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The Alignments of the Middle Class

Suvij Sudershan (suvij.sudershan@gmail.com) is pursuing an MA in English and Comparative Literature with a focus on South Asian and vernacular languages at McGill University, Canada.

There is much to learn about middle-class anxiety through the eyes of three of West Bengal’s most prolific auteurs.

At a time when the West Bengal public is increasingly being pushed into extreme political positions—be it the Trinamool Congress’s nativist Bengali line or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu essentialist one—the decade of the 1960s in Calcutta, West Bengal, and Bangladesh comes to mind. The 1960s were a time of change, tumult, and violence in West Bengal. The Naxalite movement, then in full force, was being actively brought to its knees by police and military interventions, and violence. Mahashweta Devi’s novel, Mother of 1084 (1974), describes those years as

The whole sequence of national events, the elephant cubs airlifted to Tokyo, the film festival at Metro, the writers and artists who addressed the meeting on the Maidan, and the fortnight of celebrations at the Rabindra Sadan dedicated to the great poet … Did it matter, after all, if a few thousands of young men were no more?

Devi’s invocation implicates the entire entertainment and arts industry in West Bengal, most of which chose to ignore the larger material processes going on, not to mention the entire dismantling of a sociopolitical order. Mother of 1084 depicts the psyche of a middle class caught in a crisis of alignment. Through the slow radicalisation of the eponymous “mother” of the novel, Mahashweta Devi presents the complex ways in which alignment with political causes works, as well as condemns the manner in which the middle class avoided throwing its weight behind radical causes.

While the cultural realm did exist at a remove from these processes, it was not entirely quite as morally bankrupt an enterprise. The films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and, to a lesser degree, Ritwik Ghatak, are prime examples of the capacity of art to capture tensions in society, bring them together, and present them once again to an audience that can find these forces for themselves and emotionally re-experience them. Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy depicts this tension of alignment, most significantly in the final movie of the trilogy, Subarnarekha (1965). The movie depicts the lives of refugees from East Bengal to the West, and their economic and social conflicts as they attempt to start lives anew. Brother and sister, Ishwar and Sita find themselves in rural north Bengal. Ishwar finds a job as a factory manager. Sita, who is much younger than him (still a child in the beginning of the movie) finds companionship in another child, Abhirama, an orphan whose upbringing Ishwar takes upon himself.

The question of middle-class alignment arises when it is revealed that Abhirama’s family belonged to a lower caste. Ishwar’s industrial pals tell him that it violates caste purity norms to provide for Abhirama, but Sita has fallen in love with him. Ultimately, Sita and Abhirama elope, but the story ends in tragedy when Abhirama dies, and Sita, forced into sex work, commits suicide. All of this takes place because Ishwar refuses to allow them into their household as a married couple, and also does not provide them with any monetary support, thus forcing them into extreme poverty. Ghatak shows that Ishwar’s rise from lumpen proletariat to petit bourgeois hardens his heart, and he forgets his own origins. His reactionary opinions arise from his lust for a comfortable middle-class life, and he loses his alignment with the workers and the poor, the same alignment that had prompted him to take care of the health and education of an orphaned Abhirama at the outset.

Mrinal Sen similarly depicts the middle class, although where the same portrayal takes place in the form of a tragedy or melodrama in Ghatak, in Sen, it takes the form of satire. Of his Calcutta Trilogy, which includes The Interview, Calcutta ‘71, and Padatik, it is the final movie that presents this articulation most clearly. Padatik (1973) is the story of a young Naxalite, Sumit, on the run from the police, who finds refuge in the apartment of a middle-class advertising agent, Mrs Mitra. While Mitra is depicted as having pro-left perspectives, it is Sumit’s reaction to her apartment, when he is alone over there, that sets the tone for this engagement between the revolutionary and the middle class. When Sumit first enters the apartment he finds himself alone. He looks around at the interior decoration, the furniture and other accoutrements, and finally says, “This is hell.” Later he calls the house no better than the prison that he had escaped. When Mitra finally returns to the house, Sumit compares his residence in the apartment to the storming of the Buckingham Palace. However, Sumit is in for a surprise, because he learns that Mitra ultimately has a pro-left stance. She tells Sumit that her brother had been a radical political activist in Punjab, where they grew up, and that he disappeared from their house once it became clear that he could not reconcile his revolutionary ideas with his lifestyle. Mitra herself conducts surveys in Calcutta in which she asks women their opinions about gender equality. The film provides a perspective on women and their relationship to the happenings in the radicalism of the late-1960s Calcutta. While Mitra definitely enjoys the ease and comfort of a middle-class lifestyle, we are also shown how she is abused and harassed by her ex-husband. Thus, in Mrinal Sen’s depiction here, the middle class is shown as surmounting its class origins in order to align against capitalist exploitation, landlordism, and gender inequality.

In the case of Ray, the average middle-class experience is often bent into shape as it contends with the exploitation and resistance that it sees around it. Ray’s Calcutta TrilogyPratidwandi, Seemabandha, and Jana Aranya—all from the early 1970s, are invested in depicting the failures of the middle class, and in terms of tone and ideology, somewhat mirror the line taken by Ritwik Ghatak. In this regard, it is an earlier Ray movie, Nayak (1964) that provides an emotional sense of the tumult of the 1960s without relegating the middle class to either the position of complete reactionaries or of defeat. While in Ghatak’s depiction, the middle class is irredeemably corrupted by money, and in Mrinal Sen’s movie, the middle class still holds a beacon of hope for radicalism, Ray’s position seems to fall somewhere in the centre. Middle-class values are shown as constituting an opening that could lead either to radicalism or not. Ray is more invested in how personal choice and individual psychological action connect with larger political alignments. In Nayak, Uttam Kumar plays Arindam Mukherjee, the most popular actor of the 1950s and 1960s in cinema in West Bengal, and it is his memories, nightmares, and anxieties that provide the emotional bridge to the larger context of the 1960s. Arindam is on a 24-hour train ride from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a prize for his acting. On his way there, he begins to remember his past: his beginnings as a theatre actor, his friends from college, and the decisions that have led to this point in his life.

There are two long dream sequences in the movie, and it is in their explication and experience that the political tumult of those times comes forth. First is the scene in which Arindam is surrounded by mountains of notes. All of a sudden, Arindam slips and begins to sink into these piles of money, until he is swallowed altogether. As he disappears, he has a vision of his former theatre mentor, Shankar, who had warned him against the dangers of the film industry. This scene clearly sends the message that money has consumed his consciousness. However, the greater threat here is that art itself, and artistic work, is threatened in certain industries due to the need to produce profits.

So, what are the avenues for political action for a film celebrity? Arindam remembers the time when his college friend, Jyoti, a labour activist and organiser, tricks him into coming to a rally. Upon getting there, Arindam refuses to join the masses and speak to them to support their cause. He is too self-conscious, and prefers to preserve his status than to politicise it. In this regard, he is very much a part of the culture industry that Devi calls out in her book.

This dichotomy, however, between political action and inaction, is complicated by the sheer psychological insight that we receive into Arindam. His second dream shows him in a forest. As he begins walking on the thin white line, as if on a set, we first hear the director cue “Action!” and then loud chants of “Inquilab Zinadabad.” In a long shot, we see Arindam walking through a forest, surrounded by film gear, set lights and cameras, and with the revolutionary chants continuing around him. It would be hard to place a “meaning” on this scene, other than the fact that it is a depiction of the confusions of the art process. What does the camera choose to show? Is it Uttam Kumar’s handsome face, or is it the forest he is in? Whose are the voices around him? Why is he dreaming this dream? And, why is Ray showing us this, and not, for instance, the source of the voices?

Nayak as a film clearly speaks to a very specific middle-class anxiety, in other words, to people who have the ability to be restrained in times that demand political action from them; those who have the luxury of coexisting in the status quo. Yet, it also does not draw its lines very sharply, and, most importantly, provides a vision of political confusion and agency. Arindam’s choice is very explicitly shown to be that—a choice. And, Satyajit Ray drives the point home very strongly that there are those among us who have the privilege to make a choice, and that we should be cued in to the fact these choices are actions taken by us. Arindam is a picture of self-doubt and self-criticism, of consciousness of human agency in times of struggle, and of the fact that the middle class is always capable of surmounting its material conditions to political ends.

 

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019

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