| Ray behind Antonioni
Often simple moments are the most revealing. In 1993, I made a film called Tales from Planet Kolkata and was invited to show it at the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany. The film was a take-off on the different image-straight-jackets Western media have constantly tried to fit around Calcutta, and an examination of the motives from which these attempts came, whether the culprit be a brilliant cineaste like Louis Malle in 1969 or a no-hoper, kino-carpetbagger such as Roland Joffe in 1992. In putting together the film, we used a variety of cinematic quotes and visual languages, from tongue-in-cheek quotes of Ray, Ghatak, Coppola and Antonioni to clips from Sixties British TV newsreels to patua performances by Dukhhoshyam Chitrakar. The film showed in competition at Oberhausen, and the response from the viewers and the jury was gratifying.
As I went into the question-and-answer session the day after the final screening, I had every reason to assume that this international audience and I were on the same page, at least as far as this kind of cinema was concerned: we were all au fait with different non-commercial, anti-narrative strands of cinema that included film-makers such as Dziga-Vertov and (Calcutta’s beloved) J.L. Godard; we accepted that a modern film-maker had not only the right but, somewhere, a moral duty to explore and push the form; we had all, I assumed, gone far beyond the need for simple join-the-dots explanations to be woven into a film itself. It was a foolish assumption on my part. Among the intelligent questions — and the praise, from which no artist’s ego is immune — came this one from a German film critic: ‘How can you make a film like this' How are we here supposed to understand all these obscure references to your culture!'!’ The man wasn’t being merely sharp, he was well and truly furious, completely and utterly incensed. It took me a few moments to process it, and, in turn, his question suddenly turned me incandescent with rage.
I thought of all those film-society screenings, of watching Bergman, Godard, Fassbinder, Tarkovsky et al, and coming out and trying to decipher and decode all those references completely internal to the cultures from which those films had emerged. Why was I, a Calcuttan, supposed to try and make sense of an extremely long-drawn-out slow motion shot of a wooden table in a pine forest overturning, throwing off a loaf of bread and a jug of water as it flipped' What the hell were these marionette-like figures doing, frozen decoratively in a vast palace garden, and why should I have been interested' What was the significance of a woman blowing up herself and her house as she bent forward to light her cigarette from the gas range' What journey had I taken that brought me to a point of thrill when a woman came out of a photo-booth and said, blandly, the words: “Masculin. Feminin.”' I had a good answer to these questions, but my own question was: why were we, all of us, as Indian or Asian or Third World artists, supposed to stay corraled in the narrow pen of the ‘universal humanism’ i.e easily readable, mainstream, Western-structured narrative'
I can’t recall the exact answer I gave the cretinous critic, but I remember it was satisfyingly scathing. Most of the audience laughed and applauded, one or two others even taking issue with the man in impassioned German. But if I thought I was participating in a new dawn of free exchange and fluid transfer of expression between the North by North-west and the South, I was going to be comprehensively and repeatedly disillusioned. What the man had signposted by the tone and content of that single question was the following:
a) The rules applicable to you of the South are different from the rules applicable to us in the West.
b) This is true not just of politics and economics but also of art or any creative endeavour.
c) Political and economic power resides with us — the customers. You, as a supplier from a needy part of the world, are also the supplicant. We, therefore, have a right not only to demand that all exotic artistic fruits of the world be brought to us, but also that they meet our stringent conditions in terms of shape and size. Or, to put it differently, we want a home-delivery of meaning, just as we want home-delivery of pizza, chow mein or tandoori chicken. In future, please make sure we don’t have to make any unseemly extra effort such as reading connected books, seeing additional films, attending lectures or checking the net in order to decipher what you are trying to say.
d) We, on the other hand, retain the right to make and say exactly what we want in the arenas of art and culture, and we expect you, you little parochials, to see, admire, aspire to understand and to genuflect. Because, of course, we are and forever shall be the centre of the universe.
Now, it’s true that for every pin-minded First-Worldist, there are many many Westerners who absolutely do not share this ‘value-system’. But what continues to shock is the way some people, people you would least expect to, unconsciously fall into the trap of cultural racism. Currently, I’m reading a wonderful book called Heat by Bill Buford who was the editor of Granta magazine for 16 years and, before that, the fiction editor of The New Yorker. In this book, Buford’s recounting of his foray into a high-pressure NYC restaurant kitchen is marvellous, his exploration of traditional Italian food fascinating, and some of his dscriptions, of food, of humans, and of the strange processes linking the them, are gripping. But there’s a tiny but telling blip. While researching the development of the Italian corn cereal called polenta, Buford tries out a pre-Columbus, i.e pre-corn, recipe: ‘Traditionally polenta is a winter dish…but after a bowl in its barley form I came away with a grim historical picture of what January and February must have been like for most of humanity, miserably sustained by foods that were colourless and sad, like the season’s sky.’
Most of humanity, Bill' January and February colourless and grey for most of our ancestors' All our food, then, sad' Or do you, by ‘humanity’, mean only the sorry, backward, post-medieval, primarily Caucasian, population of Northern Europe' Yes, he meant just that, and yes, if pushed, Buffardo Bill may even correct himself. And anyway, you could argue, this is trivial, or, if you like bad puns, a trifle. But the fact is, it’s but a short transit from most of humanity eating grey polenta to the words of a widow of a WTC victim speaking to BBC World on the fifth anniversary of nine-eleven: “2, 749 people were murdered that day, and I want a world-class memorial to commemorate those lives,” says the woman, quite understandably in sorrow, yet quite remarkably poised and articulate, “…young, healthy, able people who were murdered here that day, and I want the world to come here and pay its respects.”
Yup. Uh-huh. Sure. Me too, I want the world to pay its respects to innocent victims of butchery. And pay its respects especially at each and every one of those locations wherever young, healthy and possibly able people were cut down in their thousands, never mind all those places where the old, infirm and disabled met an arguably less untimely albeit sudden end. Where shall we start' And from how long ago is allowed' Johnson and Nixon’s Vietnam and Cambodia' Menachem Begin’s Palestine' Ronald Reagan’s Africa' Madeline Allbright’s ‘acceptable collateral damage’ of a 100,000 dead kids in Iraq' Or do you insist we stick solely to Osama bin Laden and George bin Texas’s downtown Manhattan'
Some might find the connection between a critic’s reaction to an Indian art film and a grieving widow at Ground Zero a bit tenuous. So let me put it another way: what Osama and gang did that day was the ultimate kow-tow to Hollywood narrative, a ginormous climax with crashing planes, smoke, fire, collapsing towers, screaming crowds running down the avenues, they took the finale from a mainstream blockbuster (how eerily ironic that word now becomes) movie to its ultimate logic; on the other hand, the slow and meticulous ten-year-long blockage of crucial medicines to Iraq is, perhaps, a hard-to-follow, minimalist, avant-garde performance, and a B-52 bomber, sitting many thousands of feet above the earth, dropping napalm on a carpet of green tropical jungle doesn’t quite have the same narrative payload; perhaps what is also created by these and other acts by Western agencies is a set of references internal to each bombed culture, references which are hard for outsiders to decipher — box-office suicide, in other words, and not something that can compete with the mother of all box-office suicides.