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A Special Tribute Essay

Gandhi in Cinema by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

An innovative rap contest between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Gandhi as a stand-up comedian, his life as a musical, and at least seventeen actors portraying him across numerous films. No other political and spiritual leader has influenced our cultural discourse as much as M.K. Gandhi. This despite Gandhi’s deep-rooted aversion to cinema and theatre. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at the legacy of Gandhi in films, plays, songs and TV shows.

“Slim be a combination of an actual kamikaze and Gandhi.” This is Eminem, seventy years after the Mahatma was assassinated, in a song from his 2018 album Kamikaze, that also became the theme song of the Marvel film Venom. It is interesting to conjecture what the bhajan-loving apostle of peace and non-violence would have to say about being referenced by the hip-hop rapper in a song whose very next lines talk of killing and use the F-word.

Probably no other political leader anywhere in the world has been part of popular culture – films, songs, music videos, animation shows, graphic novels – as much as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Newsreels on him run into hundreds of hours. A China-based journalist, A.K. Chattier, put together one of the first celluloid versions of the Mahatma’s life and times from archival material available, sourcing rare footage. Unfortunately, both the print and the negative have been lost.

Beginning with the American feature documentary Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth-century Prophet in 1953, to The Gandhi Murder, a conspiracy theory film on the assassination, in 2019, he has been part of at least thirty films. Even the Marvel film Age of Ultron has his footage. As many as seventeen actors have played him onscreen: J.S. Casshyap, Ben Kingsley, Sam Dastor, Jay Levey, Yashwant Satvik, Annu Kapur, Rajit Kapur, Mohan Gokhale, Naseeruddin Shah, Surendra Rajan, Mohan Jhangiani (voiced by Zul Vilani), Dilip Prabhavalkar, Dr Shikaripura Krishnamurthy, Avijit Datta, S. Kanagaraj, Neeraj Kabi and Jesus Sans.

Of these, Sam Dastor featured as the Mahatma in Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986) and Jinnah (1998), while Surendra Rajan has donned Gandhi’s garb as many as six times, in Veer Savarkar (2001), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), the TV movie The Last Days of the Raj (2007), the short film Gandhi: The Silent Gun (2012) and Srijit Mukherji’s Gumnaami (2019).

Gandhi and Early Indian Cinema

It was common in the 1930s and 1940s for film hoardings to have life-size pictures of Gandhi over the photographs of the stars. The protagonist of Kanjibhai Rathod’s mythological Bhakta Vidura (1921), the first film to be banned in India, resembled Gandhi, cap and all. Ajanta Cinetone’s Mazdoor (1934), written by Munshi Premchand, too was banned, and promoted as ‘the banned film’, as it dealt with Gandhian principles. Produced by Imperial Film Company and directed by R.S. Chaudhary, Wrath (1931) had a character called Garibdas who fights untouchability. The censors cut out many of its scenes and renamed it Khuda Ki Shaan. Vinayak Damodar Karnataki’s Brandy Ki Botal (1939) took up Bapu’s campaign against liquor and referred to Gandhi as ‘azadi ka devta’.

The Feature Biopics

The most well-known of these is Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film. In the making for over twenty years, it remains, warts and all, the definitive film on Gandhi. And though Attenborough made the cardinal error of falling prey to what Nehru had warned him against at the outset when the director had met him with the proposal in 1963 – “Whatever you do, do not deify him … that is what we have done in India … and he was too great a man to be deified” – there is no doubt that this is an epic labour of love that delivers a series of spectacular set-pieces of great emotional heft.

As the filmmaker himself observed, “It took me 20 years to get the money to get that movie made. I remember my pitch to 20th Century Fox. The guy said: ‘Dickie, it’s sweet of you to come here. You’re obviously obsessed. But who the f***ing hell will be interested in a little brown man wrapped in a sheet carrying a beanpole?’” As it turned out, the whole world was, as was the Oscar committee. And Ben Kingsley set a benchmark for the onscreen Gandhi that has been impossible to top over forty years later. So complete was the identification that a few years later a popular Hindi film, Peechha Karro (d: Pankaj Parashar, 1986), had a character swear by Ben Kingsley instead of Gandhi.

Ben Kingsley

Surprisingly, despite the many incarnations of the Mahatma on cinema, Gandhi is only one of two full-length feature films to deal with his life. The other one being Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (with Rajit Kapoor essaying the role), which as its Hindi title, Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak, suggests, deals primarily with his experiences as a barrister and in South Africa. Several biopics on national leaders of the freedom movement feature Gandhi in important cameos. These include Sardar (d: Ketan Mehta, 1993, Annu Kapoor as Gandhi) and Jabbar Patel’s Dr B.R. Ambedkar (2000, with Mohan Gokhale as Gandhi), probably the first time the Mahatma was shown in a negative light. There was also the 2011 film Dear Friend Hitler, based on his correspondences with Adolf Hitler (played by Raghubir Yadav).

These biographical films include Gandhi, My Father, which deals with his tortured and tumultuous relationship with his son, Harilal Gandhi. Based on the latter’s biography Harilal Gandhi: A Life by Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal, the film was directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, who had earlier helmed a stage version, Mahatma Vs Gandhi (based on Dinkar Joshi’s Gujarati novel Prakashno Padchhayo), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kay Kay Menon as Gandhi and Hiralal respectively. The film version starred Darshan Jariwala and Akshaye Khanna as father and son respectively.

The Adversarial Gaze

Existing with the eulogies are a handful of films that portray the world of his adversaries – people like Nathuram Godse and Veer Savarkar, in particular. Unfortunately, none of these have the rigour of the works of Richard Attenborough and Shyam Benegal and have been rightly dismissed as sensationalist. Ashok Tyagi’s 2017 short film Why I Killed Gandhi, which released in early 2022, became controversial for allegedly showing Godse as a hero, forcing its lead actor to apologise for playing the role of Godse. In the same vein is Ved Rahi’s Veer Savarkar (2001). Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000), a fictional tale of the moral dilemmas facing a would-be assassin of Gandhi, is in comparison a more nuanced take, though Naseeruddin Shah is probably the healthiest Gandhi onscreen ever.

Naseeruddin Shah as Gandhi

But by far the more interesting fiction came close to sixty years ago. In 1963, around the time that Attenborough was talking to Pandit Nehru about his film on Gandhi, Nine Hours to Rama created quite a flutter for its purportedly ‘sympathetic’ take on Nathuram Godse. Narrating the last nine hours of the life of Gandhi’s assassin, this one is a strange beast. Dismissed by academic Ravinder Singh as “a heady concoction of a little history and too much fiction”, the film shows Godse involved in an affair with a married woman and even an encounter with a prostitute. Godse tries to lure the former into sharing a room with him, describing the sexual encounter likely to follow as ‘dessert’ after a meal. No wonder, the film, as well as the novel of the same name by Stanley Wolpert on which it was based, faced protests from both Congress and Godse’s supporters, and an eventual ban.

A laughable enterprise in all respects – the only thing it probably gets right are the three bullets, and even that scene is followed by a ridiculous one where Gandhi forgives Godse who is shown as repenting his act immediately afterwards – what is surprising about it are the credentials of the people involved with the project. The director Mark Robson is well known for Hollywood blockbusters like The Bridges of Toko Ri, The Harder They Hall, Peyton Place and Von Ryan’s Express. The screenwriter Nelson Gidding scripted critically acclaimed ones like The Haunting and Andromeda Strain. And among the cast, we have respected actors such as Jose Ferrer (who essayed the definitive Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and screen) and Robert Morley. 

What makes this somewhat of a curio are the smattering of Indian actors in cameos, including David as a policeman, Achala Sachdeva (as Godse’s mother) and P. Jairaj as G.D. Birla. By far the most interesting and innovative aspect of the film is its credit titles – comprising the ticking of an old-fashioned pocket watch – designed by Saul Bass, which is deserving of a full-length article.

The Shadow of Gandhi: Gandhigiri

Gandhi’s life and philosophy have cast long shadows, particularly in Hindi cinema. Almost all films that show a police station invariably have his photograph up there on the wall as part of the background décor. However, it is in the subtle messaging of Hindi cinema that his influence is most strongly felt, particularly the way our films have for the longest time made a virtue of being poor, equating money with all evil.

Possibly the one film that epitomises the enduring legacy of the Mahatma and was instrumental in reintroducing him in popular discourse is Raju Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). In a stroke of genius, the filmmakers have a goonda hallucinating about the Mahatma, who inspires him to ‘Gandhigiri’ (the term caught on in a big way, leading to a 2016 film starring Om Puri titled Gandhigiri) instead of gundagiri as a tool to get your way

Munnabhai and Gandhi

Though not as influential as the Munna Bhai film, Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005) is as important. The film, about a retired professor whose dementia-wasted mind begins to believe that he was accused of killing Gandhi, is a metaphoric exposition of what Gandhi and the values he espoused mean today, how he has been reduced to a statute, a road and a stamp. If Munna Bhai has the two goondas recalling Gandhi only from his photo on currency notes and on account of 2 October being a dry day, Barua’s film highlights how we remember the man only on two days – 2 October and 30 January

Gandhi’s influence on the national psyche has been part of many other films tangentially. The 2009 film Road to Sangam is the story of a Muslim mechanic entrusted the job of repairing an old V8 ford engine, little knowing that the car had once carried Gandhi’s ashes to the sangam for immersion. While Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Swades is named Mohan, and the film, according to Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Tushar Gandhi, “epitomises Gandhi’s values”, A. Balakrishnan’s Welcome Back Gandhi (2012) imagines the leader returning to contemporary India and dealing with a country he barely recognises.

Girish Kasaravalli’s Koormavatara (2011) tells the story of a government employee who is selected to portray Gandhi in a TV series, owing to his strong resemblance to the leader. Having never acted before and not a believer in Gandhian principles, he resists before reluctantly taking up the assignment. Reading on Gandhi and his philosophies transforms his life as people start flocking to him and he must negotiate the tricky terrain of being regarded as a modern-day Gandhi.

Different Strokes

Imagine Gandhi and and civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr engaged in a battle of rap! That is exactly what Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele did in the popular web series Key and Peele, which has Gandhi and King going the hip-hop way to decide who is the better pacifist.

While the inspiration behind the name of the Canadian punk rock band, Propagandhi, is not hard to ascertain, the animated TV series Clone High, made by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Bill Lawrence, imagined teenage versions of legends, among them Gandhi, who is shown as a ‘fun-loving, hyperactive teenage slacker’. An episode in the popular TV show Seinfeld has a character claiming to have met Gandhi and having an affair with him. In the TV series Family Guy, Gandhi shows up as a stand-up comedian while South Park has a character meeting Gandhi in hell. 

Following in the footsteps of Mahatma Vs Gandhi and Lillete Dubey’s Sammy, from Pratap Sharma’s play (the title derived from the word ‘swami’ which was used by South African whites as a demeaning term for Indian workers), Danesh Khambata went the Broadway-style musical way with his theatrical production, Gandhi: The Musical. The play covers the leader’s life through sixteen songs, a dozen dances, featuring a cast of over forty dancers, incredibly introducing song-and-dance routines into the Mahatma’s life.

The impact that playing Gandhi has on an actor and the process that it involves also need to be explored at greater length as it provides insights on how influential he continues to be. Joy Sengupta, who portrayed Gandhi in Sammy, says, “It changed my perspective in life. I was all revolutionary and fashionably loathing Gandhi. I had even directed a play on Bhagat Singh, taking pot-shots at Gandhi. Sohail Hashmi told me not to do that, as Gandhi was the only and the most powerful secular symbol surviving in India. That kind of opened a few clogs in my head regarding what secularism is, whether it could coexist with spiritualism, etc. Ten years later, Sammy happened. I gave up all mainstream work for four months to focus on the play. I went to every Gandhi institution I could, pored over every photograph to imbibe the body language. Every films division reel to get his body rhythm. Recording of his speeches gave me his intonation and pitch. I switched to a Gandhian diet and lost 12 kg. I travelled by local transport. I took in all the hardships and drew strength from the Gandhian perspective of using your negatives by turning them into your strengths. This is something I had read when I was a kid in a school textbook, and it had remained with me. Now it became my full-blown philosophy – hardships and punishment can go on to make you a better man. I did not go for any complicated process – Gandhi believed in simplicity and executed everything in its simple organic form (something the intellectual Nehru found difficult to understand). It was simple. Be transparent, rely on truth, accept faults and do penance, forgive others, do it yourself, and always look at the poorest and most vulnerable as a consequence of your actions. Most importantly, listen to your inner voice for guidance. If you really mix all that, you get a simple childlike man who was always busy doing simple things to improve his inner being. I aimed for his essence, focussing on catching his spirit on stage and not mimicking him.”

Songs eulogising Gandhi are dime a dozen in India, of course. These include the reverential non-film ‘Suno-suno ae duniya waalon Bapu ki ye amar kahani’(Mohammad Rafi) and ‘Gundham hamare Gandhiji’ (S.D Burman).

While the celebrated ‘De di hamme azadi bina khadag bina dhal, Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal’ (Jagriti, 1953) spoke of Gandhi as someone to look up to, to emulate, Lage Raho Munna Bhai’s sensational ‘Bande mein tha dum’ made Gandhi cool, a buddy you can count on when in trouble, giving us a Gandhi for Generation Z.

For someone who has been such an integral part of popular culture, and for someone almost deified for his pacifism, Gandhi’s views on cinema are stridently illiberal. In fact, some of his pronouncements almost echo those of the bigoted ‘right’ that keeps calling for bans and boycotts. Describing cinema as a ‘sinful technology’ and a ‘corrupting influence [as bad as] a drinking bout, he said, “If I was made prime minister, I would close all the cinemas and theatres…” and “if I had my way, I would see to it that all cinemas and theatres in this country were converted into spinning halls”.

He watched just two films in his life, and hated both. The first one was Mission to Moscow (1943), which Miraben insisted he watch. The film, based on the memoirs of Joseph Davies, the US ambassador to Russia, featured scantily clad women in a few dancing scene. Horrified, Gandhi admonished the people there ‘for showing such nude dances’ to him. Soon after, he happened to watch Vijay Bhatt’s production Ram Rajya, at the insistence of the film’s art director, Kanti Desai. Extremely reluctant, Gandhi agreed only because, as he said, “I will have to see an Indian film as I have made the mistake of watching an English one.” And contrary to popular opinion, as industrialist Shanti Kumar Morarje mentioned, he disliked it ‘especially because of the shouting and uproar in the film’.

Such was his abhorrence for cinema – “The cinema, the stage, the race-course, the drink-booth and the opium-den – all these [are] enemies of society …” – that industry stalwarts like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Baburao Patel wrote open letters and editorials to Gandhi, articulating “the positive contribution of cinema to entertainment and its utility as a tool to further the cause of Indian freedom movement.” Patel wrote: “Let this champion of Daridra Narayan come down and meet us and we shall try to convince him, or be convinced. Surely as workers in the film field, we are not worse than the poor untouchables for whom the old Mahatma’s heart so often bleeds. And if he thinks we are, the more reason why he should come to our rescue.”

But to no avail. Gandhi remained unmoved. As he said, “I refuse to be enthused about [cinema] and waste God-given time [on it] … in Ahmedabad children get headaches, lose power of thinking, get fever and die … The disease is caused by going to cinemas.”

The dislike defied all logic and was so deep-rooted that it probably needs a psychiatric assessment. Or better still, a film that addresses the great man’s aversion to cinema.

(Parts of this essay was first published in The Telegraph)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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A Wonderful World

Exploring Colours

On 26 th January, 1950, India was declared a republic, an independent entity with the complete withdrawal of colonial support of any kind. The country adopted an independent constitution. The Republic Day celebrations conclude on 29th January with ‘Beating the Retreat’,where more than seven decades ago the British withdrew all armed support from India. 

In this edition, we will explore how the idea of an independent India has evolved over the decades. We have poetry by Asad Latif that celebrates the Indianess across borders. On the other hand, Beni S Yanthan from Nagaland explores the republic in the shadow of displacement, which makes one wonder if cultural hegemony can help make a country? Ukraine is faced with a war over it.

Tagore’s poem builds empathy around human suffering as does Premchand’s story, translated by C Christine Fair — these are texts written at the start of the turn of the last century. Have we come out of that suffering? Perhaps, the answer can be found in Bhaskar Parichha’s review about a book that spans almost the whole of twentieth century in India. He tells us the author, “MA Sreenivasan (1897-1998) lived through almost the entire 20th century and was among the very few people who witnessed at close quarters the enormous changes that took place in India during this period.” This has been recorded in his book and its review. Rhys Hughes’ humour winds up this edition where he recounts the differences in the cultural ethos of India and a region of the country that despite losing an empire where the sun never set, still retains its sense of humour! 

Poetry

An India like You by Asad Latif. Click here to read.

What if I Uproot You by Beni Sumer Yanthan. Click here to read.

Ebar Phirao More or Take Me Back by Tagore, translated by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Prose

Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter Night by Munshi Premchand has been translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair. Click here to read. 

Bhaskar Parichha reviews MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me. Click here to read.

In Some Differences Between Wales and India, Rhys Hughes makes some hilarious comparisons. Click here to read.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Contents

Borderless, January 2023

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again? … Click here to read.

Translations

Nazrul’s Ring Bells of Victory has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Nobody in the Sky by S Ramarishnan, has translated from Tamil by R Sathish. Click here to read.

The Bike Thief by Ihlwha Choi has been translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Banshi or Flute has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali.Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Rhys Hughes, Saranyan BV, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, Ron Pickett, Ananya Sarkar, K.S. Subramaniam, George Freek, Snigdha Agrawal, Jenny Middleton, Asad Latif, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In I Went to Kerala, Rhys Hughes treads a humorous path. Click here to read.

Conversation

In Conversation with Abhay K, a poet turned diplomat, translator and a polyglot, converses of how beauty inspired him to turn poet and translating Kalidasa and other poets taught him technique. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?

Farouk Gulsara muses on the human race. Click here to read.

Ghosh & Company

Ratnottama Sengupta relives the past. Click here to read.

Sails, Whales, and Whimsical Winds

Meredith Stephens continues on her sailing adventures in New South Wales and spots some sporting whales. Click here to read.

Tsunami 2004: After 18 years

Sarpreet Kaur travels back to take a relook at the tsunami in 2004 from Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Click here to read.

‘I am in a New York state of mind’

Ravi Shankar shares his travel adventures in the city. Click here to read.

Half a World Away from Home

Mike Smith introspects on his travels to New Zealand. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Back to the Past, Devraj Singh Kalsi muses on the need to relive nostalgia. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In The Year of the Tiger Papa, Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of Japan’s education system with a touch of humour. Click here to read.

Essays

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium. Click here to read.

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In The Immigrant’s Dilemma, Candice Louisa Daquin explores immigrants and the great American Dream. Click here to read.

Stories

The Book Truck

Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future. Click here to read.

The Scholar

Chaturvedi Divi explores academia. Click here to read.

Little Billy

Paul Mirabile renders the poignant tale of a little boy. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Abhay K’s Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me. Click here to read.

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again?

The first month of 2023 has been one of the most exciting! Our first book, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World, is now in multiple bookstores in India (including Midlands and Om Bookstores). It has also had multiple launches in Delhi and been part of a festival.

We, Meenakshi Malhotra and I, were privileged to be together at the physical book events. We met the editor in chief of Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, the editor of our anthology, Jyotsna Mehta, along with two translators and writers I most admire, Aruna Chakravarti and Radha Chakravarty, who also graced a panel discussion on the anthology during our physical book launch. The earlier e-book launch had been in November 2022. My heartfelt thanks to the two eminent translators and Chaudhuri for being part of the discussions at both these launches. Chaudhuri was also in the panel along with Debraj Mookerjee at a launch organised by Malhotra and the English Literary Society steered by Nabaneeta Choudhury at Hans Raj College, Delhi University. An energising, interactive session with students and faculty where we discussed traditional and online publishing, we are immensely grateful to Malhotra for actively organising the event and to the Pandies’ founder, Sanjay Kumar, for joining us for the discussion. It was wonderful to interact with young minds. On the same day, an online discussion on the poetry in Monalisa No Longer Smiles was released by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival (PVLF) in Delhi.

At the PVLF session, I met an interesting contemporary diplomat cum poet, Abhay K. He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara from Sanskrit and then written a long poem based on these, called Monsoon. We are hosting a conversation with him and are carrying book excerpts from Monsoon, a poem that is part of the curriculum in Harvard. The other book excerpt is from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play, a book that has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.

Perhaps because it is nearing the Republic Day of India, we seem to have a flurry of book reviews that reflect the Sub-continental struggle for Independence from the colonials. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel, a book that takes us back to the trauma of the Partition that killed nearly 200,000 to 2 million people – the counts are uncertain. Bhaskar Parichha has discussed MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a biography of a long serving official in the Raj era — two different perspectives of the same period. Rakhi Dalal has shared her views on Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, a book that dwells on an immigrant to the Southern part of India in the same time period. The legendary film writer K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, has been praised by Gracy Samjetsabam.

We have a piece on mental health in cinema by Chaudhuri, an excellent essay written after interviewing specialists in the field. Ratnottama Sengupta has given us a vibrant piece on Suhas Roy, an artist who overrides the bounds of East and West to create art that touches the heart. Candice Louisa Daquin has written on border controls and migrants in America. High profile immigrants have also been the subject of Farouk Gulsara’s ‘What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?’ Sengupta also writes of her immigrant family, including her father, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who moved from Bengal during the Partition. There are a number of travel pieces across the world by Ravi Shankar, Meredith Stephens and Mike Smith — each written in distinctively different styles and exploring different areas on our beautiful Earth. Sarpreet Kaur has revisited the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and wonders if it is a backlash from nature. Could it be really that?

Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of the education system in Japan in her column with a humorous overtone. Devraj Singh Kalsi dwells on the need for nostalgia with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Rhys Hughes makes us rollick with laughter when he talks of his trip to Kerala and yet there is no derision, perhaps, even a sense of admiration in the tone. Hughes poetry also revels in humour. We have wonderful poetry from Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Asad Latif, Anaya Sarkar, Michael R Burch, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, George Freek and many more.

The flavours of cultures is enhanced by the translation of Nazrul’s inspirational poetry by Professor Fakrul Alam, Korean poetry written and translated by Ihlwha Choi and a transcreation of Tagore’s poem Banshi (or flute) which explores the theme of inspiration and the muse. We have a story by S Ramakrishnan translated from Tamil by R Sathish. The short stories featured at the start of this year startle with their content. Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future and Paul Mirabile tells the gripping poignant tale of a strange child.

With these and more, we welcome you to savour the January 2023 edition of Borderless, which has been delayed a bit as we were busy with the book events for our first anthology. I am truly grateful to all those who arranged the discussions and hosted us, especially Ruchika Khanna, Om Books International, the English Literary Society of Hans Raj College and to the attendees of the event. My heartfelt thanks to the indefatigable team and our wonderful writers, artists and readers, without who this journey would have remained incomplete. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her artwork. Many thanks to the readers of Borderless Journal and Monalisa No Longer Smiles. I hope you will find the book to your liking. We have made a special page for all comments and reviews.

I wish you a wonderful 2023. Let us make a New Year’s wish —

May all wars and conflicts end so that our iconic Monalisa can start smiling again!

Mitali Chakravarty,

borderlessjournal.com

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Photographs of events around Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World. Click here to access the Book.

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Insta Link to an excerpt of the launch at Om Bookstore. Click here to view.

E-Launch of the first anthology of Borderless Journal, November 14th 2022. Click here to view.

Categories
Conversation

Spanning Continental Narratives

He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit to English and then imbibed them to create Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing in a similar vein. Meet the poet, Abhay K, who also juggles multiple hats of diplomat, editor and translator. He tells us how he tries to raise awareness and create bonds through poetry. He is the author of a dozen poetry books and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins India). He has received the SAARC Literature Award for 2013. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into more than 150 languages and performed by Kavita Krishnamurthy, a well-known Indian voice.

Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has 150 quartrains and is split into chapters. A passionate poem that yearns and sends love through the salubrious journey of the monsoon from its point of origin, Madagascar, to Kashmir, the verses caress various fauna, among them some endangered like indri indri, sifaka and more. Spanning the oceans, lands, nature and a large part of India, it reaches his beloved with his message from Madagascar.

Is it eco-poetry? Academia might be moving towards that decision. Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has been chosen by a Harvard University’s assistant professor, Sarah Dimick, for a book project on Climate and Literature. In this exclusive, Abhay K describes not only how his passion for beauty, turned him, a diplomat, into an award-winning poet and translator but his subsequent journey.

Abhay K

What made you opt to translate Kalidasa’s poetry?

It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that I read a poem by the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, titled ‘Lockdown’ which made a reference to Meghaduta. At that time, I was posted as India’s 21st Ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros and I thought of writing a poem on the lines of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. This is when I decided to closely read Meghaduta and in the process I got inspired to translate it. However, later, I did write a book length poem titled Monsoon which was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2021. 

Did you translate both, Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, one after another? These are both books that have been translated before. Did you draw from those? Or is it your own original transcreation of the texts?

Yes, first I translated Meghaduta and after its publication, I decided to translate Ritusamhara. There are over 100 translations of Meghaduta available, I have read some of them, but none had been translated by a poet. Therefore, I decided to translate Meghaduta myself to give it a poetic rendition in contemporary English. I had studied Sanskrit in my high school, and it came handy while translating both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara

Your book, Monsoon, is based on Meghduta. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it part autobiographical?

Monsoon is inspired from both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara. It begins near Madagascar where monsoon originates and travels along its path to Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman, and the Indian subcontinent. It carries a message of love and longing from Madagascar to Kashmir valley. It is purely work of imagination. 

Tell us a bit about Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, which is supposed to be especially relevant in the current context of climate change.

I have not come across any other poet who describes the lives of diverse plants and animals in such detail and with such empathy. In Ritusamhara, Kalidasa delights us with these vivid descriptions of plants, insects and flowers in the rainy season.

Like jade fragments, the green grass rises
spreading its blades to catch raindrops,
red Indragopaka insects perch on fresh
leaf-buds bursting forth from the Kandali plants
the earth smiles like an elegant lady
draped in nature’s colourful jewels. 2-5

Aroused by the sunrays at sunrise,
Pankaja opens up like glowing face
of a young woman, while the moon
turns pale, smile vanishes from Kumuda
like that of the young women,
after their lovers are gone far away.  3-23

The fields covered with ripened paddy
as far as eyes can see, their boundaries
full of herd of does, midlands filled with
sweet cries of graceful demoiselle cranes.
Ah! What passion they arouse in the heart!   4-8

Kalidasa’s genius lies in bringing together ecological and sensual to create sensual eco-poetry of everlasting relevance. Ritusamhara highlights this fundamental connection between seasons and sensuality. As we face the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution owing to our ever-growing greed and culture of consumerism, we face the challenge of losing what makes us human. It is in these unprecedented times, reading and re-reading Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara becomes essential.

True. Closer to our times Tagore also has written of the trends of which you speak. But there is a controversy about the authorship of Ritusamhara— it is supposed to have been written earlier. What is your opinion?

It is an early work of Kalidasa. There are many words from Ritusamhara that are used in Meghaduta

What were the challenges you faced translating Kalidasa’s poetry, especially in mapping the gaps created by the time span that has passed and their culture and ethos to modern times.

I think Kalidasa’s works bear strong relevance to the modern times. He can easily be our contemporary eco-poet. In fact, Ritusamhara is a fine work of eco-poetry because of the sensitivity shown by Kalidasa in handling the plight of animals in scorching summer, treating rivers, mountains and clouds as personas among other things. 

You have also translated Brazilian poets? Are these contemporary voices? Did these come before Kalidasa’s translation?

I translated poems of 60 contemporary Brazilian poets and compiled them in a poetry collection named New Brazilian Poems which was published in 2018 by Ibis Libris, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My translation of Meghaduta and Ritusamhara was published in 2022. 

Your range of translations is wide. How many languages have you translated from? What has been the impact of translating both Kalidasa and other poets from various languages on your poetry?

I have mainly translated from Magahi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Russian, Portuguese, and Nepali. Translating the work of Kalidasa and other poets has enriched my own poetry writing. Translating poets whose works I love and admire, offers me the opportunity to read their work very closely and provided rich insights which in turn inspires my own poetic works. 

How as a diplomat did you get into poetry? Or has this been a passion?

I started writing poetry in Moscow where I started my career as a diplomat. It was the beauty and grandeur of Moscow that turned me into a poet. 

You are a polyglot. What made you pick up this many languages? Do you read poetry in all of them? You have already translated from Portuguese and Sanskrit. Do you want to translate from all these languages? What makes you pick a book for translation?

As a diplomat, I get posted to a new continent every three years and I have to pick up the local language to communicate more effectively. I try to translate from as many languages as possible as it helps in building literary bridges across continents. I translate books I truly love and admire. 

Do you have any more translations or your own work in the offing? What are your future plans as a poet?

I have translated the first Magahi novel Foolbahadur and Magahi short stories, which is likely to come out in the near future.

My new love poem of 100 rhyming couplets titled Celestial, which takes one on a roller coaster ride to all the 88 constellations visible from the Earth, will be published by Mapin India in 2023. My new poetry collection, In Light of Africa, a book of light and learning and unlearning the myths and stereotypes about Africa. The narrative spans the continent of humanity’s birth through time and space—from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to modern bustling cities…introducing you to Africa’s rich history, culture, cuisine, philosophy, monuments, personalities—and its remarkable contribution in shaping our modern world. This collection is likely to be published this year or in 2024. 

Thank you for giving us your time.

(The interview has been conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to read an excerpt from Monsoon

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Excerpt

Poetry of Love & Longing by Abhay K

Title: Monsoon: A Poem of Love and Longing

Author: Abhay K

Publisher: Sahitya Akademi

1

I wake up with your thoughts

your fragrance reaching me                           1

all the way from the Himalayas

to the island of Madagascar

.

brought by monsoon

from the blessed Himalayan valley                 2

to the hills of Antananarivo[1]

on its return journey

.

I dream of you every night, the shimmering dawn

snatches my dreams but the morning breeze comes  3

whispering your name, permeating my being

with your thoughts, only your thoughts, my love

.

I’m far away in this Indian Ocean island

yearning for your touch, gazing at the Moon,         4

Venus and myriad star constellations,

hoping you’re gazing at them too

.

I wait for the monsoon to be born[2]

to send you sights, sounds and aroma                   5

of this island, redolent of vanilla, cloves,     

Ylang-ylang[3] and herbs of various kinds

.

O’ Monsoon, wave-like mass of air,

the primeval traveller from the sea                    6

to the land in summer, go to my love

in the paradisiacal Himalayan valley

.

for eons you’ve ferried traders across the Indian Ocean,

guided the legendary Sinbad and Vasco da Gama    7

and brought wealth and joy to millions,

your absence, alas, brings famine and death

.

the bounty of Indra[4] offered through rains

at times just a spell of scattered showers,       8

at times unceasing torrents for days at a stretch

whetting passion of lovers with your thunder-drums

.

lovesick and far away from my beloved,

I beseech you to take my message to her                9

along with amorous squeals of Vasa parrots[5],

reverberating songs of Indri Indri[6]

.

the sound of sea waves crashing on coral beaches

mating calls of the Golden Mantellas[7]              10

mellifluous chirps of the Red fody

sonorous songs of the Malagasy Coucal

.

the sight of ayes-ayes[8] conjoined blissfully

at midnight in Masoala rainforests             11

fierce fossas[9] mating boisterously at Kirindy

colourful turtles frolicking in the Emerald Sea

.

yellow comet moths swarming Ranomafana[10]

Radiated tortoises carrying galactic maps        12

Soumanga sunbirds sipping nectar

white Sifakas[11] dancing in herd

.

ring-tailed lemurs feasting on Baobab[12] flowers

Vasa parrots courting their mates                  13

painted butterflies fluttering over fresh blossoms

blooming jacarandas painting the sky purple

.

Traveller’s palms[13] stretching their arms in prayer

Baobabs meditating like ascetics turned upside down  14

Giraffe-necked red weevils[14]  necking their mates

fragrant Champa flowers—galaxies on the earth

.

colourful Mahafaly tombs[15] dotting the countryside

erotic Sakalava sculptures[16] arousing longings in mind,   15

innumerable sculpted rock-temples at Isalo[17]

each one a homage to Lord Pashupatinath[18]

.

the rich dialect of the old Gujarati

still spoken here with great zeal,             16

O’ Monsoon, I urge you to carry these

to my love in the pristine Himalayan valley

.

as you glide over the Indian Ocean gently

caressing her curvaceous body,              17

the humpback whales will amuse you

with their mating songs

About the Book

Monsoon is a poem of love and longing that follows the path of monsoon which originates near Madagascar and traverses the Indian Ocean to reach the Himalavas and back to Madagascar. As monsoon travels, the rich sights and sounds, languages and traditions, costumes and cuisine, flora and fauna, festivals and monuments, and the beauty and splendour of the Indian Ocean islands and the Western Ghats, East and North India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet are invoked. The poem weaves the Indian Ocean Islands and the Indian Subcontinent into one poetic thread connected by monsoon, offering an umparalleled sensuous experience through strikingly fresh verses which have the immense power to transport the readers to a magical world.

About the Author

Abhay K is the author of nine postry colfections including The Magic of Madagascar (1’Harmattan Paris, 202 I), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, CAPITALS, New Brazilian Rems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary journals. His “Earth Anthem” has been translated into over 150 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. in 2018. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.


[1] Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar

[2] Monsoon is born in the Mascarene High near Madagascar.

[3] Ylang-ylang is a tropical tree valued for perfume extracted from its

flowers

[4] Indra is the rain god in Hindu mythology.

[5] Vasa parrots are grey-black parrots endemic to Madagascar notable for

their peculiar appearance and highly evolved mating life.

[6] Indri Indri is the largest species of surviving lemur. It is critically

endangered.

[7] Mantellas are Madagascar’s golden or multi-coloured poison frogs.

[8] Aye-aye is a long-fingered species of lemur active at night.

[9] Fossas are the largest predators endemic to Madagascar.

[10] Ranomafana is a rainforest located to the southeast of Antananarivo in

Madagascar.

[11] Sifaka is a critically endangered species of lemurs also known as the

dancing lemurs.

[12] Baobab is a deciduous tree that grows in the arid regions of Madagascar.

Out of eight species of Baobab, six are endemic to Madagascar. They live

for thousands of years and are also known as the tree of life.

[13] Native to Madagascar, the Traveller’s Palm has enormous leaves which are

fan shaped.

[14] Giraffe-necked red weevil is a bright-red-winged, long-necked rainforest

beetle that uses its extended neck to battle for a mate.

[15] The Mahafaly people of Madagascar honour their dead by creating

imposing tombs.

[16] Sakalava sculptures, usually wooden nude female and male figures, adorn

the tombs of Sakalava Chiefs.

[17] Isalo is a national park in south Madagascar known for its natural rock

massif.

[18] Pashupatinath is another name of Lord Shiva.

Click here to read Abhay K’s interview

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Tagore Translations

Banshi or Flute by Rabindranath

Written in 1905, Banshi or flute, was published in Tagore’s collection called Kheya ( translates to boat, published in 1906).

Courtesy: Creative Commons
FLUTE

Your flute — 
For a short while,
Pretend it's mine. 
The sarat* morning flowed by.
The day grew tired nigh.
If you are weary
Of playing your flute,
Then please let,
For a short while,
Your flute be mine. 

I will not do much with it. 
I will only play
For part of the day. 
Raising it high, 
I will hold it to my lips
I will express my happiness
By playing many snatches —
In this way losing myself
I will only play 
For part of the day.

Then as dusk descends,
I will get flowers in a basket
to make a necklace. 
Adorning a garland of juthi*,
Filled with its heady perfume 
I will pray with an
Offering of lamps. 
That is why in the gloaming,
Fill a basket of flowers
To make a garland of juthi.

A half-moon will rise 
Amidst the stars
To gaze at your path.
Then I will come to you 
To return your flute. 
And you will play a tune
Expressive of the depth of night —
A half- moon will rise 
Amidst the stars
To gaze at your path.


*Sarat is early autumn.
*Juthi is a kind of Jasmine

This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor & Anasuya Bhar

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Essay

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium

Suhas Roy = Radha.

Correct.

Suhas Roy = Crows.

Right. 

Suhas Roy = Jesus.

So true.

Suhas Roy = Sensuality.

Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.

For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…

So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.

A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”

The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…

Suhas Roy

However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.

*

This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!

Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.

“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”

*

The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.

In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru[1], he titled one done in an art workshop.

From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.

Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces.  But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.

*

Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.

As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.

Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?

No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.

*

Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”

For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!

“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”

This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.

Bonophul

[1] Translates to tree

*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

.

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Essay

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

‘In a lot of films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection. There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don’t need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness.’ – Dr Cleo Van Velsen, psychiatrist

A poet loses his mental balance on seeing his beloved fall to her death. And what do his family members do? They approach a dancing girl in a brothel to marry him in a bid to get him cured. In a fit of madness, he even rapes her, and she becomes pregnant. But the typical ‘good Indian woman’ that she is, she perseveres in her effort. A few convoluted plot-turns later, the poet gets into a brawl with the villain, resulting in the latter falling to his death, much like his lover. Lo and behold! He is cured, though now he has no memory of the dancing girl.

A nurse in a mental hospital is asked to take care of a patient as part of an ‘experiment’ that its dictatorial army doctor president wants to conduct. The patient is cured but it affects the nurse’s emotional stability. Insensitive to her turmoil, the doctor, preening with the ‘success’ of his experiment, more or less browbeats her into another one with a new patient. With disastrous consequences. Not only is the science/medicine of it dodgy (romantic love to cure a person), it also has the doctor spouting a line like ‘there’s nothing like a woman’s love and care to heal an unstable mind’, while the inmates going around the institute are, in the words of writer and critic Madhulika Liddle, the quintessential Hindi-film, “singing-screeching-long-haired lunatics in films like Khilona, Pagla Kahin Ka, Anhonee, etc”.

These are two of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated films, both huge commercial and critical successes: Khilona and Khamoshi. And both equally and criminally unaware of what mental health entails. Over fifty years later, on the evidence of films like Atarangi Re, Hasee Toh Phasee, Judgemental Hai Kya, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Anjana Anjani, Tere Naam (in Hindi) and Hridpindo, Habgi Gabji and Bela Shuru (in Bengali), films continue to be as clueless about mental health conditions (MCHs) and how to deal with them.

As Vidushi Duggal, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Accept, says, “Mental health issues are grossly misrepresented in Hindi cinema. First, there is a tendency among filmmakers to select only the more overt (and hence the more ‘dramatic’) MHCs for portrayal, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder to name a few. Second, the lack of proper understanding and research, coupled with creative liberties aimed at sensational dramatisation, manifests as misinformed content.”

Her colleague and co-founder of Accept, Nikita Ramachandran, also a clinical psychologist, adds, “The depiction of mental health, despite advancement in literature, conversations and growing awareness remains largely uninformed. The core of this depiction is a viewing of mental health from the lens of chronicity and severity of illness. The scope of mental health has largely been limited to insidious mental health conditions such as depressive disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, with some focus on developmental disorders such as intellectual disability, autism or learning disorders. This depiction itself poses a problem, due to the association of mental health with illness/disease. The illness-lens fails to consider a fundamental truth – that mental health exists by virtue of being human.”

Leave alone such classic portrayals as A Streetcar Named Desire, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf, going back to the 1950s and ’60s, to more contemporary ones as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook, one would be hard-pressed to find one Hindi or Bengali film which addresses the theme with any verisimilitude till almost the new millennium.

There was the odd Mahesh Bhatt film like Arth and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi. One character that might escape attention when we talk of MHCs is the tenacious cop played by Boman Irani in Jijy Philip’s My Wife’s Murder, which has an interesting and understated subtext linking a food fetish with subtle melancholia.

Over the last couple of decades, films depicting mental illnesses have proliferated, sadly, with little responsibility and almost no understanding. While it is interesting that the films that managed to get some of it right were all made in the new millennium – reflecting a greater awareness about MHCs and greater acceptance in popular discourse – it is equally frustrating that some of the most pathetic films too have been made in the last two decades. As Vidushi Duggal says, “They depict an oversimplified and skewed portrayal of the MHCs in question, replete with stereotypical and insensitive portrayals that are magnified for dramatic effect.”

But this has been par for the course from, say, a Pagla Kahin Ka in 1970 and other films of the era which showed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as the cure for all symptoms of ‘madness’, to Krazzy 4 in 2008, where four patients suffering from every disorder possible escape the institution they have been committed to. Their experiences and conditions are then played out for laughs in a manner that is not only insensitive but also offensive.

The Films That Got It Partly Right

Dear Zindagi: That this Gauri Shinde film has been feted in the India media despite its problematic therapist-client relationship says a lot about how starved we are of responsible content. It needs to be applauded for its very nuanced take on mental health (Alia Bhatt[1] is a revelation), with none of the cliches that we are used to. It is also one of the few films that has its protagonist seeking therapy and that depicts sessions with a psychiatrist. As Vidushi Duggal says, “I can think of no realistic psychiatrist in Indian cinema. SRK’s[2] character may come close to a halfway decent portrayal of a psychotherapist in practice, but it too has problematic elements.” One major problem pertains to the relationship between the client and therapist with the latter even taking the former out to the beach for ‘sessions’ and talking about his own failed marriage and relationship with his son. A strict no-no as far as therapy is concerned in real life. As Anupama Chopra pointed out, the film offers a “Vogue version of therapy – a lovely expansive Goa house, sessions during walks on the beach, cycling together and dialogue like har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai[3]. It’s manicured and pat.”

Taare Zameen Par: This much-lauded film gave us the very real world of a dyslexic child and his relationship with a teacher who recognises his problem and inspires him and people around him to come to terms with and understand the very real gifts the child possesses. Though the child’s trouble with simple arithmetic is more a trait of dyscalculia than dyslexia, it remains a rare Hindi film that has found mention in peer-reviewed academic journals like Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology and Indian Journal of Psychiatry. These journals have praised the film for its general accuracy in depicting dyslexia which “deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavour to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady”, blending ‘modern professional knowledge’ with a ‘humane approach’ in working with a dyslexic child. However, it needs to be mentioned that dyslexia is a learning disability and not a mental illness. That the filmmakers club it with other mental illnesses shows how mental health is not correctly understood.

15 Park Avenue: The story of a woman, Mithi (Konkona Sen Sharma[4]), conjuring a utopia in her mind – an imaginary house, 15 Park Avenue, that gives the film its name, happy mother of five imaginary children, wife of an imaginary husband – and living with it, Aparna Sen’s [5]film, shattering and affecting in equal measure, addresses mental illness with a sensitivity and accuracy that almost all Indian films lack. The telling moment when Mithi’s sister (played by Shabana Azmi[6]) tells the psychiatrist (Dhritiman Chatterjee[7]), “What right do we have to take away the happiness she gets from her imaginary world?”, raises an issue that is rarely addressed, the subjectivity of reality: hallucinations can be just as compelling as ‘reality’. Just because someone’s perceptions of reality is at variance from ours, does it give us the right to term the former ‘abnormal’ or object to it?

Death in the Gunj: Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is another rare film that addresses the unravelling of a fragile mind over a family holiday. Given that the film is set in 1979, an era when there was no conversation around the subject, there is no overt mention of mental health. Also, though Shutu (Vikrant Massey[8]) may be the one who comes across as prone to what could be called mental health issues, the film strips the veneer off the ‘loving family’ to show how we are complicit with our toxic masculinity and bullying in driving a frail mind off the rails.

Other films that got aspects of it right are Black, which despite going over the top in many crucial sequences offers a very nuanced understanding of Alzheimer’s, and Kartik Calling Kartik, one of the first Hindi films dealing with schizophrenia.

The Bad and the Ugly

Tere Naam: Leading the list would be this Salman Khan [9]starrer that featured a mentally unstable protagonist whose head is shaved, and who is tied in chains. The mental hospital sequence in the film is a gratuitous misrepresentation. In a gross failure of messaging, like Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul in Darr, Radhe Mohan’s obsessiveness, in keeping with the tradition of ‘heroes’ stalking women in Hindi films, is presented as worthy of emulation. One aspect of Hindi films dealing with mental health issues that needs to be called out is the manner in which they position unrequited love/obsession as a trigger, often portraying that as a fashionable antihero statement. Which of course harks back to Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, the original ‘antihero’ who could have done with psychiatric consultation.

Vidushi Duggal says, “While many films have gone on to give this impression, I would be wary of making that connection as it is yet another example of misinformed sensationalisation. Mental health issues are complex and have multiple causal factors – genetic, biological, psychological and social/environmental. Nikita Ramachandran adds: “The depiction of someone unravelling or descending into a breakdown or developing a mental health condition is an inaccurate portrayal, as well as an overgeneralisation that caters to the general theme of love, attempting to add an ‘interesting’ dimension or layer to this portrayal of love. Equally problematic is the manner in which mental health has been pathologised for a long time. Behaviour seen as deviant, classified as ‘abnormal’, characters depicted with mental health issues were villainized. The violent death has been an age-old trope of a satisfactory ‘The End’, where closure has been synonymous with death and a general depiction of ‘good over evil’.”

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: A psychological horror comedy (!) that ostensibly deals with dissociative identity disorder (DID), this colossal hit makes a series of missteps about mental disorders. Hypnosis as a cure for DID, ‘treatments’ rooted in superstition (including a psychological condition that is cured when the doctor slaps the patient), ‘psychiatrists’ who applaud themselves as godmen – it is an endless list of shocking distortions. Akshay Kumar [10] as a psychiatrist. Need one say more?

Atarangi Re: ‘I am a psychiatrist, and I know women.’ That’s a dialogue a doctor mouths and that’s the level of discourse around mental health this film stoops to. In another sequence the doctor clubs together people with bipolar, psychiatrist disorders and schizophrenia in a manner that’s downright offensive. In one sequence, the ‘imaginary’ character Sajjad, a magician, is supposed to make the Taj Mahal disappear and fails to do so only because the patient has popped a pill immediately before the ‘act’. Filmmaker Aanand L. Rai is a serial offender when it comes to woeful depiction of mental health issues, with the protagonists of Tanu Weds Manu Returns shown consulting a marriage counsellor in an asylum! The man describes his wife’s irrational behaviour as an example of bipolarity to which the doctor responds: “In that case, every woman is bipolar.”  

Anjana Anjani: Writing about the ‘hollow space in my heart’ that made her use the term ‘death thoughts’, Therese Borchard says in her blog, “The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life.” That is everything that is wrong Anjana Anjani, where two adults battling life crises enter a pact to take their own lives. A hugely problematic representation that romanticises suicide, it makes a mockery of the breakdown that drives people to such despair. 

Hasee Toh Phasee: The protagonist here, described as ‘mental Meeta’ in the film’s promotional material, blinks her eyes incessantly, twitches her nose, is extremely jittery – all of which are shown as symptomatic of ‘madness’. She is constantly popping pills to control these sensations which lead to odd situations.

The Situation in Bengali Cinema

Such is the paucity of characters dealing with MHCs in Bengali cinema that a few filmmakers I reached out to, could not come up with a single film on the subject. One pointed out Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin for its realistic and heartfelt delineation of the character of Khuku, a girl with intellectual disability who is referred to as ‘schizophrenic’ by other characters in the film. Uttam Kumar’s[11]1955 film Hrad, based on a novel by Bimal Kar, is another instance of a film that places its protagonist in an asylum. He seems to have forgotten parts of his life and behaves in a manner that make people feel he is ‘mad’. There’s of course Deep Jwele Jaai, the Bengali original of Khamoshi

Three recent films stand out as examples of how clueless writers and filmmakers are when it comes to depiction of MHCs. Shieladityo Moulik’s Hridpindo is the story of a woman who, because of an accident and the brain surgery that follows, is left with her fourteen-year-old self, with no memory of her life after, including her husband. However, her pronounced lisp and the way she behaves, constantly demanding attention, leaves you wondering if she is a child of seven! Not to mention that a film dealing with a brain surgery is called Hridpindo.

Raj Chakraborty’s Habgi Gabji, the title a take-off on PUBG, addresses the very relevant theme of gaming and mobile addiction and its frightening consequences on young minds. Bolstered by a good turn by child actor Samantak Dyuti Maitra, the film, despite its noble intentions, suffers from the same problems that beset many other films of the genre. The child is taken to a psychiatrist. However, the session does not take place in a professional space but in the doctor’s drawing room. There is little emphasis on understanding, prevention and cure, with a large part of the meandering script devoted to the child’s violence and alienation. Which is disappointing given that the WHO has defined gaming disorder as a “pattern of behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities” and has flagged the escalation of gaming as a major health risk.

Bela Shuru, one of the biggest successes of 2022, is a high-intensity melodrama with a social message, typical of films by the filmmaker duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee. It addresses the onset of Alzheimer’s in the elderly but the symptoms that the wife displays – smearing her face with vermilion, among others – is more in tune with lunacy than the more insidious effects of Alzheimer’s. It is obvious that the filmmakers opt for the overdramatic and take creative liberties in the depiction of mental health issues, dumbing down the narrative, in the process bracketing different illnesses under the same umbrella and distorting the truth.

The lack of proper representation in Bengali cinema is also surprising given that its biggest icon, Satyajit Ray, introduced the world to many unheard-of mental health issues in his stories. Nakur Chandra Biswas in the Shonku books, for example, is a psychic who experiences flashes of the past and future. Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram is the story of a kleptomaniac who has been through therapy. The protagonist of Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom suffers from a curious case of memory loss, while Fritz explores the childhood trauma of its 37-year-old protagonist. In the Feluda story, Dr Munshi-r Diary, we have a patient who suffers from a persecution complex, an irrational fear or feeling that one is the object or target of collective hostility and persecution. What is fascinating is that Ray wrote about these conditions decades before they became part of the public discourse in India. However, none of these were adapted into cinema.

The Responsibility of Filmmakers and Writers

It is critical to note that cinema plays a significant role in shaping, creating and developing one’s understanding of reality. Films have of late started investing in an intimacy director/coordinator. Maybe it is time to have good psychiatric consultants too. Nikita Ramachandran says, “Mental health and emotional well-being are nuanced, and every story is different. It is challenging to depict the many layers, and also portray these in ways that will resonate or connect with the larger audience.” Vidushi Duggal is of the opinion that, “While acknowledging that an exhaustive depiction of all nuances of mental health is beyond the scope of a time-limited medium that is essentially designed for entertainment, as a community we need to remain cognizant of the potent and pervasive influence of cinema on creating awareness and developing/shaping attitudes. This calls for responsible filmmaking that involves adequate research on the mental health issues being portrayed.”

(Note: For Vidushi Duggal, who listened. Nikita Ramachandran, thank you for your inputs.)

A shorter version of this essay was published in Telegraph earlier

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

[1] Indian film actress

[2] Indian film actor, Shah Rukh Khan

[3] Translates from Hindi as: “all broken things can be repaired”

[4] Actress and Director

[5] Actress and Director

[6] Actress

[7] Actor

[8] Actor

[9] Actor

[10] Indian film actor

[11] Actor (1926-1980)

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Categories
Nazrul Translations

Ring Bells of Victory!

Nazrul’s poetry translated by Professor Fakrul Alam

Kazi Nazrul Islam. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

THE FRENZY OF DESTRUCTION

Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!
Summer’s storm flutters the flag of the New!
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

He who was to come is coming,
Dancing as if possessed and bent on destruction!
Crossing Oceans, storming the Main Gate, smashing portals, 
Into the dark hole of death
In the guise of the eternal executioner—
Through smoldering smoke
Lighting the lamp of lightning
The Violent One comes,
Bursting with glee!
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

Locks swaying in the overcast sky, He makes the sky flare,
Forcing even the fiery all-consuming comet’s tail to tremble.
In the very heart of the Creator of the universe
Like an unsheathed sword the blood sparkles
Roll and sway!
His loud laughter stuns the universe into silence—
Look how stunned the universe is!
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

A dozen suns’ rays stream fiercely from His eyes
The sorrows of the world stick in His disheveled hair.
Every teardrop falling from His eyes 
Makes the seven seas roll and swell
His cheeks flush and glow!
Hugging mother-earth in His huge arms,
He thunders, “Let destruction triumph!”
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!  

Take heart, take heart, cataclysms shake the universe,
The sluggish and shrunken, the dying and decrepit,
Hide and flee because of the coming catastrophe.
Cheerfully, compassionately,
The infant moon’s beams will shine in the sky’s unkempt locks.
Light will flood your home now!
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

The eternal charioteer comes, lashing his bloodied whip,
His horses neigh out; their cries resound in thunder and rain.
Their hooves spark off stars and scatter them across the blue sky
In the covered well of the dark dungeon
The gods are tied up in sacrificial stakes
And heaped in cold stony pillars.
Time for Him and His chariot to shake the earth.
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

Why fear destruction? It’s the gateway to creation!
The new will arise and rip through the unlovely.
Hair disheveled and dressed carelessly
Destruction makes its way gleefully.
Confident it can destroy and then build again!
Ring bells of victory!
Ring bells of victory!

Why fear since destruction and creation is part of the same game?
Ring bells of victory!
Wives, hold up your lamps of welcome! 
The Beautiful comes in the guise of the Violent One

Ring bells of victory!  


(First Published in Daily Star, 2007)

 

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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