Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Women to the Fore

Director Rituporno Ghosh's English film of 2007, "Last Lear", which is adapted from the virtuoso Indian thespian Utpal Dutt's autobiographical Bengali play "Aajker Shahjahaan", has at its core the dilemmas of a cranky old retired Shakespearean theatre actor and the tensions of him doing his first ever film, after some initial prodding, under the direction of a perfectionist young film director. The film starts with his young female co-star, whose husband is a violent and suspicious man, refusing to go to the premier of the film and instead going to see the veteran actor who is in coma and then the whole film rolls out in flashbacks and current sequences to a tragic climax. Despite being over two hours long and often with long Shakespearean dialogues, the film never flags and even though some reviewers have said that the ending is a bit contrived, I do not feel so.
However, my interest was piqued not by the main narrative of the film which is something that has been portrayed quite often in theatre and cinema from various angles, most famously in India in Guru Dutt's "Kaagaz ke Phool", but by two sub-narratives which I feel contextualise this film in very important contemporary ways.
In fact one sub-narrative, the more important one, that of the subordination of women and their rebellion against this, kicks off the film and takes up quite a lot of its time. Like in Shakespeare's King Lear, there are three women, the veteran actor's young co-star, his live-in partner and the nurse who is taking care of him. All three are in various ways suffering from patriarchal oppression but yet initially when they first meet they are all antagonistic to each other. But the beauty of the film is that as it unfolds and these women interact with each other and reveal the various oppressions they have gone through and are currently suffering, they begin bonding with each other and in the end become friends at the moment of its tragic denouement. Shefali Shah as the live in partner puts in a virtuoso performance, far outstripping other major actors like Preity Zinta as the young co-star, Amitabh Bacchan as the veteran actor and Arjun Rampal as the film director and has deservedly won the "Best Supporting Actress" award in the National Film Awards of 2009. The live-in partner is not oppressed by the veteran actor but by societal norms which look askance at such "illegal" relationships. In the end she poignantly reveals why the veteran actor suddenly decided to retire just a week before he was to act as King Lear. This revelation is a major statement of the extent to which women are burdened by patriarchy in this country and the price they have to pay for rebelling. Once again, even though some critics have questioned the plausibility of the reason for the veteran actor recusing himself from acting as King Lear I feel it is a great gender sensitive master stroke from Rituporno Ghosh that has considerably increased my respect for him.
The other sub-narrative is a comic one but has a very serious message. The veteran actor is angry that men frequently, on a daily basis, urinate on the wall of his house!!! He keeps a vigil and chases them away. Later when the young director has succeeded in establishing a rapport with him, he installs a CC TV and so they can sit in the comfort of their room and watch. Then, instead of chasing away the urinators they play a game trying to guess what they do for a living in life. The urinators are not just poor people but well heeled car driving men also. This sub-theme too carries on to the climax. The cavalier attitude of Indians, especially men, towards sanitation, which is today a serious environmental and social problem in this country with most of its rivers polluted beyond redemption has been cleverly woven into the story in an unobtrusive way lending it a comic sub-theme and once again this has served to further increase my respect for the departed director.
King Lear is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare's better plays, some critics say it is the best, underlining how greed can distort humans, and the director has cleverly drawn from some of its motifs to craft a very good film. The icing on the cake is the very soft, almost indistinguishable, playing in the background of classic Hindi film songs from films like Pyaasa, whose lyrics echo the conversations going on between the three women. All in all a great treat after a long time from Indian cinema. 


Bhavana Nissima said...

These kind of info makes me wish I had TV and I could have watched this movie. I am really intrigued about what reason the veteran actor retired. And I still haven't grasped how the three women reeled under patriarchy. Some examples please?
Re: the second part of guessing game around urination, I seriously want to watch this sequence.
But I have to ask you a question about "sanitation" and such. The british had the tendency of dividing areas in the home and city into various sections--bedroom, dining room, washroom and areas into garbage collection area, city admin office, officers bungalow areas so on and so forth. We Indians it appears didn't have such clear cut divisions and basically had ways of life that was rooted in interdependence. Urination in patches which could use and mix the same. So is the problem our apathy or the reality that our social psyche hangs between multiple traditions and multiple modernities in painful ways?

Rahul Banerjee said...

The young female co-star and the nurse are both troubled by their husbands who are jealous and violent and seek to prevent them from leading independent professional lives. The live-in partner is stigmatised by society. People passed a derogatory comment on this lady during the rehearsal of the King Lear and that incensed the veteran actor so much that he decided not only not to act in the play but also to give up acting altogether and go into retirement. At that time the lady was carrying the actor's child unknown to him and she quietly had an abortion without letting him know.
With regard to sanitation in India we have had a very bad tradition wherein a certain section of the Dalits had to do headloading of faeces and also cleaning of sewers so that the upper castes could live in relative cleanliness. Later the British introduced modern systems but these are extremely costly to install and run and so they are not being run properly. There are neither adequate public toilets and nor are the wastes being properly treated before being released into the environment.