Left In Indian Cinema
During and after the 1950s a lot of mainstream films, particularly in Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam, clandestinely or otherwise sought to give expression to the prevalent left or socialistic thought. The euphoria of Independence, the dream of a new dawn had started to wear off, giving way to a lot of indignation, yet not complete hopelessness. But since purely propagandist, or direct-message films failed to make the grade, these film-makers decided to sugar-coat the same by incorporating the entertainment element as well. The formula worked, to a greater or lesser degree. But only for a while. The sense of ‘nationalism’ started to drown in visions of materialism. Indian cinema changed its course, though some of these ‘committed’ film-makers still continued to experiment.
In his Foreword to the painstakingly compiled latest issue of South Asian Cinema devoted to ‘Leftist Thought in Indian Cinema’, Adoor Gopalakrishnan states: “The left-oriented films are of various hues and colours. They allow themselves the scope for looking around, probing, observing, analysing and absorbing things with patience and compassion. Persuasion, as opposed to subversion is the innate nature of these works.” The issue, apart from exploring the depth and intensity of the fast-depleting thought in notably Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil cinema; contains interviews with the original neo-realist film-maker, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Saeed Mirza, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and reproduces translations of Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra’s famous lyrics like ‘woh subah kabhi to aayegi’, ‘saathi haath badhana’, ‘kahaan hain… kahaan hain… kahaan hain’, ‘nanhe mune bachche’, ‘ajab tori duniya ho more rama’, ‘dharti kahe pukaar ke’.
Sunipa Basu refers to a 1953 remark. In 1953, C Rajagopachari (Rajaji), recalls Sunipa Basu, equated Tamil cinema with alcohol, and its “pernicious influence on youth”. Summing-up issues pertaining to what really constitutes leftist thought, she states: “Kerala has a niche market for films treating left ideology; West Bengal has film-makers who regularly win awards for political films. Only those already committed watch them. Tamizh cinema plays a role in the political life of the people. Tamizh does not support an alternative or parallel cinema. Cinema is just one vast industry, all of it mainstream.” Like in the other languages, Tamil cinema too relied greatly on dialogue to propagate the left message, though there has been a considerable decline in the number of such films. As elsewhere, overt and covert references to prevalent corruption had begun to be a marketable item in Sentamizh, the spoken Tamil. Basu also lists out 23 films, from 1930 to 2003 that had meaningful expression of the Marxist thought, and there existed a yawning gap between Karvannan’s Thoondan and the B Lenin directed Oorukku Nooru Per.
In Malayalam cinema, leftist thought simply means hardcore communism, which is seeped into the very life of people, and its journey “exciting as well as tortuous, dreamy and frustrating, nostalgic and depressing, eventful and eventless; it is sometimes about the establishment and other times about power,” notes CS Venkieswaran, a Trivandrum-based critic and analyst. Unfortunately, Shoma Chatterji’s hypothesis rather than elaborating on the subject (since the subject is still alive and kicking in some degrees) limits itself to three of Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s trilogy. Because if at all there are any remnants of ‘leftist thought’ through volatile ‘political’ moorings, it is in Bengali cinema. Elsewhere, especially in Hindi films, to quote Girish Karnad what is seen is only “middle-class leftism”.
The first visible signs in Bengali found expression in Nemai Ghosh’s (a card holder) brilliantly crafted Chhinnamool (The Uprooted). Elaborating on the film, noted critic observes: “In retrospect, Nemai Ghosh’s film can also be seen as the journey of the displaced in the 20th century, a time when the largest number of people in various countries in Asia, Europe and Africa were uprooted from their environment and forces to go far away lands.” It was banned by the Government of India despite a liberal Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
And though in later years film-makers like Mrinal Sen have sought to carry forward the Marxist thought in the most diluted form, it was the iconic Rithwik Ghatak (who had done a cameo in Nemai’s film) whose cinema had any tangible impact. Unfortunately, Bengali is the only language other than Malayalam where films on the leftist theme continue to be made.
In his editorial comments, Lalit Mohan Joshi dishes out the menu by stating: “Leftist thought that espouses the cause of the common man was always an undercurrent of popular Indian cinema,” and the contributors deliberate “different aspects of leftist that have impacted” content until a point of time. Also, editorially speaking, the major drawback is the missing direction. Every contributor seems to be his own editor. So while the intent was correct, the execution went amiss somewhere. That is, perhaps, also because it is largely a compilation, and not specially designed and planned, though ultimately commendable attempt. The special number, dedicated to Mrinal Sen is illustrated profusely with black and white images, and also has contributions by Satish Bahadur/Shyamala Vanarase ‘Leftist Thought and Indian Cinema Some Unfinished Notes’; Rashmi Doraiswamy ‘The IPTA Effect’; PK Nair ‘Left Ideology’; Shoma A Chatterji ‘The Impact of the Leftist Movement in Bengali Cinema’; Partha Chatterjee ‘The Cinema and the Left in India’; apart from individual reflections on the cinema, and personalities of KA Abbas, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and Ritwick Ghatak.
Leftist cinema is dead in India, except perhaps to a certain extent in Bengali. In Hindi cinema, it has been replaced with communalism, especially in the post-1982 years. Almost all the leading practitioner, starting with Shyam Benegal, and including Govind Nihalani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, have switched gears and with that has vanished the soul of their cinema: it is no longer pregnant with progressive thought.
By Suresh Kohli