Monday, 6 August 2012

Escapism in cinema, baa Kaushik keno Q

In the popular consciousness, "serious films" (or "festival films") are always cracked up to be rooted in reality. One tends to divide cinema into two mutually exclusive boxes - that which is meant to provoke thought and that which helps once escape from sordid reality into projected fantasies.

But then Gandu comes trotting along happily and messes things up. All attentions focussed strongly on its taboo-breaking full-frontal scene, few people - next to no one - seems to notice this "paradigm shift". A complete break with our "parallel" film culture: which has always been strongly grounded in faithful depiction of some sort of reality, even in the formalist works of Kaul and Shahani. (Kamal Swaroop's surrealist Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is the only exception.) The most persistent criticism of the film is its haywire narrative structure - most people I know who have seen the film couldn't figure what it was about and proceeded to dismantle it from that point on. 

This inspite of the explicit hallucinogen use in the film - sign enough to resign oneself to the fact the film is supposed to be very much like an drug-trip. In a talk by Q I attended, he revealed that the dhatura scene was shot in a time of deep self-doubt regarding his place as a film-maker. Relying mostly on instinct while shooting (without a script, like most of the film), he shaped the scene largely while editing it - retaining the free-associative sensory overload one experiences in a trip. It might be argued that the sex with the kitten never really happened except in Gandu's drug-addled mind. The use of lurid, vivid colour certainly hints at that - especially when compared to Q's use of black-and-white for the rest of the film (which he calls the film's surviving link to Bengali political films of the past).

Q is open about his post-modern influences and posits that Gandu is in part about the effect of digital technology on our lives. The significance of virtual avatars, proliferation of shit and the increasing difficulty to hold on to traditional notions of good and bad in the context of internet - all of these find a way into his film. One reason why I find it difficult to judge it myself - though I understand something of what it is trying to say - is because the critical apparatus I usually employ is useless here; the film has absorbed its criticism into itself.

The elitist notion brewed in intellectual circles is one of a commercial cinema for the proletariat: meant for them to escape the drudgery of their existence. Bollywood practically thrives on this streamlined notion of what is escapism, an idea it has succeeded in embedding into the popular consciousness. What these intellectuals don't mention - even though they experience it themselves - is how a lot of "committed cinema" functions the same way for them. In a world that forces a certain sort of lifestyle upon urbane educated people, it is hard even for the genuinely caring to get out of their comfort zones and do something. By living a proxy life amongst people who are real, and emotionally connecting with their plight, they (bourgeois intellectuals) seek catharsis. An escape from the routine-ness from their lives. Their stuff of fantasies might not be gauche designer-clad cavorting in exotic locations - perhaps a more sophisticated liberal outrage against the hardships of Iranian women, for example - but it's a fantasy nonetheless. In case I seem to be pointing fingers, I'll admit it applies to me too (hence this post).

I love Calvin and Hobbes for several reasons, but the biggest might be Watterson's realization that the most interesting parts of our lives are lived inside our heads. Hobbes talking, joking and fighting with Calvin isn't a conceit, it's an essential need in Calvin's life (who is essentially lonely and friendless, if you've noticed). One needs an alternative identity to get by.

Like Q does. Imagine a guy named Kaushik Mukherjee gleefully rapping "nada nada Horihor, khada tor bada!" ("shake it, shake it, Horihor!"). Doesn't work. Too much cultural baggage to allow one to be an iconoclast. Q. Non-descript. Enigmatic. Now you can do what you want!

Q performing with Gandu Circus in The Basement, Kolkata. Photo by Shovon Ray.

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