When Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on November 15, I felt, quite likely in common with many others in India and especially West Bengal who had followed his career, or who had at least more than a passing familiarity with the cinematic oeuvre of Satyajit Ray, as though some part of my own childhood had been yanked from me. Soumitrada came to fame as the young man Apu who, in the third part of Ray’s trilogy, Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”), has abandoned the village and the life of a family priest for the thrills and hazards of life in the big city: Calcutta. It is said that Ray had wanted to cast him as Apu in the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito, but he was too old for the part of the young Apu. Yet, such was the spell cast by Soumitra Chatterjee, it seems as if even the child and adolescent Apu were played by him. The trilogy closes out Apu’s life, but so many lives of the young were set in motion with Apu’s life. Soumitra Chatterjee, one felt, had been Apu throughout; and Apu’s life became one’s own.Continue reading
(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)
“This is the story of a phenomenon.” So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.
Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out. Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.
It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere. Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm. He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything. The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.
Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai
a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American. I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American: he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India. Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India. He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.
Tom Alter was born in India to American parents. He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life. His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans. They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo. And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.
I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter. I wish it had been otherwise. He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man. But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian. In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema. The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.” This may be thought of as an unusual confession: of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion. I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him. Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed. Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.
Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines. The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost. One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?” Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background. So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.
Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind. Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot. Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet. “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?” “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?” So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly. When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”
Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu. He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties. Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.
It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects. If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language. But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways. Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore. Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India. One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition: that is another story in the making. Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India. Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.
Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked. Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse. The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors. The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism. The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons. Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression. The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit. This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.
Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is. In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30]. The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith. Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna: it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”). This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief. That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice. In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’. It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.
Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart. But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India. Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb. His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body. The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.
Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries. It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.
The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between Tibet and India, rarely obtrudes upon one’s consciousness. It is commonly described in the West as ‘fiercely protective of its traditions’, which is another way of saying that it has, thankfully, been resistant to the idea that it should, as the neo-liberals are fond of saying, “open up” to the West if it wishes to be more than just a footnote to history. Over the last decade, Bhutan has nonetheless splashed its way into the Western media every now and then for a very different reason, as the progenitor of the idea that Gross National Happiness should replace GNP (Gross National Product) as a more reliable indicator of a country’s well-doing. The young king of Bhutan has been one of the idea’s most enthusiastic advocates and it has not been without its takers, most particularly among those who have worked on ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ issues and are cognizant of the fact that the well-being of a nation and its people cannot be reduced to something called the GNP and a few other economic (or allied) determinants. Whatever the difficulties of ‘Gross National Happiness’, and they are considerable, the idea should perhaps be embraced for no other reason that it might put a few economists, the vastly overrated and frequently insolent practitioners of the dismal science, out of work. Happy is the country that has little or no need for economists.
It may be too much to say that Bhutan, for all its remoteness, has a film industry; nevertheless, a few films have come out of Bhutan over the last several years. A few days ago, by happenstance, I came upon the first feature film out of Bhutan, and was struck, as surely every viewer would have been, by the charm, depth, and relative sophistication of Travelers and Magicians, “Chang Hup The Gi Tril Nung”, especially in the absence of a filmmaking tradition. Made in 2003 by Khyentse Norbu, the film is remarkable for more than its unhurried pace: much like Bhutan itself, the film steers refreshingly clear of the loud and mindless chatter of much of nearby Bollywood and Hollywood. Its central character, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young official working in a village somewhere in central Bhutan, is in a hurry to get to Thimpu, the country’s capital: he has received a summons to a visa interview at the American Embassy. But why should anyone be in a hurry in Bhutan? If a young man in Bhutan is in a hurry, something is askance. When “the land of dreams” beckons, what else remains?
America’s reach is everywhere; the dream-work of America is happening in the remotest corners of the world. Dondup is what, borrowing the vocabulary from neighboring India, I would like to describe as the Resident Non-Bhutanese: though he lives in Bhutan, he might as well be living in America. Dondup has already been transported to America: he wears tennis sneakers, and, on more than one occasion, the camera lingers on these would-be Air Jordans, the vehicles of his carriage from one land to another. The walls of Dondup’s room are plastered with posters of white, sultry-looking girls; a large US army poster, “Uncle Sam Wants You”, with the familiar call to a glorious career in the mightiest military machine of the day, dominates one corner of the wall. American rock music blares from Dondup’s boom box; even the distinctly un-American Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist, which serves as Bhutan’s mandated national dress for men, is given a Yankee twist as Dondup sports a denim variety.
Dondup’s village is a two-day bus ride from Thimpu. He just misses the only bus of the day and tries to hitch a ride. As he waits by the roadside, he is joined by a peasant carrying a large sack of apples; a vehicle pulls up, but the driver assumes the two men are traveling together and says he cannot take them both. Down the winding mountain road comes, a short while later, a dramyin-strumming Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga); before too long, a rice paper merchant and his pretty daughter, Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), have joined the party. The journey has long been a metaphor, in world literature and cinema, for self-discovery; but this voyaging into the self entails a twin-pronged movement, both into interiority and away from the crowd into the company of strangers. Thus, though Dondup starts out as the solitary traveler, the size of the party grows—but only so much, indeed just enough to prod him into some degree of anxiety and discomfort, then a modicum of self-reflection, and finally a recognition that the self seeks the other. The five pilgrims journeying into Thimpu are eventually picked up by a truck driver; as they clamber into the back, they discover they have a drunk for company. The drunk may not exemplify a higher consciousness, but he does point to altered states of consciousness. Much like the Buddhist monk, he remains unruffled: merry is he who is drunk—drunk on the love of God, or perhaps drunk in the lover’s embrace. Along a major turn-off, the five step down and the truck moves on.
The narrative frame of Travelers and Magicians involves yet another element that has long informed Indian story-telling traditions. The road ahead is a long one; to pass the time, and prompted by Dondup’s desire to flee the apparently suffocating confines of village life in a hermit kingdom, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to share with Dondup and the others the story of Tashi (Lakhpa Dhorji), a villager who yearned to escape from the drudgery of everyday life. One might fault the film for occasionally taking recourse to a stock of clichés: thus, Tashi mounts what else but a white horse that he cannot tame. He is thrown to the ground and injures his leg; wandering around in a daze, Tashi is hopelessly lost in the remote mountains before he comes upon the home of an old woodcutter, Agay, married to a beautiful woman much younger to him. The old man rules over his young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom), like a tyrant; she longs for a younger man’s touch and company, and Tashi and Deki are soon caught in a web of lust and jealousy. A plot is hatched; the old man’s chhang (liquor) is poisoned, but he seems to take a very long time to die, writhing and groaning in pain. This adulterous relationship ends as all such escapades do, as Deki falls to her death in the wild rapids as she pursues a fleeing Tashi.
The story of Tashi is told not in one single take, but rather the film alternates between the main narrative frame and the interior frame; the filmmaker cuts seamlessly between the two stories, making effective use of dissolves, match cuts, and other cinematic devices. The interior story doesn’t exactly mirror the main framework story, which is what makes it all the more enticing; and yet there are enough elements—the desire to escape the constraints of village life, the voyaging forth into the unknown, the journey into the interior of one’s self, the entrapments of desire, the restlessness of the young—to stitch the two stories into a single narrative framework. The film is self-reflective about the art of story telling: stories are not to be told only to while away the time, but because stories, more other than forms of discourse, translate more easily from one culture into another. Was it Thucydides or Heraclitus who said that wherever one goes, one runs into a story?
Travelers and Magicians deploys in many respects elements of a narrative structure with which we are familiar from other films and works of literature. Just as the party grew incrementally, so it diminishes incrementally. Some hours short of Thimpu, a bus finally pulls up before the party of five. Dondup, who had at the outset been in an extraordinary hurry to get to America, now seems rather indifferent to the land of dreams: the bus has room for only and he puts the apple-seller on it. And so the party of five has begun to scatter, the monk and Dondup taking a ride together into Thimpu. The destination is no longer of any consequence; the journey is everything. As Eliot put it hauntingly in “Little Gidding”,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The persona of the angry young man, a role that Amitabh Bachchan would earmark as his very own, is commonly thought to have emerged in Hindi cinema in the first half of the 1970s, in films such as Zanjeer (1973) and Deewaar (1975). The 1970s were certainly turbulent times: early in the decade India and Pakistan went to war, and not long after India would attempt to have itself partly admitted into the club of nuclear states with a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’. Whatever Indira Gandhi may have gained with these spectacular displays of her will to triumph, she is commonly thought to have squandered these victories with the imposition of the emergency, the stifling of dissent, and social policies calculated to arouse the opposition of the poor. However, the malaise that afflicted the country was much deeper: industrial production had slowed down, the labouring classes were in a militant mood, shortages of essential commodities were palpable, and unemployment was rampant. Azaadi had wrought little; the dream had soured.
There is every reason, then, to think of the 1970s as preeminently the decade when the genre of the ‘angry young man’ planted itself in Hindi cinema, a theme taken up with considerable gusto in Tamil films of the 1980s. But Bachchan’s films of the 1970s demand attention for another compelling trope, namely the idea of the city. The migrations from the countryside to the city, which might be constituted into one epic narrative of the history of India after independence, continued unabated –– and we should recall that Vijay, in Deewaar, flees with his mother and brother Ravi to Bombay from the hinterland. Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray are commonly thought of, particularly by film aficionados, as two filmmakers who were heavily invested in the nexus of the city and the film. Sen has described Calcutta as his El-Dorado, his muse: the city features prominently in his work, perhaps nowhere more so than in his films of the early 1970s when young men floundered about in search of jobs. Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ –– Pratidwandi (1971), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1974) –– likewise captures with extraordinary subtlety the anomie of city life, the dislocations the city creates in social relations, even the transformations in emotions under city life.
Many of Bachchan’s films of the 1970s are also eminently city films. Signs of the urban landscape are unmistakably present in Zanjeer, even if the city is somewhat undeveloped as a character in its own right. The city must have its dens of vice, where Sher Khan rules supreme before an encounter with Inspector Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) sets him on the path to reform. Mala, the street performer, lives in Dongri Chawl; at the other extreme, the underworld don Teja lounges relaxes by the side of a luxurious swimming pool. Four years later, in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the city would have even greater visibility: many of Bombay’s landmarks and public institutions –– Nanavati Hospital, Victoria Terminus, Haji Ali Dargah –– feature prominently in the film.
It is Deewaar, however, which carved out the space of the urban in a wholly distinct manner. As Vijay, Ravi, and their mother arrive in the city, they leave behind a social order that is simultaneously more intimate and more unforgiving: one cannot escape one’s social markers so readily in the village or the small town. There is also a tacit assumption that as the breadwinner of her family, Sumitra Devi’s prospects are better in the metropolis. Vijay’s adolescent years are captured in a few, albeit critical, scenes in the film; and then a match cut transports us to the angry young man, now a worker at the docks. As he takes on the mafia, one senses the explosion of urban India; the ‘angry young man’, a new hero emerging from the bowels of the city, represents the anger of a generation whose dreams lie shattered.
As Vijay wrests control of the docks from Samant’s men, we are tempted into thinking that he is increasingly embracing the urban world as his own, refusing to be beaten into submission by the unruliness and hurly-burly ways of the city. The docks are among the many signs of the urban. The city is everywhere in Deewaar and the film skillfully signposts urban spaces. Newly arrived into the city, Vijay’s mother finds works at a large construction site. Sumitra and her two sons make their home under the bridge: it is not the overhead traffic over the bridge that makes the city, but the tens of thousands indeed millions sheltered under it who, yet again, give birth to the unintended city. The great migrations into the city gave rise to the slums, with their population of labourers, tradesmen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, and it is from the housing tenements, some under the bridge, that one gets what Ashis Nandy has described as the ‘slum’s eye view of Indian politics’. From their modest home under the bridge, the young Ravi arrives at the gate of the nearby school.
Slowly but surely, the plot of Deewaar drifts into other ineluctable spaces of the urban landscape: high-rise buildings, five-star hotels, night-clubs, indeed the city streets themselves through which Ravi gives furious pursuit to Vijay. But the singularity of Deewaar resides in something quite different, namely that it is the first film in Hindi cinema which establishes a dialectic between the footpath and the skyscraper, the two preeminent signs of the film’s urban landscape. The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is self-evident. One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed: while Ravi goes to school, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. Soon enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper: he even attempts to gift his mother one. No sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. The fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout the negotiations. The skyscraper holds no intrinsic interest for Vijay, indeed its very existence is refracted through the footpath. The footpath is literally that: the path where the foot trod, where every footfall becomes a trace of memory. At every turn of his confrontation with Ravi, Vijay seeks, unsuccessfully, to remind him of their shared histories on the footpath: ‘Ravi, tume yaad hain bachpan mein kitni raaten footpath pe khaali pet guzarin?’
One could go on in this vein; but, in conclusion, I would point to one of the dialogues on the footpath that have now become part of India’s cultural memory. The young Vijay, refusing to pick up money thrown at him as a shoeshine boy, says with dignity, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money. Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’ Davar, the mafia don, tells his henchman: ‘Yeh umar bhar boot polish nahi karega. Jis din zindagi ki race mein isne speed pakdi, yeh sab ko peeche chorh jayega. Meri baat ka khayal rakhna. Ek din yeh ladka kuch banega’. Looking back at the life of Amitabh Bachchan, one has the feeling that much in it was prefigured in the figure of Vijay. More than anyone else in India’s film industry, Bachchan has proven to be the lambi race ka ghoda.
(Also published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 6 October 2012, p. 10, as “How Vijay Was Born”)
For all the apparent simplicity of its plot, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975) — on which I have written a book [HarperCollins, late December 2010] to which I made reference in my blog earlier this month — twists and turns on a number of phenomena, none perhaps as remarkable as the act of writing. Though Deewaar has generated its fair share of commentary, scholarly and otherwise, I am not aware that the palpable significance of the written word as such has previously been registered much less interpreted. To be sure, the tense indeed terse conversation that ensues between Vijay and his brother Ravi in the aftermath of Vijay’s purchase of a skyscraper, when Ravi asks for Vijay’s written confession – mujhe tumare sign chaiyen, ‘I want your signature’– has already been inscribed into the annals of the most famous dialogues in Hindi cinema. Conversation is perhaps not the best of words; confrontation more accurately describes their exchange. As an aside, it is notable that Vijay and Ravi each have conversations with others, but seldom with each other. They exchange words with each other on a few occasions, but these should not be confused for conversations. An older meaning of ‘conversation’, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, referred to sexual intimacy and even the act of sexual intercourse; though this meaning of ‘conversation’ is now lost to us, the word retains suggestions of social intimacy, living together and consorting with others. Such intimacy is not shared between the two brothers, even if Vijay frequently attempts to draw upon what he hopes are shared memories.
In a film bursting with crackling dialogues, it is scarcely an accident that many of the most telling lines are delivered around the subject of the written word, and that the signature marks the advent of a new sensibility. Writing inaugurates a hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power and establishing a contrast between status, where one’s place in the social hierarchy is a matter of ascription, convention, and unwritten traditions, and contract, an agreement that is legally enforceable in a court of law. The signature is the most dense and iconic of all acts of writing. The written invariably introduces uniformity, even if there is inconsistency within a document and between texts; and the alphabetization of the script has even been interpreted as a charter of oppression for some people. The signature, moreover, is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft.
Let me dwell on the inaugural moment of the signature in Deewaar as a prolegomenon to a more considered evaluation of the act of writing that readers will encounter in my book. These pages, modified to some degree from the text of the published book, should suffice to indicate the tenor of the argument. The signature makes an early and pivotal entry in Deewaar. Anand Babu, entrusted by mill workers with negotiating a fair agreement with the management, is confronted with a difficult choice. A folder is placed before him, and as he turns one page after another, Anand Babu asks what is the meaning of this insult: the proposed “new” agreement offers the labourers terms which they have already rejected. Anand Babu is asked to turn another page: smack in its middle is a photograph of his wife and their two sons, Vijay and Ravi, all now held hostage at the owner’s command. There, in the background, is the crack of thunder: events in the social world have their counterpart in the natural world, however much the modern dispensation to think of the physical and social worlds as distinct entities. What, asks Anand Babu in obvious rage, if I were not to sign? The plot, a sophisticated viewer is likely to think, is but chicken feed; and the Hindi film’s love for the baroque and the garish is none too subtly conveyed by the camera’s turn towards one of the more fearsome hooligans who is described, as he twirls his moustache with a menacing look on his face, as a man who has twice been to jail, once on the charge of murder. ‘I want my wife and children’, says Anand Babu; ‘and I’, replies the seth, ‘want your signature.’ That is not what one would be inclined to describe as a fair exchange, but one must never underestimate the weight behind the signature. Sign the papers, Anand Babu is told, or perish the thought that you will ever see your loved ones again. Lightening strikes: here is a portent of the unrelenting darkness that is about to descend on the lives of Anand Babu, his family, and the community of workers.
The seth holds up the pen in one hand; Anand Babu looks down at the photograph and then his eyes hover on the pen. When I first saw this film as an adult, I was reminded of the essay question on which generations of school children in India were brought up, though perhaps in this computer age the question no longer resonates as mightily as it once did. We would be asked to discuss, ‘Is the pen mightier than the sword?’, though the interrogative form always seemed specious. It was understood that, unless one was willing to subscribe to some notion of naked power, the greatness of the pen had to be affirmed – an affirmation all the more necessary in view of the fact that, idealist sentiments aside, the pen was viewed as being at an incalculable disadvantage with respect to the sword. Norms of civility demanded that the pen be made triumphant over the sword. That apparent opposition – the one an instrument of civilization, of letters and philosophy, the other the symbol of brute strength – is in Deewaar dissolved at this junction, since both the pen and the sword are to be the instruments of Anand Babu’s defeat. Wordlessly, Anand Babu grabs the pen; his hand clutched to it, he hesitates: back and forth the camera moves, against the crescendo of thunder outside, between the paper that demands his signature and the image of his captive family. The camera zooms in on his hand as he affixes his signature to the nefarious agreement, and then cuts to Anand Babu standing before the workers in pouring rain: he offers no explanation for his conduct, only an account of his capitulation: ‘I’ve signed all the papers of the agreement and agreed to all their demands. I’ve also agreed that the labourers will toil at the same wages that they received before – and that if there is another strike, it will be illegal. I’ve sold you all off.’
Few films from mainstream Hindi cinema have captivated audiences as much over nearly four decades as Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975, with Amitabh Bachchan). At a book launch in New Delhi last evening, a journalist told me that the film producer, writer, poet, and former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Pritish Nandy, once declared Deewaar to be the single most interesting ‘masala’ film. I cannot say how reliable is this information, but for many years I nursed an ambition to write a small book on Deewaar. The results of that ambition are there to be seen in my book Deewaar: The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man, due to be released by HarperCollins India in mid-December.
Among the most spellbinding elements of Deewaar is what I have described as the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper. To give readers a taste of what they might expect by way of interpretation, here are a few slightly edited passages from the book:
“Moving as he does between the extremes, from the village to a global trade in smuggled goods, from the uniform of a mere coolie at Bombay’s docks to tailored suits, we should not be surprised that Vijay [Amitabh Bachchan] teeters between the footpath and the skyscraper. Deewaar has justly been described as a film that gives vent to the explosive anger of discontented young urban India, as well as a film that, while exploring, partly through tacit invocations to the rich mythic material found in the Mahabharata, the inexhaustible theme of fraternal conflict, provides an allegorical treatment of the eternal struggle between good and evil within oneself.”
“Compelling as are such readings, I would nevertheless suggest that Deewaar also puts on offer the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper . . . . The footpath or pavement . . . has ever been present in the Hindi film, to be numbered among the dramatis personae. The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is too self-evident to require comment. One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed: while Ravi [Vijay’s brother, played by Shashi Kapoor] goes to school, where under the umbrella of the textbook, the national anthem, and the discipline of the rod he will learn to become the dutiful subject of the state, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. It is on this footpath that some of the dialogues inescapably associated with Deewaar take place: issuing a retort to Jaichand for throwing money at him after his shoes have been polished, the young Vijay says, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money. Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’ Vijay, Davar later cautions Jaichand, is the steed that runs long races (‘lambi race ka ghora’): ‘He is not going to be shining shoes the rest of his life. That day when he catches life by the neck, he will leave everyone behind. Mark my words: One day this boy will make something of himself.’”
“Sure enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper. Elsewhere in this book, I have described the impossible gift: when riches comes his way, Vijay’s first thought is to gift his mother the skyscraper built with nothing less than her blood, sweat and tears. All the insults and humiliations heaped upon her, he deludes himself into believing, are thereby avenged. Curiously, no sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. ‘Meri ma ne yahan eente uthai thi’ (‘my mother carried bricks on her head here’), Vijay informs the businessman from whom he purchases the skyscraper, but the fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout their negotiations. . . .”
See also the related post on Deewaar and the act of writing:
The popular Hindi film brings to mind the framed portrait of Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Father of the Nation’. Hindi films are often described as formulaic, and perhaps not without reason: their ingredients, many imagine, are utterly predictable, and indeed one of the pleasures of watching such films may reside precisely in the fact that often one is aware of the dialogue even before it has been uttered. The plot generally holds no suspense, and that may be one reason why the Hindi film thriller is, barring an exception or two, still an anomaly. Whatever the merits of the argument, I have been struck by something else in viewing hundreds of films over the years. In the Hindi film of the 1960s through the 1980s, as in real life, one could almost always expect to find the framed photograph of Mohandas Gandhi, most often in the police station, the government office, or the receiving room of the senior politician’s headquarters. Occasionally, one would encounter the framed Gandhi in the home of the pious teacher, the dedicated social worker, or the plain old-fashioned patriot. The framed Gandhi, if one were to watch mainstream Hindi films from the decades of the 1960s to the 1980s with a modicum of attention, seems to have been nearly as essential to the Hindi film as songs, the staged fights (orchestrated by the ‘fight master’), or the suffering mother. One might argue, of course, that the Hindi film was merely following the script set by the state: the protocol apparently required that Gandhi’s photograph be hung visibly in the most prominent office of a government institution.
It is tempting to think that, from his lofty position on the wall, Gandhi is there to inspire men and women to do good; but perhaps he is also there to cast a look, as we shall see, at all that transpires in his name and under his photograph. Though the ‘Father of the Nation’ did not much believe in surveillance, and was notoriously indifferent to considerations of his own security, eventually surrendering his life to an assassin who had absolutely no difficulty in penetrating the Birla House gardens where Gandhi held his evening prayer meetings, the framed Gandhi appears to peer down from his lofty position on mere mortals. However critical one may be of Gandhi at times, even his worst enemies would have a hard time thinking of him as a ‘Big Brother’. Even Gandhi’s authoritarianism, for such is how it is has been described by some of his critics, was tempered by a radical catholicity of thought. Nevertheless, perhaps the framed Gandhi is there to remind the thinker or doer that Gandhi Baba’s eyes are cast at their deeds: his blessings will be showered on those who act ethically and his admonitions will caution those who are set on the path of wrong-doing. One can understand why Indian embassies and consulates throughout the world prominently display the framed Gandhi: whatever India’s standing in any particular country, the name of Gandhi is calculated to earn India some goodwill. Similarly, the person who puts up Gandhi’s photograph may be attempting to acquire cultural capital, suggesting to others that the admiration for Gandhi points to some element of nobility in his or her own personality. If we are associated in people’s minds with the friends we keep, there is reason to suppose that the photographs of venerable elders on display are meant to signify something about us to others.
The gesture of the framed Gandhi can, of course, be read in myriad other ways. It is customary for states to hang framed photographs of the highest officials – often elected, just as often self-appointed, as in the case of ‘presidents for life’, or otherwise chosen to preside over the destinies of their people – but Gandhi occupied an anomalous position in the immediate aftermath of independence, holding no office and yet being bestowed with the epithet of ‘Father of the Nation’. But, in India, framed photographs of the gods and goddesses are even more common than the photographs of netas, ‘leaders’ of the nation. Let us, for a moment, overlook the fact that many of those canonized or celebrated as netas have been scarcely deserving of that honorific, and it is no surprise that the word ‘neta’ is commonly and justly viewed as a term of abuse and vilification. Netas are often those who plunder the nation. Holding no elected office in either independent India or even in the Congress party after his one-year term of presidency of the Congress in the early 1920s, and having no riches or possessions to his name, Gandhi cannot be bunched together with the netas, small and big, who populate the Indian scene. But Gandhi was equally reluctant to being deified: he openly disowned the idea of being a Mahatma, and would have shuddered at the thought of being assimilated into Hinduism’s gods and goddesses. Gandhi occupies, we may say, a position betwixt the politicians and the gods, and yet a position that is akin to neither. Perhaps that old and tiresome question, of whether he was a politician in saint’s garb or a saint who muddled his way through politics, will never go away.
One keen observer of Indian politics who has always remained aware of the framed Gandhi is the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, famous among other things for his creation of the ‘common man’. In one cartoon after another, Laxman lampooned the netas, bureaucrats, and the sycophants who came to define ‘politics’; significantly, the framed photograph of Gandhi looms large in his work, as the three cartoons reproduced here amply demonstrate. Laxman was keen to underscore the hypocrisy of politicians, leaders, and party office holders, though ‘hypocrisy’ is perhaps a banal and even relatively benign word to characterize those who, under Gandhi’s portrait, did not hesitate to offer or accept bribes, engage in horse-trading, engineer ‘disturbances’ in the interest of advancing the party’s electoral prospects, and so on. Still, Laxman may have missed out on one element in his representation of the Gandhi looming behind the frame. As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, there is no constituency in India – liberals, Marxists, constitutionalists, Hindutvavadis, militants, feminists, Dalits, Punjabis, Bengalis, communalists, gays and lesbians, most of all Gujaratis, and then countless more – that does not love to hate Gandhi. He has been framed for every imaginable ill that has afflicted India: some hold him responsible for the partition of India; others for upholding caste, relegating women to the household, and allowing the bourgeoisie an easy ride; and many others for betraying his fellow Hindus. There are even those who find the hand of Gandhi behind the culture of gherao, strikes, hartal, and the evasion of law. And one could continue in this vein. So, when we frame Gandhi, we do far more than enclose his photograph or portrait behind glass. Our habit of framing Gandhi has more to it than meets the eye.
(This piece is available in an Uzbek translation here: http://eduworksdb.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/)
An Estonian translation of this article by Martin Aus can be found here: http://techglobaleducation.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/
In the very first week that I arrived at UCLA in the fall of 1993 as a new faculty member in the Department of History, I was introduced to Professor Teshome H. Gabriel. He was described to me as a film scholar, and as the moving spirit behind the collective, comprised mainly of younger faculty and graduate students in the humanities, known as “Emergences”, also the title of the journal published by the group. In those days, the group would meet on Friday evenings, and we gathered at the bar in the basement at the Faculty Center where Teshome, liberally and unstintingly spending money on others as he seems to have done his entire life, would order pitchers of beer for the group. It took very little time to discern that, as good a scholar as he was, he was also an extraordinary person, a friend generous to a fault, a person full of unusual creativity, wise counsel, good spirits, and fortitude. And so it is a blow in the extreme to find that Teshome will no longer be in our midst, even if in spirit he remains with all those who were fortunate to have known him.
Teshome Gabriel, who had a very long association with UCLA, passed away in the early hours of Tuesday, 15 June 2010, at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Panorama City. His wife, Maaza Woldemusie, had driven him to the hospital and they had just arrived when he suffered cardiac arrest. Teshome earned his doctorate in film studies at UCLA and went on to become a faculty member at the same university. His principal appointment was with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, though he was also affiliated with the African Studies Center and more peripherally with the Department of Comparative Literature. The brief official announcement of his death issued by UCLA’s International Institute describes him as having “written extensively on memory and the cinema, theories of Third Cinema, on the aesthetics of nomadic thought in cinema and on weaving and the digital in developing countries.” Intriguing as is this description, to which I shall return shortly, it does not gesture at his unique – and, sad to say, largely unrecognized by the faculty and administration — place in the intellectual life of UCLA and the part that he played in mentoring untold number of students.
It is not merely that thousands of students over the years took his classes on third world cinema, and in particular one of his signature classes on ‘film and social change’. There cannot have been many African, and African-American, students in the humanities at large who did not come to know Teshome, or go to him for counsel. He mentored them, and many other students, in innumerable ways. Teshome had an enormous if quiet following on campus among the students, who recognized that, before everything else, he was dedicated to them. What made him more lovable, and doubtless frustrating at times, was that he was rather disorganized, the very picture of the absent-minded professor. He would scribble notes on the back of envelopes, on newspapers (usually the New York Times) and in the back of books, and one was quite certain that most of those notes would, as happens to scraps of paper, disappear into thin air. Before one of the coffee shops on the north campus called LuValle was renovated about 8-10 years ago, Teshome, in a manner of speaking, held court; in later years, he divided his time between LuValle and Northern Lights, on the other side of the main research library. It wasn’t possible to have a conversation with him for more than 15 minutes on campus before someone passing by would stop to say hello, banter with Teshome in Amharic, or exchange some news about Ethiopia. He was, shall we say, a distinctive presence in every way, not least of all because in Los Angeles’s very mild winter he dressed as one might in Chicago or Minnesota in the middle of a snow-storm, and even on a slightly warm day he usually wore a thick scarf around his neck.
It is characteristic of Teshome that, in nearly the seventeen years that I knew him, I do not ever recall hearing him utter the word “research”. When we met, he might ask, ‘What are you reading these days?’, or ‘What are you writing?’ It is difficult to convey, to those who think that research is the task of a research university, but have never quite bothered to ask whether most of what passes for research is even worth the paper on which it is written, never mind the millions squandered on such utterly useless things as surveys, questionnaires, and the economist’s mindless models, just how refreshing it was to be in the company of someone who never quite bothered with research. Teshome had, I believe, come around to the view that most of research is in fact inimical to thinking, but it is necessary only to accept that ‘research’ was far from his mind. He was interested principally in thinking and storytelling. To what extent he imbibed his supreme gift for storytelling from his indigenous Ethiopian traditions is an interesting question in itself, but he could mesmerize young and old alike with his gifts. He regaled my children with stories and had an enviable way with young ones. His interest in storytelling – the origins of stories are often unknown, proprietorship over stories is difficult to accept, and the telling and retelling of stories puts into question the notion of the true and authentic story — may also account, in good measure, for his indifference to notions of authorship. If there is relatively little that appeared under his own name, one should attribute it both to his unselfishness and his conviction in the idea of collective authorship.
Since, at least in the last 20 years of his life, Teshome had no research agenda, and was unencumbered by any desire to be famous, prolific, or the holder of a “chair” or “distinguished” professorship, he was at complete liberty to let his stupendously fertile imagination wander about in the most unexpected ways. Teshome first became known for his work, extending back to the late 1970s, on “Third Cinema”, though he kept on refining his ideas and never ceased to revisit much of his own work which others had come to take for granted. It is not too much to say that Teshome was the principal scholar who helped to develop a critical theory of Third Cinema. He saw such a third cinema as a guardian of popular memory and as a source of emancipation for formerly subjugated peoples. While Third Cinema would develop its own conventions of narrative and style, its aesthetic had to be tied to a politics of social action. Though it is his work on Third Cinema that made Teshome into an internationally recognized figure in film studies, his later work, a string of very short essays written intermittently over a period of two decades, was brilliantly creative even if it never got the recognition that it deserved. In one of those essays, he explored the relationship between the web and weaving – and so birthed the idea of digital weaving. When Ashis Nandy and I approached him for a contribution to our book, The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2006), he proposed a short essay on “Stones”. I very much doubt that anyone has even written on stones with such verve, imagination, and jouissance as has Teshome. Here is a passage from Teshome’s essay which illustrates the sheer fecundity of his mind:
“Movement is not just a spatial displacement, or a matter of sequence, or of a linear history. While stones are generally associated with immobility, those that tend to remain still are in fact the ones that move the most throughout history. By not moving at all, they move in other directions, in other dimensions, in their own curious and often ironic way. Pyramids would seem to be the most immobile of things, yet they have been all over the world; there is no place in the world that does not carry archival memories of pyramids, for whom the pyramid does not signify something of deep cultural importance. One can argue that the same forces are at work in the wailing wall of Jerusalem and the great wall of China, and the Kaaba/Ka’ba of Mecca. Stones, like sacred relics, travel and induce us to do likewise; they move us emotionally, spiritually, and in many other ways.”
One could not have a conversation with Teshome without walking away, if one allowed one’s imagination something of a free hand, with some interesting idea that had entirely escaped one’s attention. The ideas he bore had, one could argue, some fundamental relationship to the circumstances of his own life. For instance, he was greatly intrigued by the idea of the ‘nomadic’, and I often wondered if it had to do with what had become his largely sedentary life in Los Angeles. For a major academic, Teshome traveled very little – other than visits having to do with family matters — in the last 20 years of his life, barely even attending conferences. And, yet, he traveled much further in his mind than most who have done the rounds of ‘world cities’. It would be a breach of privacy to share the details, which I can never forget, of his visit to Ethiopia, where he grew up and attended school before moving to the United States around 1962, after a gap of some thirty years. Teshome and his wife Maaza, with whom we had the pleasure of sharing our home on many occasions, had very close links with the large Ethiopian community in Los Angeles, and on many Friday evenings Teshome could be found engaged in animated conversation at Awash, one of Los Angeles’s landmark Ethiopian restaurants.
Though Teshome did not leave behind a large body of work, and even there much of what he wrote is scattered in various journals and books, his life illustrates the difficulties in taking the measure of a man who lived in and for others. He was attached to no dogmas, and in his own relationships with others displayed an equanimity that can only be described as remarkable. I almost never heard even the trace of anger in his voice. It would be a mistake to suppose that he had no firm ideas of his own; nevertheless, his singular achievement, with respect to his interactions with scholars, students, and intellectuals, resides in the fact that he was uniquely gifted in creating an ecumenical intellectual space for dialogue and reflection. In 2002, when I published my first book Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, London), I dedicated it to my young daughter (“to whom the future belongs”) and to Teshome Gabriel, “who has enabled the futures of many young ones”. Ten years later, I would have reason to add much more to this dedication. Teshome was a true friend and brother, a weaver of tales, a gifted scholar, and a person of the finest qualities in every respect. He will be greatly missed.
For a film on skin color and the politics of race in apartheid South Africa, Anthony Fabian’s newly released “Skin” goes, it seems, only skin-deep into what could have been a most arresting set of questions. Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing, a girl of colored appearance born to white parents in the South Africa of the 1960s, when apartheid reigned supreme. Though classified at birth as white, Sandra’s “colored” looks incline the white community to treat her as a colored person rather than as one of their own. At the onset of the film, we see Sandra and her brother Leonore being driven to a boarding school for white children. Before too long, the headmaster summons Sandra’s parents and insists that she be taken back home: she is too much of a distraction. Her father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill), is wholly resistant to the idea: as she has been classified white, she must, in his view, be admitted to all the privileges of white people. But, as the movie progresses, it becomes all too apparent that he is driven not merely by a sense of securing justice or privileges for his daughter. Could it be, he wonders, whether his wife Sannie (Alice Krige) was unfaithful to him? The rumors flying around furiously must be quelled. The headmaster succeeds in having Sandra re-classified as ‘colored’, whereupon Abraham becomes resolutely dedicated to having her classification restored to ‘white’.
In a moving scene, Sandra and her parents are summoned before a racial classification board. The race expert, if we may call him that, calculates the ratio of her hips to her waits, and with a ruler takes the measurement of the width of her forehead; putting a pencil through her hair, he asks Sandra to shake her head to determine whether the curls can restrain the pencil and prevent it from falling out. All this passed for ‘science’, a holdover from the days when colonial regimes routinely deployed anthropometry and craniology to establish racial and social hierarchies. Desperate to establish the white credentials of his family, Abraham Laing has the matter taken to South Africa’s Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that Sandra’s appearance can be explained through her ‘polygenetic inheritance’. Indeed, says the geneticist to gasps from the white audience, nearly all Afrikaners have some black genes – nor should this be surprising, considering how, much as in the United States, where white slave-owners routinely bedded their black women slaves, white men readily took black women to bed while otherwise declaring that complete segregation between the races was the law of nature. Abraham’s hopes are crushed when the re-classification of colored for Sandra is nevertheless reaffirmed; but the passage of Parliamentary legislation decreeing that children born of white parents must be classified as white eventually makes him declare victory.
Several years have elapsed as the film moves into the next sequence of events. Sandra has matured into a young woman and is now back home, awaiting the appearance of a suitable suitor. Abraham Laing’s repeated attempts to match Sandra to a white man are the desperate gestures of a man whose attachment to whiteness is assumed by the filmmaker, but never probed. What is there to be probed, one might ask: is it not evident that ‘whiteness’ confers privileges, and in a profoundly hierarchical society is the principal passport to security, sustenance, and comforts? Sandra, however, has set her eyes on a black man, a mere vendor of vegetables and busboy. One senses that the immense struggles to claim whiteness have taken their toll of Sandra. She has certainly been transformed to the point where her father can no longer recognize her. Returning from a sexual rendezvous with her lover, she is discovered in the act and confined to her room. Throughout, her mother has been the emotional bulwark of her life; but now, facing the fury of the law of the father, even Sandra’s mother reprimands her for her unconscionable behavior. Many a film has gone that way: the father represents the harsh customs of patriarchy, the mother strives valiantly to soften the blows inflicted by the father and cushion her children from the corrosive effects of the relentless display of a domineering masculinity. Sandra elopes; the lovers are hunted down; thrown into jail, Sandra is released into the custody of her parents but rejects them – when her father pleads with her to return to them, she asks if they will accept the baby she has had with her black lover, Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge). Her father moves away dejectedly, and she leaves with her lover. Their baby is born, but Petrus soon shows all the marks of the possessive husband. There is no Iago scheming fatally to alienate Othello against Desdemona: no such histrionics are required, since Petrus is little more than a small-minded lazy native. A second baby comes along, but by this time Petrus is well on the way to spending much of his time with the booze bottle. Years later, Sandra will walk away from her abusive husband, as she walked away from home: as she climbs up the hill, her two adolescent children in tow, dawn breaks upon Johannesburg.
Just what is the heart of whiteness? Where is the heart of the whiteness that has no heart? And, yet, sunk in its darkness, whiteness is still inescapably desirable to others. We all have heard of creams to lighten the skin color, and there are innumerable ‘home remedies’ to scrub away the darkness. One such remedy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals and cleansers, makes Sandra’s skin erupt into boils. This is the nearly ineradicable poison wrought by apartheid and racial ideology. One of the many pillars of whiteness in South Africa was the Byzantine system of classification, enforced through a maze of written and unwritten laws. Though white and classified as such, Sandra is reclassified as colored at the instance of the school headmaster, and her father wages what purports to be a heroic struggle to reclassify her yet again as colored. His success is short-lived: seeking acceptance among black people, Sandra seeks — shockingly, valiantly, inexplicably — to undo her privileges and seeks reclassification as colored. A visit to the government office charged with such matters reveals that Sandra cannot will herself into extinction as a white person. That the state should find objectionable the efforts of colored people to prove themselves white comes as no surprise, but perhaps even more objectionable, in principle, is the apostasy of those who disown the ancestral privileges of race. Perhaps there is enough in the film’s scenes to point to the filmmaker’s recognition of the oppressive ostentatiousness of classificatory schemes, but nevertheless I had the feeling that the politics of classification is insufficiently probed in “Skin”.
In the aftermath of the end of the apartheid, the film moves to a closure by reuniting Sandra with her mother. Her father has long since been dead; for some twenty odd years, Sandra has been separated from her mother. Women are the only strong characters in “Skin”: the men are morally crippled by patriarchy, energized only by authority, and confined in their actions by a maze of laws and the force of custom. Everyone’s focus will perhaps be riveted upon Sandra’s father, but there is no more pathetic creature than her older brother. Protective of his sister, he turns, suddenly and ferociously, against her when their father tries to hunt her down after her elopement. Abraham and Leonore make a huge bonfire of everything that might remind them that Sandra is part of the family. Fire is cleansing and redemptive, and men are incapable of moral reflection. The film makes the attempt, but only inconsequentially so, in putting forth the idea that the authority of the state and the paternalism of the father are born of the same seed to dominate. No new ground is being tread here, and even the idea of the quiet but strong and determined woman, whose inner strength prevails against all odds, who knows no end of oppression, has now been encountered often enough to constitute a predictable trope of what might be called movies in the ‘inspirational’ mode. Sandra has weathered many a storm, and the viewer feels relieved at what is evidently her quiet triumph. One wishes only that the story of the new South Africa were more congruent with this flash of inspiration.