Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Remembering the Father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembene

I repeat: cinema is a night school! A society that does not exude a new culture is bound to die. Jig about girls and boys, the cicada do it every night! That's not culture!
Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembène, writer, filmmaker, poet and dramatist, considered one of the greatest authors of sub-Saharan Africa and the "Father of African film." passed away last month in Dakar. Born into a fisherman family, and studying in an Islamic and later French school, Sembène was drafted into the French Army in World War II. After the war he returned to his home country, and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God's Bits of Wood.

Late he moved to France, where he worked and becoming active in the French trade union movement. He joined the Communist party, helping lead a strike to hinder the shipment of weapons for the French colonial war in Vietnam. His writing career began with the novel The Black Docker (1956) which was about French racist experiences. His later writings were about various layers and dimensions of oppression and resistance in his own native land. Novels like God's Bits of Wood, Oh Country, My Beautiful People, Xala etc looked at African society and experience in a relentless and incisive manner. His film career began with Borom Sarret (1963) followed by striking works like La Noire de...(1966), Mandabi (1968), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1977), and Moolaadé (2004).

All his films won international acclaim but he was always deeply concerned about the post-colonial traumas of a developing Africa, and he considered that film was a powerful medium to reach his people. In the words of the Mauritian filmmaker Med Hondo, "Of all African film directors, Sembene is the first to confer value to images." Like all colonial intellectuals his was also a journey from his native land to the West and back. Ideologically also his was a journey that traversed a complex and tortuous path that imbibed local experiences and Western ideas, and Marxism was an essential part of that. This move was paralleled by the shift in language from French to his local languages. And in the process he combined in his work a very keen sense of postcolonial dilemma inherent not only in the creative process within himself as an African artist, but also those animating the social and economic processes that engulfed his society. In film after film, he analysed the barriers and shackles that bound his culture. It is this concern for 'value' in images that make Sembene different from the rest of the postcolonial filmakers of his generation, who either wallowed in the decadence of their economic and cultural processes or played up to Western tastes to make their works 'international'.

According to film scholar Samba Gadjigo, "Ousmane Sembene's forty year film work bears an unparalleled social and artistic significance in the context of both world and African cinema. His images are intended not only for entertainment and profit, but rather as an educational tool. His work is aimed at promoting freedom, social justice, and at restoring pride and dignity to African people. To reach such a goal, Sembene seeks first to "indigenize" the medium by resorting first to the use of African languages (Wolof and Diola, two Senegalese languages, and Bambara) Secondly, this primary emphasis on language allowed him to specify his public : " Africa is my "audience" while the West and the "rest" are only targeted as "markets". Thirdly, he borrows from the rich heritage of African oral narratives, handed down by the griots and rejecting a mere imitation of Hollywood's narrative techniques, Sembene's cinema ushered in a genuinely African film aesthetics. "We will never be Arabs or Europeans; we are African". Sembene's cinema uses the tools provided by Marxist analysis and the passion of a visionary who profoundly believes.. that only creation gives meaning to life. "

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bharathan Effect

For a society in which scientific research is not organic to its economic life, science always elides into something metaphysical, alien or mythic. Staying blissfully insulated from the labourious and thrilling processes of R & D, and living in the everpresent state of consumption, science appears to us as something faraway and magical. Naturally, scientific research, discoveries and its toils does not easily become part of the human drama of our everyday life or our visions of excellence, achievement and identity. For a society that imports almost all the goods, articles and gadgets it consumes and uses – right from foodstuff to electronics – all such objects are sheer magic, coming from faraway sources and unknown origins.

Exactly why the hero of the Anildas' film Bharathan, who is a compulsive discoverer of things, reaches nowhere in his pursuits, unable either to share his woes or express his talent, and has to eventually go to the primal adivasi to make his ultimate discovery, that of antigravity matter. Significantly such a displacement of agency, from Bharathan the local dabbler in mechanics to a faraway primal source, results in he himself getting lost, exemplified by his losing his family. This again brings into curious focus the 'natural divorce' between something 'mundane' as family and 'high' as science. When he immerses in one, he loses in another; he can never get along with both together. At another level, this poor local hero, Bharathan himself has to be displaced by a bigger hero from outside, in the figure of Suresh Gopi who comes from, no prizes for guessing, the West. Obviously, the Indian scientists are unable to recognise Bharathan's genius, lacking insight into their own culture (the same old sigh, if only they had!) and also patience. The sequence will immediately bring to our mind the 'Ramar Petrol' incident. In stark contrast, the western scientists shown in the film readily recognise Bharathan's talent and are eager to follow his trail. Obviously, the ultimate stamp of approval with regard to science has to come from them, the West, the mysterious originator of all the concepts and gadgets we use..

As a result what would have been an interesting film with a different theme, ends up as one that feels like its own duplicate. A film where its creators lack firm belief in their central character and as a result, never dwelling indepth upon his dilemmas, thus making him into an abnormal freak. The scriptwriter Madhu Muttom, blindly tries to replicate his earlier success in Manichitrathazhu and repeats himself ad nauseum here. Apart from the Mohanlal-like intervention of Suresh Gopi as a non-resident scientist and the final denouement of staging a drama as a therapy to cure the central character, the film even starts with a key sequence like in Manichitrathazhu!.

Like scientific discoveries, new themes also calls for new approaches and a lot of belief in one's own story

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sivaji and Colours of Black


"…being interested in stars is being interested in how we are human now"
- Richard Dyer

Shankar's Rajnikant starrer 'Sivaji the Boss' is about colour – of the skin as well as money. "Why did you give birth to me as a blackie?" Sivaji asks his mother at the police station, to which she blithely replies, "So that you won't get dirty". What does she mean by that? Does it mean that black, by donning the colour of dirt cannot be dirtied over again, or, black being pure incarnate, can't ever be dirtied? The humour of the situation keeps our guesses ambiguous. But blackness or being black is obviously something which one has to pay with one's life. And this is where the major themes of Shankar and Rajni intersect. While Shankar is obsessed with the theme of corruption and degeneration of values in India, signified here in the form of 'black' money, Rajni, in film after film, harps on skin colour that is constantly displayed and flaunted against the fair, and fairy heroines. Here, in Sivaji you have the dark hero fighting against black money, in the process laundering it into white. So, the hero is dark outside and an angel inside, the money he is fighting against is the other way round, personified by the pure-white clad, fair Adi (Suman). Sivaji makes this transformation from black to white at both levels in the film. He himself turns white at the instance of the fair heroine (Shreya, em-bodying the fair white body in a dark world lighting up male fantasies of all kinds – nostalgic, physical and familial). But turning into a fair body would suddenly turn him ordinary, just like any other guy or star. So he has to literally 'wash away' his whiteness to become the same old self again, whose USP is style and not skin colour. Likewise, when he is systematically robbed of all his hard-earned 'white' money which he wanted to put to good use at home, he makes a comeback by amassing all the black money and re-routing it back to India as 'white'. (Significantly, it is made possible with the help of the only visible Muslim characters in the film!). Ironically, Sivaji himself is a software engineer who has returned from the West, something that gives his money 'fairness' in the economy. But stardom is something that straddles economic and moral economies in curious ways by working on our subterranean desires and yearnings, which is what makes it alluring and enigmatic.

Never 'blessed' with the pure one-dimensionality of the white – like the villain or the heroine, the black is inexorably mired in conflicts that are obviously not just skin-deep. Like in the case of money and the body,. there is the dark black and the fair black; there is abhorrent black and attractive black. And it is invariably something that sticks to and out of the surface. There is no way one can escape its hold. You either flaunt it of suffer it. And in both cases, it is a very tricky issue, something abhorred and at the same time adored and loved. For instance, what makes the two dark girls who live next to the heroine's house unworthy of Sivaji's companionship? And why does the dark-skinned, US-returned multimillionaire software engineer like Sivaji who is keen on marrying only a true Tamilian girl, find his true love only in a fair brahminical body and that too in an upper caste temple? These are below-the-belt questions that we encounter and have to address to understand star-magic and ourselves.

Labels: , ,