Art and the Obstinate Expectations of Avant-Gardism
February 26, 2018
For the mouths of cinema lovers, who have stretched out their tongues to taste everything—from Swedish to Iranian and African to Japanese cinema—Mukkabaaz turned out to be placid; lacking a tenacity which could grip your heart and land a punch right where it would hurt. It was fleeting in its narrative, like a regular unnoticeable co-passenger on your everyday local train, or like the elevator symphony (which you cannot distinguish from Beethoven but would label mediocre for the sake of it); unadventurous; devoid of metaphors and dialogues that can fit as the postscripts of sincere love letters; too ordinary, too realistic, and not typical of Anurag Kashyap, just like Wild Strawberries was not typical of Ingmar Bergman and The Elephant Man was not typical of David Lynch. For a country, which has seen cinematic marvels like Sadgati and Fandry crafted on the eternal caste-divide, Mukkabaaz is too verbose and loquacious, needing to use the instruments of surnames to tell who from whom, single-mindedly focussed on character development to the point that the audience feels empowered to predict the screenplay, making the political so personal that the “intellectually bourgeois” class of audience feels nauseous because, for them, art is good art only if it can have multiple interpretations. Abstract and absurd is the new art-house, the only one. Susan Sontag had called it “programmed avant-gardism,” where an audience looks down upon an artist because he left nothing un-deciphered for them to go home with and, mentally, ruminate over. It is but a common misconception to believe simplicity cannot be profound; so strong is this misconception that it might inhibit our acceptance of a film, only because it speaks a language without a mystifying accent.
Susan Sontag wrote in her essay, “Against Interpretation,” “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.” The prejudice of the elite obstructs the very establishment that modern cinema wanted to overthrow; standardisation, constructs, restrictive definitions of what qualifies as “good enough,” a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, and a wish to replace it by something else. Mukkabaaz was reduced to the linearity of its content, while what makes it stand alone as a piece of art was totally missed, that is, the form rather than the content. A portrait of ordinary human life where politics, culture and relationships intertwine and find themselves entangled in an irresolvable, unyielding knot.
If I could put the movie in one line, it would be from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, “I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” Amidst small town vandalism and inescapable poverty, Shravan struggles for the simple luxury of employment. His identity is disputed in a world where it is, exclusively, the Brahmins who qualify for legitimacy, which you can sniff out from the casual conversations where only Chaubeys, Tiwaris, and Mishras are found seated in the majestic chairs charged with the power of authority. Families are weaved together with the threads of bloodline and tradition, politics follows your footprints to the extent of your kitchen, deciding, not only your future, but your diet; and, despite the brutal clutches of circumstances and inevitable social conformity, love always manages to slip out. The love story of Sunaina and Shravan is a wordless one that does not fit into the conventional expectations from an “affair”; in it, all that is understood is in the language of sacrifice and promises, where the seams of trust (well-knit with assuring reciprocation and inexhaustible love to pour into one another’s hearts) bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless minds. But their fates are not equally spotless. The battle begins every time Shravan steps out of the boxing arena, and life knocks him out as many times as he gathers the courage to tighten his gloves—once, when he refuses to accept that apprenticeship is synonymous to slavery; again, when he mistakes a wedding for a happy ending; again, with the hard-hitting realisation that government jobs are more about tolerance and hierarchy than discipline and honour; and, for the final time, when he realises that some battles are won not by obstinacy but by compromise. That ambition is but a small trade-off if on the other side of the table, there is stability, love, security, and comfort. That, at some points of life, you must have your tea, even if it means to abandon the hyped worldly pursuits of passion and success (or, as one of the songs puts it, “Bahut hua samaan, tumhari aisi taisi”).
Every other character is but a resurrection built of the same matter, some with a mixture of more empathy and less greed, and some with more pride but still an equal fear of losing everything. In one of the scenes, a Yadav takes a video of a Thakur arranging empty teacups on a table and reminiscences, “At one time our fathers used to work under the Bhumihaars; look how the times have changed,” framing, in a sentence, the history and sociology of India. In another scene, two brothers talk about what makes a Brahmin the revered “upper” caste, only to realise that it is neither power, nor wealth, but an imaginary ego-feeding sense of false pride. There are no shades of extraordinary hyperbolic absurdity with which the insignificant lives of the characters are painted, no allegorical signature of the director left behind in subtle nuances involving the furniture or the sky or shadows or reflections, no raining of frogs or Birdmen or resplendent references taken from classical literature; it is nothing but a raw depiction of unexaggerated, un-glorified, small town monotony with its scooters, its cracked walls aching for whitewash, its ugly sunsets that no one cares to compose a quartet for, the dust in its air which settles on every pair of eyes that ever cared to dream beyond the contours of the city, its sloppiness and shadiness and struggle for survival.
In a world where there are enough writers like Samuel Beckett, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust, there is also a lot of space left for Jack Kerouac, George Saunders, and J D Salinger. In the Indian context, this film reads like a book by Aravind Adiga, Jeet Thayil, or Rohinton Mistry. As Sontag wrote in her essay,
The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one… The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”1
Cinema, like literature, should be judged on absolute terms and not relatively; every work of art has a life of its own, and should not have to bear the burden of living up to expectations which are, subconsciously, institutionalised and impressed upon the minds of connoisseurs as some measure of merit, defeating the purpose of art being the complete opposite of confinement and scrutiny. There was widespread uproar in the country, both online and offline, on the release of Padmaavat. People accused the film of being misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Rajput and much more, missing the very simple point that morality is not the responsibility of art. Let art be a private affair between the maker and the consumer, both engaging in a discourse where no taste is bland and none too erudite, where all that matters is an intimacy and a connection which is beyond technicalities and dissertations. I remember watching Mother!, by Darren Aronofsky, embracing the film as a narrative on the subconscious of an agoraphobic woman who feels preyed upon in social interactions. It was only at the end of the movie that I realised that all he wanted to portray was a social commentary on global warming. Sometimes, the intention and the consequence need not be aligned; but that is not necessarily for the worse.
Andrei Tarkovsky proves my point in a much clearer way, talking about art as a spiritual journey rather than a conclusive debate, he says,
Artistic creation, after all, is not subject to absolute laws, valid from age to age; since it is related to the more general aim of mastery of the world, it has an infinite number of facets, the vincula that connect man with his vital activity; and even if the path towards knowledge is unending, no step that takes man nearer to a full understanding of the meaning of his existence can be too small to count.Art must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise life becomes impossible! Art symbolises the meaning of our existence.2
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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