a “transparent and healthy administration” and to usher in the beginning of “a new era of industrialization”. But how she is going to go about this is a mystery.

Banerjee has also promised to investigate the corrupt deals of the Left Front. After severing ties with the NDA in the aftermath of the Tehelka exposé, Banerjee is eager to project a clean image of herself and her party. Cleaning the administration of corruption and promoting industrial growth in a state which has seen hardly any development in the last 24 years will not be easy. Perhaps Banerjee will rely on her ability to scream persuasive rhetoric in order to succeed somehow.

Yours faithfully,
Mandira Haldar, via email

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