Monday, 22 September 2008

Secret Ballot

Amidst the semi-darkness of the early dawn, an aircraft zooms into sound and view, and drops a rope tied to a large box at its one end. As the reddish black slowly becomes blackish red with the advancement of the dawn, a soldier is seen carrying the large box, his figure dwarfed under the weight of the box. The landscape that we see silhouetted by the reddish yellow glow is one of rocks, shrubs and sands and beyond that a wide stretch of ocean.

The soldier places the box beside a tent on the ground. He opens the lid and stares inside. He draws out a letter, goes through it, puts it back in the box and closes the lid. He turns back now and walks towards a two-storied sleeping cot standing amidst the sands and rocks of the beach. He wakes his mate up from sleep and prepares to replace him (the upper bunk seems to be a storage place for cans of water and food and the lower bunk for sleeping. One of them stays on guard (dunno, guarding what though!) while the other one sleeps). He informs his friend of the arrival of the parcel box and that an agent would be coming to conduct the elections at 8 o'clock. His friend, the second soldier, complains that it's 8:15 already and that nobody has been there yet. The first soldier, annoyed at all the interrogations as he's trying to have his sleep, grunts back a few words of wisdom, "The agent will come sooner or later..." Time suits itself according to situation and people. He requests his friend to shut up and let him have his share of sleep after the long hour of duty. The second soldier makes a fire with a few log pieces and places a kettle of water over the poorly made chulha. He then sits over a nearby rocky bench and drinks his tea, with his gun between his legs, as he waits for the agent to arrive...

This is vaguely the opening scene of the short film 'Secret Ballot', directed by Iranian-Canadian fimmaker Babak Payami. Courtesies Dr. Vinayak Sen film festival organised by JU's Sfuran patrika and As it is, within the first few days of college itself , my favourite spots of hanging around (or better may be sulking around, or brooding... somehow I don't think I'm the sort of person whom you'll find "hanging around" with groups and friends all the time. I've two close friends here, but most of the time I wander about alone) within the JU campus had been marked as the Milanda's Canteen; the Worldview Bookstore, facing the canteen; the large courtyard in front of the Subarnajayanti Bhawan and the jhil paar facing the Arts department. The film was shown in the Vivekananda Hall which lies inside the Swarnajayanti Bhawan, though I entered it for the first time (and now that I've a really magnificent memory to attach with the Hall, I'll look forward to visiting it more often in future). The film ran in Farsi language and was a tale of some Irani village. I followed the film (and loved it actually) half because of the sub-titles and half because of the cinematic language it used. Having grown up watching a number of films in various languages ("variety" in languages of speech, art and style), I've known atleast that a film should be seen through it's own language. And, for that matter, 'Secret Ballot' did have an elegant language of it's own. I'll basically tell the story of 'Secret Ballot', which might be very monotonic for those who've seen this film (my apologies to them), but I'll try to capture certain moments from the film in words, which levels one up in artistic ecstasy.

The second soldier (played by Cyris Abidi), one of the main characters in the film (and whom I shall call 'the soldier' from now on. I shall also tell the rest of the story in past tense from here..) waited on the bench beside the beach. A steamer, from nowhere it seemed, drew up on the shore and a young lady (played by Nassim Abidi) landed over from the boat. She waved back to the others on the boat and asked them to come at five on the same spot. The soldier went over to her asking her what she was doing there. She said that she had come for the elections, that she was the election agent and, then, without waiting for a response, she went on (excited and tensed) to explain the election system, shaking the lists of voters and candidates, the ballot papers and the ballot box - "But I thought that the agent was supposed to be a man!", the soldier blurted out. The girl looked up, open-mouthed, at this unpredicted interruption in her plannings of the day's work. She patiently explained, " It doesn't matter if the agent is a man or a woman. The order is given to you that you'll accompany the agent across the desert. Since I'm the agent, you are to follow me." The soldier (possibly still searching for an unnoticed moustache perhaps) didn't get the logic. The whole phenomenon that a city woman, wearing a burqa drawn back from her face, is nothing but actually a government bureaucrat in charge of the local voting (a task that's so much male!), seemed totally indigestible. To add up, a girl who seemed to understand law and legality and seemed more intelligent than himself. The bickering continued for some time, but eventually the soldier ended up bringing the army jeep out of the tent and off the couple went with the ballot-box and the election lists on a very rare kind of an "election trip"...

Consequently, the soldier (and the audience) is pretty impressed by the determination of the girl in collecting votes and making sure that people "feel free on the election day" and that the country must be "democratic" true to the word. A lot of people despised the soldier because he carried a gun. Truly enough, actually, he had considered holding the first voter of the day at gunpoint necessary while he voted and had actually led the poor fellow run and cry in fear. It took a great deal of patience and voice from the girl to convince him that voting was a choice and that guns never could give people the essence of freedom. As the day advances on and as a parallel story runs about how a chord of attraction silently develops between the agent and the soldier, the viewers also come to glimpse into a pathetic world of darkness and negligence. People of this country are mostly illiterate and poverty-stricken. They are simple people and live primarily on orthodox notions of male-chauvinistic ideology. There comes an instance in the film when a twelve year old girl comes forward to vote. The agent has to explain that only people above the age of sixteen were allowed to vote. The girl's mother from behind the burqa says, "If she can marry at the age of twelve, why can't she vote??" The agent opened her mouth to reply, but not finding her voice, she shut her moth back. The bare fact that the little girl didn't marry on her own wish, that is, saying "she can marry at the age of twelve" is how vehemently incorrect lay open right in front of her. That, the child had a whole household to shoulder and give up her childhood wasn't a matter to be credited upon - explaining all of these seemed pointless at the moment. She looked at the young girl for one long moment and then said instead, "The order is as it is. I can't help it..." In this way, almost literally, the agent left no stone unturned in collecting votes from all possible corners of the region. At one point, the soldier asked the girl, "When will be the elections held next?"
"After four years, of course."
"Why after four years?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why can't the elections be held before that?"
The girl stared at the soldier. Noticing the stare, the soldier tried to make it sound if not more polite but pathetic, "I mean, why can't the elections be conducted twice or thrice a year?"

Another memorable incident: they went over near a beach, where electricity from solar energy was being generated. An old man, seemingly the only inhabitant of the region, came out of his hut. On being asked to vote, he shook his head vigorously and protested that he wasn't going to vote for anyone but Allah. His only representative was the Almighty. The girl explained, "But, Almighty isn't a candidate here. You'll have to choose two among the candidates given in the list." The old man didn't seem to understand. He went on, "The only one who has ever met with my needs and demands is Allah. I have sat here for months and years and have looked at the sun and have adjusted the panels to capture it's energy at different hours of the day. I know no human being, not you, nor I, can make sun move as I wish. Only Allah does it. I've known only Allah and he's my only candidate. I'm going to vote for him." Saying this, he wrote the name of his Allah on the ballot paper. The girl sighed and put it in the ballot-box.

It was after 5:00 pm. Dusk had fallen low. Time to go. After a few moments of silence, the girl said, "The boat has left without me."
The soldier replied, "It's just been five. They'll be coming soon. Don't worry."
Impatient, the girl said, "How could they do this?"
Straightening himself, the soldier said, "They'll come sooner or later... Time suits itself according to people and situation."
They parted. But before parting, the last vote that the agent collected was that of the soldier who accompanied her in her strange quest on the strange island: the soldier wrote the name of the agent girl on the ballot-paper. There was a buzzing sound in the background and the soldier's friend appeared running in the horizon shouting that it was an aircraft which had come to take the election agent back. The girl made a rush for the landing airplane and the bird flew off.

The friend informed the soldier that the bed was free for him now. But, the soldier refused. The friend insisted that he had had a long day, that he ought to have some rest. The soldier replied, "I can't sleep. Anyway, I'm not tired today. I'll stay on guard tonight..."Amazed and amused, the friend went off to bed.
The soldier took his seat on the rocky bench, with his gun between his legs, as the sun set down...


I'll limit my opinions in this part of the post to just one aspect of the film (the post is long enough anyway. I suppose, some readers will find this bit completely out of the context, but, may be, we can discuss the other aspects of the film in the 'comments' section). 'Secret Ballot' gives us a glimpse of a stage of our own lives - a wide span of time squeezed into 2 hours and 15 minutes. The meeting, the budding relationship and the parting - doesn't the sequence seem to be known? It does. I'm not considered if the agent and the soldier will ever meet again. But, the story ends here. And they part.

We meet people. We get acquainted. Some "meetings" remain to "acquaintances". Some go more than that. Some get so deep that their fragrance promises to live for a lifetime. Some do fulfill the promises ["promises" (??)]. And for some - the road forks into two and we take on different paths. Sometimes, our instincts give us a prior-indication of the parting that's coming on, of the painful end these once-upon-a-meetings arrive at. And, sometimes, the ends come in shocks and surprises. May be, it's the wish of the time. As time and life would have it, we think. And then? May be, "love fades away with time"...

Sometimes, it is awaiting. We wait for the right time to come and somehow, we know it'll come some day. We wait for the return of our friends, our loved ones. The roots that once bound us still remain in one of our hearts, with all it's elegance and beauty. We wait.

Sometimes, we choose to forget. We choose to move on. We bury our thoughts and tears deep under what we imagine to be a very heavy and huge boulder. Deep down, we promise to ourselves never to bring alive the memories of the past one's in words. We imagine to forget, but it's one of the few things that we seethe with the deepest profundity in our memories...

"... dine dine kothin holo kokhon buker tol -
Bhebechhilem jhorbe naa aar, aamaar chokher jol.
Hothat dekha pather maajhe, kanna tokhon thaame naa je -
Bholar tole tole chhilo oshrujoler khela..."

People come and they go. 'Secret Ballot' reminds us the rhythm of life. We make friends, we fall in love, we lose them... We meet new people, make new friends, lose them afresh. New smiles, new tears. New hellos and new good goodbyes...

"Shudhu jaaowa aasha, shudhu srote bhaasha,
shudhu aalo-aandhaare kaanda haansha..."