Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2013

New York Indian Film Festival 2013

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

This is an all points bulletin for New Yorkers who care deeply about film and about politics. Based on the press screenings of three films that are scheduled for the 2013 New York Indian Film Festival that opens today, you have the chance to see some amazing work. The two narrative films being discussed here are meant primarily for the Indian market. Unlike the typical Indian film that ends up at an art house in Greenwich Village, the directors behind these films came up through the ranks of the indigenous television and film industry rather than the UCLA Film School. This means that the sensibility is distinctly Indian as opposed to the sort of “globalized” film that exhibits more of West Hollywood than West Bengal. What you “lose” in terms of dramatic complexity and psychological depth is more than made up for by authenticity. The other film under discussion is a documentary that will probably not end up in a New York theater, all the more reason to take it in. After all, it is not every day that you get a chance to find out about war-torn Manipur’s main passion: baseball.

Directed by Devashish Makhija, “Oonga” is the first film I have seen out of India that takes up the cause of the Adivasi, the so-called forest-dwelling tribals who provide the base of support for the Naxalite guerrillas whose case novelist Arundhati Roy argued. Oonga is the name of a young boy who has become obsessed with the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of the Vishnu deity in Hinduism, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to a distant city where the village teacher has brought classes in the past to see a reenactment of Rama’s combat with the evil monarch Ravana staged at an amusement park.

Because the teacher has brought Adivasi children to the city, she has come under suspicion from the local military detachment that is trying to wipe out the Naxalites. They are convinced that she has brought the children there to be indoctrinated. They take her into custody and begin torturing her into making a false confession of being a Naxalite spy.

Meanwhile the Naxalites have brought the teacher to their camp in the forest to get her to persuade the villagers to join the struggle. Made up mostly of women, the guerrillas have taken up arms because there is no alternative. Their husbands have already been killed or imprisoned and their land confiscated to be used for mining bauxite. While the teacher and the villagers she leads are depicted as a kind of football being contested by two opposing sides, the brunt of the film is to show the military as utterly depraved and at the service of the mining companies.

Oonga manages to make his way to the city despite knowing very few words in Hindi and relying totally on the mercy of strangers willing to give an Adivasi youth a ride in their truck or on a motorcycle. Once he is in the amusement park, he sneaks into the tent where the Rama legend is being reenacted as a kind of set piece reminiscent of the ballet in “An American in Paris”. It is one of the more astonishingly beautiful “song and dance” scenes I have ever seen in an Indian movie, more Balanchine than Bollywood.

Directed by Ratnakar Matkari, “Investment” is a scathing portrayal of the grubby, materialistic, and Western-oriented upwardly mobile classes in India. When we first meet husband Ashish and wife Prachi in their high-rise, they seem normal enough. They are enjoying the benefits of a rising standard of living and sharing the abundance they enjoy with their 12-year-old son Sohel who at first blush appears like a typical spoiled brat.

When his dad asks him to turn down the volume on the television set so he can talk to someone in a position of helping him land a job at Barclay’s, the son tells him to go to another room since he is watching one of his favorite shows on MTV, one that features American rappers celebrating their wealth and fame. When he is not watching TV, Sohel is zoned out on video games based on killing “enemies”. (Are there any other kind?)

But as the plot develops, we learn that Sohel is not just spoiled. He is a psychopathic killer in the vein of Patty McCormack in the 1954 film “The Bad Seed”, a lying and murderous 12-year-old girl who became the inspiration for a host of other less inspired horror movies of the 1970s through today.

But the real horror is India’s class society. Sohel has a sick sexual interest in a schoolmate with a mother and father beneath his own parents socially, like characters in a Dreiser novel. When she resists his advances, he strangles her in a wooded area nearby his school where Adivasi peoples have been protesting the takeover of their land by a real estate company. The film makes no attempt to provide a “balanced” view. It is an old-fashioned diatribe against a monstrous family who are obviously symbols of an India that 74-year-old director Ratnakar Matkari has no use for.

This, his first movie, is a clear expression of his values previously reflected through a Marathi translation of Arundhati Roy‘s English essay titled Greater Common Good. After earning a degree in economics from Mumbai University in 1958, he worked at the Bank of India for the next twenty years. Despite his ability to enjoy the life of his evil characters, he is much more interested in challenging the values that are currently encouraging their development.

Directed by Mirra Bank, “The Only Real Game” is a documentary about the baseball craze in Manipur, a state bordering on Burma that has had 30 guerrilla groups operating at its height (or depth, as you look at it.) Ethnically, the people look more Burmese than Indian. This and just about every other aspect of Manipur culture and politics make me realize how dense and challenging the study of India can be. Even if the film was about nothing except Manipur cuisine, it would be worth watching simply for an insight into a nationality that we know so little about.

Apparently the Manipur people are the most athletic in India and took to baseball like a duck takes to water when they first discovered it during WWII. American airman created a base in their state that was a link the supply chain to the soldiers fighting against the Japanese. Not long after creating their field of dreams, they began teaching the natives how to hold a bat and throw a ball—American hegemony’s more beneficent side.

The film shows standout talents from Manipur as well as an American delegation of professionals who raised money for supplies and to support a clinic on the finer points of baseball. Among those on the delegation is former minor league standout Jeff Brueggemann who was never quite good enough or healthy enough to make it in the majors. He is an immensely appealing character and shows what America is capable of once it puts away its guns and its capital.


March 21, 2013

For my Hindi-reading comrades

Filed under: economics,india — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

A few months ago I wrote an article on the economic crisis for the February issue of Samayantar, a monthly Hindi journal published from Delhi that is described by its editor Pankaj Bisht as independent and left leaning. Samay means time, and antar means difference. The original article in English titled “Is Growth Over” appears here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/is-growth-over/


Scan 36

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May 19, 2012


Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

On Wednesday May 23rd, New Yorkers have the unprecedented opportunity to see what amounts to India’s “The Battle of Algiers”. Bedabrata Pain’s “Chittagong” has been selected as the opening night feature of the 2012 New York Indian Film Festival shown simultaneously in 3 theaters (for location, click here). Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, this is political film at its most magnificent.

One could easily imagine that Pain might have made the film without ever having seen “The Battle of Algiers”. The parallels are not so much a function of imitation but a faithful rendering of Indian history—the story of a heroic but ultimately doomed armed struggle in colonial India that lasted 4 days in 1930 and that evokes the fitful ups and downs of resistance to French colonialism in Algeria. And as is the case with “The Battle of Algiers”, the colonized eventually triumph against the colonizers in a way that will leave the audience standing on its feet and cheering.

Bedabrata “Bedo” Pain

I met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) in 2007 after he read my review of “Amu”, a powerful narrative film about the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 directed by Shonali Bose that he produced. As a highly skilled engineer, who had a patent on the world’s smallest camera used by NASA, he provided the seed money for a most worthy film. The CMOS technology used in that camera provided the basis for consumer digital cameras, so the next time you are on vacation taking pictures of your loved ones remember to tip your hat to Bedo!

Although he was an engineer by vocation, his greatest passion was making film himself, and more specifically films that took up the cause of India’s common people. When C.P. Snow decried the gulf between science and art, he surely had never met the likes of Bedo Pain.

In 2008 Bedo gave up a lucrative career at NASA and became a full-time director, with “Chittagong” as his first project. He told The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper:

My PhD advisor told me that by the time you are 45, you should be absolutely settled in what you are doing, you have your roots planted so deep that you just build upon that, you concentrate on making the leaves of your tree rather than the trunk. And as it turns out, that was exactly the age where I said ‘screw the tree’.

I have vivid memories of my meeting with Bedo as he recounted his desire to make a film about the Chittagong events. Since I was under the impression, like many who had little detailed knowledge about Indian history, that the freedom struggle was completely identified with Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, I was spellbound by his tale of the armed struggle that took place in 1930.

For the next few years, Bedo became a specialist on the Chittagong events. As a serious filmmaker, his intention was clearly to both do justice to the actual history and make cinematic art. Beyond my wildest expectations, Bedo Pain took material out of the dust-covered historical archives and breathed new life into it, so much so that you feel like you have been transported to British-ruled India in 1930.

All of the major characters in “Chittagong” are the historical figures who either died in battle, were subsequently executed by the British, or sent to Andaman prison for long and debilitating sentences, including Subodh “Jhunku” Roy—the sole surviving Chittagong combatant who was interviewed by the director at the age of 92 during the course of the film’s making (he died 2 weeks after its completion.)

Jhunku was 14 years old when he joined Surya Sen’s militia. His followers knew Sen, a high school teacher and ardent nationalist, as Masterda, an honorific that meant “teacher-brother”. When we first meet Jhunku (Delzad Hiwale), he is in a lavish home taking piano lessons from the wife of Wilkinson (Barry John), the British magistrate who runs Chittagong. Wilkinson is the classic paternalistic liberal colonizer who feels that he is there to civilize the natives, especially Jhunku, the son of a lawyer and a political moderate, who he hopes to get into Oxford.

Since Jhunku knows the identity of the classmates who have joined up with Masterda, he is pressured by Wilkinson to name names—assuring him that they are just wanted for questioning and nothing else. As “soft cop”, Wilkinson turns the names over to Charles Johnson, the chief of police, who is the clenched fist in the velvet glove. Wasting no time, Johnson (Alexx O’Nell) and his goons raid a festival celebration and kill one of those named in cold blood. Johnson is also a torturer who we see clipping off two of Surya Sen’s forefingers with wire-cutters during an interrogation. Johnson is to his Indian captives as the brutal Colonel Mathieu is to the Algerians in Pontecorvo’s film.

Veteran Indian actor Manoj Bajpai who I first saw in the 1994 “Bandit Queen”, another deeply political Indian film, plays Surya Sen. While Masterda is revered by everybody, he is modest to a fault. When Jhunku becomes radicalized by British treachery, Masterda only accepts him into the ranks reluctantly. He and Jhunku as well understand that they are facing a well-trained and superior-armed imperial army.

The goal was never to launch a general uprising. Instead, they hoped to raise the morale of the Indian people by demonstrating that the British were not invincible. Even if every last fighter died, they would be martyrs to a greater cause, namely the freedom of their people.

The young men who train with Masterda and his chief lieutenants Ganesh Ghosh (Vishal Vijay) and Anant Singh (Jaideep Ahlawat) come to the forest at night or in early morning to take target practice with the few firearms they have absconded from the British, in the same manner as the Algerians.

The goal is to seize the armory and steal firearms that can be used to hold off the British for as long as possible in a liberated Chittagong. By destroying a section of the railroad tracks that connect the city to Calcutta, they hope to maximize that time. When the British eventually regrouped and attacked the several dozen young rebels occupying higher ground in Jalalabad hills on the afternoon of April 22, 1930, they were forced to retreat from the highly motivated fighters even though they had machine guns and over a thousand troops. Jalalabad is one of the great victories of revolutionary fighters in the 20th century and well deserves the commemoration it gets in  “Chittagong”.

As is the case in “Battle of Algiers”, the arrest, torture, and death of the anti-colonial movement does not mark the end of the struggle. It rises Phoenix-like in the final moments of the film in a way that will stir you in a way that no other political film in memory has done. Just after that scene finishes, we see the closing credits and learn that some of Masterda’s fighters became Communist members of parliament, including Ghosh and Singh.

This marks a logical progression from the strategy and tactics of the Chittagong fighters who were organized as the Indian Republican Army into what would become a movement based more on mass struggle than martyrdom.

When we see Masterda and his followers at a meeting in the forest on one occasion, they conclude their business by chanting, “Long Live the Indian Republican Army”. It is more than a coincidence that they share the same initials as the Irish Republican Army, as Suniti Qanungo, the nephew of a 14-year-old Chittagong martyr, indicates:

The influence of the Irish revolution was so deep on the mind of the Chittagong revolutionaries that the volunteer corps of Chittagong was organized after the manner of the Irish forces of volunteers  which  were  provided  with   militant instructors. The revolutionary army was formed after the manner of Irish Republican Army (IRA) and named Indian Republican Army.20 Irish Republican Army was created in January 1919 as successor to the   Irish  volunteers,  a  militant  nationalist organization founded in 1913. The day of Chittagong rebellion was selected Easter Friday in remembrance of the Easter Rebellion, a sudden rising by less than 2000 men in Dublin. The rebels seized some government establishments and proclaimed an Irish republic. They held out for six days. The rebellion was cruelly suppressed by British army.

Kalpana Dutt, one of the female combatants of the Indian Republican Army, eventually found her way to communism as well. In the final chapter of her Reminiscences, she explains how she became a Communist:

Three or four years later it was decided to keep all the women political prisoners together. Many of them had the opportunity to learn about happenings in the world outside through long periods of stay with the rest of the detainees, and a few periodicals and journals of a progressive type like the Parichaya also began to trickle through the prison bars. From there I could hear about communism from time to time and from them too came to me books of socialism and communism by Joad, Cole and Shaw.

The arguments and the approach of these books began to stir the mind and forced me to ponder over the difference that these have with the revolutionary literature in which I had been steeped so long. The narratives of revolutionary deeds, the lives of Khudiram, Kanailal, Bhagat Singh no doubt stirred us to the very core, teaching us to defy death: but these writings on socialism and communism could not be set aside as irrelevant, and so the faint rumblings of a new battle could be heard within myself.

“Chittagong” is committed to showing the role of women fighters like Kalpana Dutt. One such historical figure is Pritilata Waddedar (Vega Tamotia) who died in combat against the British in the aftermath of a raid on the European Club in Chittagong (graced by the sign at the front door “No dogs or Indians allowed”) that killed Charles Johnson in the middle of a speech about the great victory he had led against the rebels.

If it is almost impossible not to think of “Battle of Algiers” when watching “Chittagong”, it is also nearly impossible not to consider contemporary India, especially the controversy over the Maoists that Arundhati Roy wrote about in her 2010 essay “Walking with the Comrades”. To those who believe that India became free after national independence and under long-time Congress Party rule, nothing might seem more irrational than armed struggle. Unfortunately, the world capitalist system has a way of undermining true national independence through its control of markets and capital investment, even in places where armed struggle rather than nonviolence was the principal mode of struggle, or at least a major component. Algeria itself comes to mind, as does post-Apartheid South Africa.

Arundhati Roy takes this question head-on:

This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.

Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

Although I am not a Maoist ideologically, I heartily concur with the helmsman’s statement that it is right to rebel. India, like China, is a society that is deeply divided by class. While peasants commit suicide in record numbers, Mumbai businessman Mukesh Ambani erects a 27-story mansion that cost $1 billion, the most expensive home ever built.

Surya Sen built a movement specifically against British colonialism but it is not hard imaging him as a Maoist guerrilla in 2012. What use is national independence if you are condemned to economic suffering? Indeed, the class contradictions that were submerged during the fight for independence become much more obvious when the ruled become the new rulers, the subject of another film by Gillo Pontecorvo: “Burn”.

Although this review focuses more on the politics of “Chittagong” than the craft (what else would you expect from the unrepentant Marxist), a few words might be added in summation. Unlike some recent Indian movies that were targeted to Western audiences, “Chittagong” is distinctly Indian, even going as far as to include Bollywood style songs (but no dancing!) that serve as a kind of Greek chorus to the events seen on the screen. Ever the Renaissance man, Bedo Pain is lead singer in one of them.

The sure hand of the director is also seen in the way that he draws out the most convincing performances from his actors, especially Barry John as Wilkinson, the well-meaning imperialist magistrate. John is utterly convincing as a man who is torn between sympathy for the people under the British boot and his elevated role in the Empire that wears it. In real life, John is anything but a colonizer. Born in 1944, John was deeply influenced by the spiritual side of Indian culture and studied the Upanishads, just as I did as a freshman at Bard in the early 60s. John eventually moved to India and became deeply involved with the Indian theater. If the British had come to India in the 18th century on the same terms, much suffering could have been avoided. That, of course, is the key question of our epoch—how patterns of domination can finally be superseded and how peoples can live together peacefully and in economic security. “Chittagong” is exactly the kind of film that captures the spirit of that quest.

February 15, 2012

3 Idiots

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

I am not even sure how I discovered the 2009 Bollywood film “3 Idiots” buried under a trash heap of the typical Cineplex offerings on Netflix, but can recommend it as one of the best feature films I’ve seen this year. Indian audiences would agree with me as it is now the highest-grossing film in Indian history. Since “3 Idiots” was developed primarily for their domestic market—the Indian Cineplex, so to speak—it is of some interest that it is also the highest grossing film exported to international markets as well. If there’s any confirmation of the thesis of Andre Gunder Frank’s “ReOrient”, namely that China and India will eventually dominate the West once again, it is to be seen in a film like “3 Idiots” that is smarter, funnier, and more moving than anything coming out of Hollywood in years.

The good news is that the film can be seen on Youtube, as well as rented from Netflix:

While it incorporates the usual Bollywood elements of sentimentality, soap-opera like plots, broad comic situations, and song-and-dance routines, it is not the typical escapist fare that Indian audiences dote on. A typical Bollywood film might be about a love triangle, for example. But “3 Idiots” is about something very topical, namely the pressure-cooker environment of engineering schools and the mini-rebellion of three students against an ossified administration that values high grades and conformity over innovation. You can find echoes of “The Paper Chase” and even “Animal House” but in the final analysis it is uniquely Indian.

We meet the three main characters in their freshman year at the Imperial College of Engineering (ICE), the Indian equivalent of MIT that has the most competitive admission standards and the toughest classes in the nation. One “idiot” is Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi), who is the poverty-stricken family’s only hope for a decent life. His father is an invalid former postman, his mother the sole income provider who complains bitterly about not having bought a new sari in years, his sister a 28 year old single woman who will never get married because the family can’t pay for a car, a necessity for a dowry. When we first meet him in his dormitory room, he is praying fervently to a shrine of deities that he will succeed.

The second “idiot” is Farhan Qureshi (R. Madhavan), who comes from a relatively prosperous family but has little interest in engineering even though his father is determined that he make it in this profession. His heart is really with wildlife photography.

The third student is not an “idiot” by any stretch of the imagination. He is nicknamed “Rancho” by Raju and Farhan just before they become a closely bonded trio. Rancho is short for his ponderous full name Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad. When Rancho first shows up at the dormitory, he is ordered to strip down to his underwear by an upperclassman hazing the incoming freshmen including Raju and Farhan. After Rancho rightfully decides that he did not go to ICE to get hazed, he runs into his room and locks the door behind him. This infuriates the bullying upperclassman who warns him that if he does not come out of the room by the count of ten to get hazed, he will piss on his door—evoking “The Three Little Pigs” and the big bad wolf.

Like a clever little pig, Rancho cobbles together a metallic conduction device that is connected to an electrical outlet on one end and a spoon on the other that is pushed under the door. As soon as the first drops of urine hit the spoon, the upperclassman howls in pain after getting a good electrical shock. This turns Rancho into an instant hero to all the freshmen and a good friend to Farhan and Raju.

In his first week, Rancho runs afoul of the school’s dean, Professor Viru Sahastrabudhhe (Boman Irani), who is nicknamed “Virus” by the students. He is to ICE as Dean Vernon Wormer is to the Faber College of “Animal House”. Virus greets every freshman class with the same lecture. You need to get good grades in order to succeed. That will open all sorts of doors for you, including a well-paying job in the United States. When Rancho defies Virus by stating that the real goal of an education is to develop inquisitive minds and a love of engineering, he drags the impudent student into a large lecture hall and announces that they have a new teacher: Rancho. He is ordered to go to the podium and lecture the students.

Rancho then picks up the engineering textbook and glances through the pages for a few seconds. Then he faces the students and Virus, who is sitting among them, and asks them to define “Rajufication” and “Farhanimate”. They have five minutes to find the answer. Assuming that the words are in the textbook, they (including Virus) furiously leaf through the book trying to come up with the answer. When the five minutes are up, Rancho tells them that the words were made up out of his friends’ names. The students get the lesson that textbooks don’t always have the answer, thus embarrassing and infuriating Virus who thereupon begins to refer to the three friends as “the idiots”.

Rancho is played by Aamir Khan, who is one of Bollywood’s most inventive actors. He is best known for playing the anti-colonialist cricket player in “Lagaan”. Khan is simply brilliant as Rancho, obviously feeling a real affinity for a character willing to challenge conformity and snobbery.

Although the film is a light-hearted comedy for the most part, it includes some really dark moments especially the suicide of a fellow student who Virus has decided to expel for failing to complete a project on time. Even when the student tries to get an extension because he was busy tending to his sick father, it is to no avail.

While most Americans are aware of the frighteningly high number of student suicides at high-pressure institutions like MIT and Columbia, the numbers in India are even greater. On November second last year, the Times of India reported:

NEW DELHI: Here’s a compelling argument for education reforms in the country: student suicides have increased 26% from 2006 to 2010, with Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai accounting for most victims, in that order. And this is just the official data.

While 5,857 student suicides were reported in 2006, the figure jumped to 7,379 in 2010, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. In other words, 20 students killed themselves every day in 2010, something both academicians and mental health professionals blame on a flawed education system where performance pressure ranks above all else. For the first time in five years, Maharashtra recorded the largest number of suicides in 2010, followed by West Bengal.

“The examination system and the selection process for institutions of higher education weigh heavily on young people,” says Shyam Menon, vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University in Delhi. “The volume of students passing out of the school education system and vying for admission to tertiary education has dramatically increased over the years, with competition levels increasing too. At a time when higher education can result in social mobility, the stakes are very high. Today, there is a greater link between employability and higher education.” Menon believes changes in the education system over the years reflect the changes in the Indian middle-class and their high aspirations, which push young people to perform or perish.

To dramatize the importance of creative thinking, the film ends with a demonstration of inventions at a school where Rancho holds sway. All of them have the same kind of DIY ingenuity manifested by the electric shock gizmo seen in the hazing scene and all of them are actual inventions by ordinary Indians:

The real brains behind 3 idiots

By: Vivek Sabnis

3 simple yet amazing inventions that debuted in the film have brought fame for their inventors

With the release of 3 Idiots, there are three innovators who have finally got due credit. We are talking about Jahangir Painter (49), a Maharashtrian, Mohammad Idris (32) from UP and Remya Jose (20) from Kerala who have given their inventions the scooter flour mill, cycle-based horse shaver and pedal-driven washing machine respectively for the film.

3 idiots has used these three innovations in the film for Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi.

The inventions were sourced by Prof Anil Gupta, National Innovation Foundation, Honey Bee Network, Sri Raghvendra Institute of Science and Technology (SRIST).

Said Gupta, “3 idiots will not only bring the innovations before the masses, but Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his team have promised to create a fund for the three innovators after the release of the film.”

“We’re hoping that these innovations will be used by entrepreneurs in our country as Bollywood films have a wider audience and are viewed by people even in remote areas,” said Gupta.

Painter runs a small painting workshop in Jalgaon. He has earlier won a consolation prize for making a spray painting compressor device. Now that his scooter flour mill has made him famous, he is planning to invest in some more innovations.

December 3, 2011

The Sikh struggle through the prism of film

Filed under: Film,india,religion — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

Like most people, before 2007 I only knew Sikhs by their appearance—and particularly the physically imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw something that turned me around–Shonali Bose’s “Amu”,  a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in 1984.

In the press notes for the film, Shonali wrote:

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

Now, four years later, I return to the Sikh struggle once again through the prism of film.

On October 14th I attended the opening night of the Sikh Film Festival in New York and saw two documentaries that went to the heart of the problems facing this 25 million strong religious group, three-quarters of whom live in Punjab, India, as well as other South Asians suffering from economic oppression.

Harpreet Kaur’s “A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams” featured the director in her campaign to win justice for the surviving family members of Punjabi peasants who have killed themselves out of desperation. Like so many peasants in India, Sikh and non-Sikh, the industrial transformation of Indian farming has condemned many to crushing debts.

Obviously related to the first documentary in terms of its economic focus, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek’s “The Ulysses” tells the story of Bangladeshi undocumented workers who are living in limbo. Deceived into thinking that they were destined for Europe and gainful employment, they are stranded in Ceuta, Morocco, a European enclave, where they construct a shanty-town and look after each other’s needs.

It is an obvious testimony to the ecumenical character of Sikh society that a film featuring the plight of non-Sikh peoples is featured on opening night.

Arguably, the Sikh religion is rooted in the same kind of belief in social equality that marked the early days of Christianity, long before that religion became associated with imperial power and intolerance. In Purnima Dhavan’s “When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799”, a book that can be read in part on Google, we learn:

The creation of the Khalsa [initiated Sikh] is important for many reasons. Its foundational texts questioned every facet of the social and political hierarchies that dominated peasant life in the seventeenth century. Other than challenging the moral right of the Mughal emperor to rule, Khalsa Sikhs, who were among the first to describe appropriate Khalsa practices, also questioned the hierarchies of caste and inherited privilege that dominated their world.

In one of the talks given at opening night of the Sikh Film Festival, a Sikh leader gave a brief overview of this formative period that involved some legendary battles of vastly outnumbered Sikh fighters against the Mughal army. Unlike the Old Testament, these heroic encounters were true and did not involve divine intervention. In point of fact, the Sikh religion has little use for such deus ex machina miracles or any other superstitions, as the Sikh wiki points out:

Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification; circumcision; idols & grave worship…

Sikhism does not have priests, they were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru of Sikhism). The only position he left was a Granthi to look after the Guru Granth Sahib, any Sikh is free to become Granthi or read from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Over centuries, and largely driven by a need to defend themselves against those who would crush their religion, Sikh men became accomplished fighters and actually built up a sizable empire of their own that straddled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.

Eventually the Sikhs encountered an enemy army that they could not vanquish, namely the British colonists of the mid-19th century who fought two wars of subjugation that eventually led to the loss of Sikh power in Punjab. Once they were conquered, the Sikh warriors were heavily recruited into the British army because of their fighting skills.

While much of Karl Marx’s writings on India is problematic, relying on specious secondary sources, his 1858 Tribune article on “The Revolt in India”  is worth noting:

A conspiracy to murder their officers and to rise against the British has been discovered among several Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan. How far this conspiracy was ramified, we cannot tell. Perhaps it was merely a local affair, arising among a peculiar class of Sikhs; but we are not in a position to assert this. At all events, this is a highly dangerous symptom. There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service, and we have heard how saucy they are; they fight, they say, to-day for the British, but may fight to-morrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break out in earnest among them, then would the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindoos and Mussulmans.

As I said, Marx did not get everything right. Although I am no expert on the Sikh religion, the idea that they are a “sect of Brahmanism” sounds wrong. But from what I have been reading lately, the notion that “The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India” seems indisputable.

Indeed, Marx was right on this. As the fight for Indian independence grew apace, the Sikhs became vanguard fighters. Launched in part to break the hold of corrupt Mahants (custodians) over Sikh Temples, who were often in fact not even Sikhs, it turned into a fight against the British who propped up the Mahants in their typically colonizing mode of operation.

Agnes Smedley wrote an article for the July 2, 1924 Nation Magazine titled “The Akali Movement—An Heroic Epic”. These are the concluding paragraphs:

According to the official statement of the S. G. P. Committee, published throughout the Indian press, the massacre at the Gangsar shrine in Jaito was deliberately prepared by the British Government. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine, declared the committee, and concealed behind some buildings, the authorities erected a special barbed-wire in-closure to serve as a trap into which the Akalis were to be driven and beaten. The scene leading to the temple looked like a European battlefield. The road leading to the shrine was inclosed by a barbed-wire barricade on the one side and on the other bullock carts chained together. Behind the carts, villagers, armed with clubs and drunk with liquor which had been freely supplied them, were stationed in three rows. According to the statement of Pundit Malaviya, organizer and founder of the great Benares Hindu University, in a speech before the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and according to the statement issued by the S. G. P. Committee, these villagers had been recruited from the surrounding villages, one from each family, on the threat of confiscation of land and expulsion from the state of any family which did not send one representative. A platoon of infantry, two detachments of cavalry, and sappers and miners were ready to receive the Jatha. Lewis guns were fixed at various places. And, more significant still, a, trench had been dug around the temple, filled with water, and then strewn with grass and twigs to give it a deceptive appearance.

The Jatha realized its fate as it approached, but it was under a sacred pledge. In a calm and devotional mood, and singing hymns, it advanced. The English commander gave a signal with a flag, and fire was opened. The Akalis did not waver, but marched forward, with hands upraised and with voices raised in a mighty religious hymn. As their comrades fell about them they picked them up and marched on. Realizing that to stop them meant to kill the last man, the cavalry surrounded them. Some thirty Sikh women in the procession, one whose baby was killed in her arms, attended the wounded; upon their refusal to withdraw they were lashed and beaten. The dead and wounded lay for twenty-four hours without any medical assistance. Some of the dead bodies were piled on pyres, drenched with kerosene oil, and burned. Others were finally loaded on carts like so many sacks of grain, and taken to the fort where the prisoners were detained.

Since the Jaito massacre five more Jathas of 500 have reached Jaito, only to be arrested. As they leave Amritsar on their long march the streets and housetops are jammed with people crying “Sat Sri Akal.” Each night they rest and educate the peasants. Crowds of people wait for hours along the routes, ready to offer them, free of all charge, food and drink.

The Akali epic is not yet ended. It has again raised India from the depression which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest. It has ceased to be purely one of religious reform. It is a social and political movement led by men who prefer martyrdom to surrender. Almost every Sikh now claims the honor of being an Akali, a name drawn from the deep wells of Sikh persecution which means one who is pure in spirit, “the Deathless.”

Last Thursday I attended a press screening for “I am Singh” that opened yesterday at Big Cinemas in NY, a theater specializing in Asian films. This is a film that dramatizes the struggle against racist attacks on both Sikhs and Muslims that took place in the aftermath of 9/11.

The title of this film is almost the same as “I am Sikh” since the name Singh, which means lion, is automatically given to Sikh boys just as Kaur (princess) is given to girls. The main character is Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Chahal) who is summoned to Los Angeles from India by his mother. In the parking lot of their restaurant, skinheads have attacked his father and two older brothers. After accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attack, they begin beating them with baseball clubs. The father is in a hospital, one brother is dead, and the other is in jail falsely accused of attacking his own relatives. In this film, the Los Angeles police department is depicted as riddled with racists. No, it is not a documentary.

After Ranveer comes to Los Angeles to investigate, he finds two allies in the fight to achieve justice. One is a barrel-chested long-time Sikh member of the police force who is fired for refusing to remove his turban while on duty (played by Bollywood veteran Puneet Issar, the film’s director). The other is a Muslim from Pakistan who witnessed the skinhead attack and was also falsely accused of being a 9/11 plotter simply because his father had the same name as someone who sold a cell phone to Mohamed Atta. Once again, I have to remind you that this is not a documentary.

For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, be prepared. The actors act in a way that is a throwback to cinema’s early days, long before there was such a thing as “method acting”—something that probably never made much of a dent in Indian film to begin with. People went to movies in order to enjoy something that was about as far from “natural” as could be expected. Think of Kabuki and you get an idea of the stylized manner of Bollywood that I personally enjoy immensely.

At the press screening, there were a number of my film critic colleagues who were guffawing at the histrionic delivery of some of the actors. I had to restrain myself from going over to one of the louder ones and giving them a piece of my mind. The provincialism of some New Yorkers can be shocking.

I can recommend “I am Singh” as a powerful statement of Sikh resistance to attempts to scapegoat them. That people can be beaten or killed for simply wearing a turban is a threat to some of our most basic rights as Americans, rights that were not handed down by the rich and the powerful but won through struggle. (The Sikh community, including youth who are involved with The Sikh Activist Network, is carrying out the social struggle depicted in “I am Singh” in real life. )

Finally, the song-and-dance numbers in “I am Singh” are about as breathtaking as in any Bollywood movie I have ever seen. Trust me, unless you have seen 6’5” Sikh men dancing with swords, you haven’t seen nothin’ Here’s a clip from the movie’s official website that will give you an idea of the treat that awaits you.

July 8, 2010

On the Naxalites

Filed under: Film,india,indigenous — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

Opening tomorrow at BIG Cinemas in New York (formerly called the Imaginasian Theater), Ananth Hahadevan’s Red Alert: the War Within reflects liberal opposition to the Naxalite movement. I suppose I was expecting too much from the film given the alarmist title. Indeed, “Red Alert” is the kind of title you might see attached to a 1950s anti-Communist movie, the second cousin of this Indian production. At the very least, it prompted me to read Arundhati Roy’s 25 page article Walking with the Comrades that appeared in Outlook, an Indian magazine, last March. The contrast between Roy’s reportage and the movie could not be more vivid, as I will now explain.

The main character in Red Alert is Narashima (Suniel Shetty), a penniless farmer who has joined the Maoists mainly out of economic necessity rather than ideological conviction. In exchange for his services as a cook, the “terrorists” (to use the press notes formulation) will fund his children’s education.

Things don’t start well for Narashima. In the opening scene, as he makes his way into the forest to hook up with the Maoists, he comes under attack from a squad of policemen who have trailed him. Opening fire on the cops, the Maoists kill each one, rescuing Narashima in the process who is then berated by the guerrillas for lacking caution. Indeed, throughout the entire movie the hapless Narashima receives one dressing down after another, for either not being good with weapons or for requesting permission to go home to his wife and children. Each time he is bawled out, he wears the pained expression of a grade school student being chastised by a schoolmarm.

Perhaps director Mahadevan might have been better served if he had simply made a movie based on the real-life event that inspired the movie, as related to Screen Magazine, an Indian publication:

A couple of years ago I read of a farmer in Andra Pradesh who needed money for his kids’ education. So he started a service to deliver food. On one occasion he realized that he is delivering the food to Naxalites! He was taken as a hostage by them. But eventually he managed to escape. This human story inspired me to make the film.

By turning someone that was a hostage into an unwilling fighter, he ended up with a drama that is less satisfying than what might have been possible. If the goal of the movie was to explore the psychology of a “terrorist”, it subverts that goal by making the central character so out of step with those he has joined. One imagines that the director identified so strongly with mainstream thinking in India that this would have been impossible.

Indeed, the Naxalites are best described as cardboard figures who invariably mouth “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric about the need to be ruthless with the enemy. By contrast, the cops come across as fairly reasonable despite the inclusion of a female character who is found cowering in a police station that the guerrillas have overrun, one more rape victim of a sadistic police force. Given the close scrutiny of Indian censors, who perhaps are to blame for most of the movie’s unwillingness to give too much credence to the Maoists, it is surprising that this state-sponsored terror was allowed to be represented.

What drives the plot forward is Narashima summoning up the courage to break with the Naxalites whose role in the film is mainly to take part in one battle scene or another when they are not giving tough as nails speeches about the need to destroy their enemies. Despite my obvious reservations about Red Alert, I can at least recommend it as a useful snapshot of liberal thinking in India with respect to an obvious growing menace to capitalist law and order.

One of the minor characters in Red Alert is a journalist who comes deep into the jungle in order to get the real story on what makes the terrorists tick. An opportunity is lost for the film to convey some of the reality of the Naxalite movement. With the militants uttering the same tired rhetoric, the journalist naturally finds the pathetic Narashima much more to his liking, suggesting that the director identified with the journalist. In a story that appeared in Indo-Asian News Service, director Mahadevan reveals the source of his Maoist dialog:

“Probably for the first time in Indian cinema you will get to hear dialogues which are actually spoken lines and not fabricated. We actually did extensive research. My writer Aruna Raje and I downloaded a lot of interviews with the Maoists and cops from the internet. Every line they spoke was volatile and we ended up using those lines,” the director said.

Perhaps he would have been better served if he had put in the effort to speak face-to-face with the guerrillas as Arundhati Roy did. The opening paragraph of her article cites a typewritten note slipped under her door setting down the protocol for her rendezvous with the Maoists: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”

The circumstances of her first encounter departed from the script:

I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”

“And the bananas?”

“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”

He really was a security threat.

His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.

Needless to say, there are no characters in “Red Alert” that come within a million miles of the reality of this young boy with his Charlie Brown backpack. It would have been an infinitely more interesting movie if both the director’s political background had been more open to it—and even more importantly—the Indian censors were not in a position to put a gag over his mouth as they sought to do with Arundhati Roy. Shortly after her article appeared, the Times of India reported:

Addressing the gathering state general secretary, Youth Congress, Hardev Singh said, “Today the problem of Naxalism has become more alarming than terrorism and Naxalites are posing a serious threat to the country. Issuing any statement in favour of Naxalities at this juncture by the writer is nothing short of treason. Moreover by criticising the policy of non-violence enunciated and propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and supporting the violent means of Naxalities, the writer [Roy] has justified wring means to achieve good or bad ends for the young generation. If the government fails to put a check over such persons it is going to prove disastrous in future.”

My advice is to read her article since it is obvious that the Naxalite movement is growing as this article from Countercurrents, a left-oriented Indian website would indicate:

Ms Arundhati Roy’s piece has been subjected to unfair censorious remarks by her critics. It had been alleged that she “has conjured up another bad dream in tribal India and perhaps unwittingly is working overtime with other misguided ideologues to make it come true”. But these flag bearers of the establishment missed the essence of the Indian Constitution which provides for a pluralistic society where a hundred ideological flowers can bloom and co-exist. As to his wrongful thinking that Maoism would fade out, as had happened to many such insurrectionary movements in the past, one may perhaps speculate that it might not because hard facts give contra-indications. Naxalism started in April 1967 in one State (West Bengal), in one district (Darjeeling) and in one police station area (Naxalbari–from which it derives its name). Forty two years later, according to the statement of the Union Home Minister in November, 2009, it had spread to 23 States, 250 districts and over 2000 police station areas. Thus spatially the movement had spread over 2000 times. A guess estimate suggests that during this period combined police budget of the Centre and States had gone up by 600 times (firm figures are not available in one place). Perhaps a statistician could find out whether there was any significant co-relation between increase of police budget and spread of Naxalism. Naxalism seems to be a hardy plant in a sturdy soil. So far it has shown no sign of wilting or waning.

I want to conclude by highlighting a section of Roy’s article that might provide some insights into the nature of the conflict, which in many respects has more to do with the Brazilian rainforest than Mao’s China. Or for that matter, James Cameron’s “Avatar”, for interestingly enough the social base of the Naxalites are forest dwellers outside of the capitalist economy who are threatened precisely by the large-scale capitalist mining and agriculture operations mounted in the name of “progress”.

As indigenous peoples, the Indian adivasi are the nation’s aborigines. Unlike Brazil, where there is a racial difference between the white settlers and the Yanomami, this is not the case in India. Unlike Africa and Latin America, the internal onslaught against the indigenous peoples was mounted by the Indian majority not British or Spanish colonists. In this sense, the conflict is much more like the one that took place between Colonel Custer and Sitting Bull than the classic colonial conflict. Of course, internal colonization can be just as deadly and cruel in the pursuit of profit as the more conventional kind introduced from beyond the borders.

Finally, a word on the political ramifications of the Naxalite struggle. Despite my sympathy for the movement, increased considerably by Roy’s superlative reportage, I can only wonder if it is facing the same problems that peasant-based movements in Latin America have faced when they fail to offer a solution for the urban population. In Peru, a powerful Maoist movement known as the Shining Path failed to take power because of its indifference—if not open hostility—to traditional urban sectors such as the trade union movement. In Colombia, a non-Maoist but “surrounding the city by the countryside” movement known as the FARC has failed to become much more than an armed force in defense of poor peasants and coca growers specifically. While one can never gainsay the importance of an armed force standing up for the rights of the most degraded and despised elements of society, there is still the question of what future the movement has in light of a somewhat narrow political focus.

Arundhati Roy wrote at the beginning of her article:

The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.

One can only hope that somehow the left in India will become united so that the indigenous peoples, the factory workers, the student rebels—all those who feel cheated by the neoliberal “miracle” gushed over by the Thomas Friedmans of the world—will prevail. Long live the spread of the insurrection! Down with the corporate world!

June 24, 2010

Peepli Live

Filed under: farming,Film,imperialism/globalization,india — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

In 2004 the Indian government announced a program to provide cash payments to the family of farmers who had committed suicide because of crippling debt. The federal government would provide 50,000 rupees ($1,136), in addition to the 150,000 rupees ($3,400) compensation provided by the state government.

This bit of recent history provides the plot for “Peepli Live”, an Indian movie that was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (a Bollywood first) and that opens in NYC on August 13th.

Natha (Onkar Das) and Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav) are two lower-caste (dalit) brothers who have been eking out a living as farmers on the outskirts of Peepli, a village in Uttar Pradesh. When debt overtakes them–mostly a function of being forced to buy seeds from an imperialist agribusiness–they trudge off to the center of town to throw themselves at the mercy of a local politician surrounded by his entourage. They tell him that unless he lends them the necessary funds, they will lose their land. He and his henchmen find this quite amusing. Just before sending them on their way, he tells them that they should kill themselves and take advantage of the government program.

Afterwards, Budhia and Natha sit down to talk about the feasibility of cashing in on the government program. Since Budhia, the older brother, is a bachelor, it only makes sense for Natha to kill himself. Once they return to the house they share, you can almost understand why Natha would carry out such a desperate act. His wife is a harridan who yells at him constantly, when she is not beating him. Their aged and bed-ridden mother is also a miserable wretch who has as little use for Natha’s wife as she has for him. You are not dealing with the mutually supportive and loving Joad family of “Grapes of Wrath”, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Indian television and newspapers have begun to take notice of the suicide epidemic. When a newspaper reporter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a job that can almost be described as lower-caste in relationship to television reporting, overhears the two brothers discussing their plans, he writes an article that is picked up by a glamorous and cynical TV reporter (Malaika Shenoy), who is a female version of Anderson Cooper. She, the print journalist, and just about every other news outlet swoop in on Peepli to provide ongoing coverage of the first farmer to kill himself just to collect a cash award.

Once the movie takes this turn, it is much less about the plight of impoverished farmers and much more about the chicanery of the news media and politicians. The TV cameramen follow Natha relentlessly even when he goes out into the field to take a crap. Of course, the big question is when he will finally do it. Committing suicide becomes as compelling a story as winning the jackpot in “Slumdog Millionaire”. As such, the movie’s closest relative is Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe”, a 1941 movie about a newspaper columnist who prints a fake letter from an unemployed “John Doe,” threatening suicide in protest of society’s ills. The letter generates a national John Doe movement that the paper’s publisher uses as a catapult for his own political ambitions, just as transpires in “Peepli Live”.

While it is of some significance that such a film has been produced, given the urgency of the peasant suicide phenomenon in India, it is hobbled by a lack of strong and sympathetic characters. The two brothers are depicted as inarticulate pot-smoking slackers who almost seem responsible for their own financial ruin, while the media people are as repulsive as the film makers intended. All in all, you feel alienated from the entire world they live in. In some ways, there is a misanthropic streak in this movie that reminds me a bit of Billy Wilder’s work, especially “The Big Carnival”, a 1951 work that stars Kirk Douglas as a newspaper reporter about as repulsive as the television personalities in “Peepli Live”. IMDB summarizes “The Big Carnival” as follows:

Ex-New York reporter Charles Tatum lands a job on a Albuquerque newspaper in hopes that a sensational story will return him to the big time. When a man is trapped in an Indian cave, Tatum conspires with an unscrupulous sheriff to keep him there until the story can build to national proportions, which it does.

The cynical, unethical and unscrupulous journalist Chuck Tatum arrives at a small New Mexico newspaper asking for a chance. He was fired from famous newspapers because of drinking, lying and even for having an affair with the wife of one of his bosses. His real intention is to use the small newspaper as a platform to reach a bigger one. After one year without any sensational news and totally bored, Chuck travels with a younger reporter to cover a story about rattlesnakes. When they arrive at an isolated gas station, he is informed that a man called Leo Minosa is trapped alive in an old Indian mine in a nearby place called the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Chuck manipulates the local corrupt sheriff, the engineer responsible for the rescue operation and Leo’s wife Lorraine Minosa, so that a rescue that could have been made in twelve hours lasts six days using a sophisticated drilling system. Chuck Tatum uses the time to create a media circus. Everybody profits from the accident – everybody except the victim.

“Peepli Live” was produced by Aamir Khan, the star of “Lagaan“, the likeable movie about Indians challenging the British colonizers to a cricket match. If the Indians win, they will not have to pay an onerous land tax (lagaan). Obviously Mr. Khan has his heart in the right place when it comes to struggles by poor peasants. He also starred in “The Rising“, a thrilling epic about the Sepoy rebellion.  “The Rising” is available from Netflix, but not “Lagaan”. Fortunately, you can buy a copy for very little money on amazon.com. Both are highly recommended.

March 22, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Saturday sessions

Filed under: Academia,China,financial crisis,india,socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

For those who are not familiar with the Left Forum, this is a yearly gathering in NYC that began as the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1982. In 2005 there was a split between the more rightwing social democrats on the steering committee, such as Bogdan Denitch, and those more inclined to agree with the perspective of Monthly Review, Socialist Register, etc. The leftists launched Left Forum and the rightists pretty much faded from the scene.

I regard the Left Forum as an important event for the left and have seen it become more and more relevant to the class struggle. While it is nominally an academic conference (the original orientation to “socialist scholars” set the agenda pretty much on a permanent basis), it is not as rarefied as the Rethinking Marxism conferences in Massachusetts.

So here goes.

10am-11:50am: Developmental Terrorism in India Today

This is the second year in row that I have attended panel discussions organized by Sanhati, a network of scholars and activists focused on the struggles of the poor and the peasantry in West Bengal. As Marxmail subscribers know, we receive fairly regular communications from Sanhati whose website http://sanhati.com/ is must reading for those with an interest in Indian politics.

The first speaker was Sirisha Naidu, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio, who spoke about the conflict between indigenous forest dwellers, who rely on collective use of the “commons”, and private industry bent on exploiting the forest for commodity production. Years of struggle by the forest dwellers finally resulted in the Forest Rights legislation of 2006 that protected their rights within the usual pro-business loopholes you’d expect in any bourgeois laws. Despite the loopholes, the legislation has been a real aid to advancing the mass movement. You can read her paper The Individual Versus the Common in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 on the Sanhati website.

Next was Svati Shah, who teaches Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the U. of Mass., where a number of Sanhati activists are based. She spoke about the economic forces driving rural people to Bombay (she used this word rather than Mumbai—why I am not sure), forced to migrate because of landlessness and meager resources—especially water that is being squandered by sugar plantations. Water shortages are also a big problem in the city where a new suburban neighborhood only gets water one out of five days from public sources. This has led to the sale of water as a commodity, a form of exploitation that will surely increase under the impact of climate change.

The final speaker was Siddhartha Mitra, a web developer in NYC who spoke about the Naxalite insurgency in the state of Chhattisgarh, an area where mining companies have clashed with indigenous populations. As is the case with all areas in which the Maoist guerrillas have gained a foothold, the objective conditions are rotten-ripe for revolution. Mitra stated that in the rural areas, largely unreachable through roads or any other modern forms of transportation, 1 out of 2 households lack water and 10 out 16 villages have no hospitals. Once the insurgency broke out, the local bourgeoisie launched something called “Salwa Judum” (purification hunt) that involved the distribution of guns and cash to the local population to be used against the Naxalites. You can read an account of his visit to Chhattisgarh at the Sanhati website: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1921/

During the q&a, I asked whether Indian Marxists have theorized about the problematic of indigenous or tribal peoples in India living in precapitalist social conditions as an obstacle to the development of a proletariat. As someone who has studied this problematic in Latin America, where “stagist” conceptions have pitted revolutionaries such as the FSLN against their own indigenous populations like the Miskitos, I wondered if the Communist Party—a promoter of “modernization” in Bengal—had cast their role in such terms. My question did not seem to register with the panelists but I might follow-up on this on my own.

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the q&a, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

3pm-4:50pm: The ‘PIIGS’, Baltics, and Hungary: Economic Crisis on the EU’s Internal Periphery

This was a look at the failed economies of the European periphery.

Jeff Sommers, who teaches at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia, gave an excellent talk on the origins of the worst economic crisis in Europe today—perhaps greater than Iceland’s. Since I recorded his talk and plan to upload it to Youtube, I won’t say anything about it now except to recommend it highly. Jeff, as it turns out, is somebody I used to have email exchanges with long ago when he was on PEN-L. He has also collaborated a bit with two of my favorite people on Marxmail, the late and lamented Mark Jones and Jim Blaut. I will announce Jeff’s talk just as soon as I have worked out the kinks with IMovie and Youtube.

Mark Weisbrot, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an ubiquitous figure on the leftwing of the Internet, spoke about the financial policies of Wall Street banks that led to the disaster in the countries under discussion. I suspect that Mark’s talk was drawn from a paper on the CEPR website titled Latvia’s Recession: The Cost of Adjustment With An “Internal Devaluation”. Based on what I heard from Mark, this paper should be required reading for radicals.

Mark was followed by Salvatore DiMauro, a Geography professor at SUNY New Paltz who spoke about the situation in Hungary, an area that he specializes in. Apparently, the shock therapy that was administered there in the early stages of the crisis is intended to be a model for the other basket cases in Europe.

5pm-6:50pm: Debunking the Myth of the “China Model”: Is a Radical Alternative Possible?

This started off with a talk by Ben Mah, a Chinese private investor based in Canada in his 60s or 70s (shades of Henry Liu) who has no use for capitalism in China! However, the fire was mostly directed at Western banks rather than the Chinese elite, a tendency that I also associate with Henry Liu.

He was followed by two young academics studying/teaching in the USA: Tong Xiaoxi and Xu Zhun. They are part of an increasing participation by Marxist academics from China at the Left Forum, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, I have found nearly all of their contributions to be a bit academic—a function perhaps of the tight leash that the government keeps on the intelligentsia. It is one thing to invoke a Marxist analysis; it is another to tie that analysis to a program of political action. Tong Xiaoxi spoke about the forms of political protest in China, using conventional sociological discourse that at least had the merit of viewing protests as a good thing. Xu Zhun gave a disarmingly modest talk on the impact of changing agrarian relations in China which has had two stages. First, there was the conversion of collective farms into individual households which had the merit from the ruling party’s standpoint of undermining class solidarity. This was an advance over the old system, but insufficient for the needs of a “modernizing” economy. The next phase, currently in progress, involves converting the land for use by large commercial farms. In other words, China is undergoing the changes that took place in Britain or the USA but telescoped in time.

The last speaker was Michael Hudson, who is a lively speaker and interesting personality. He began by defining neoliberalism basically as a form of exploitation in which Western banks impose a dollar regime on a weaker country, strip its industrial assets and dictate terms favorable to imperialism. Supposedly, according to Hudson, China has rejected neoliberalism and is some kind of success story. To give you an idea of where he is coming from, Hudson referred to a book he wrote some years ago that has been translated into Chinese and is being discussed by the country’s nationalistic-minded economists, to his great pleasure. I can’t recall the title but it makes the case that protectionist policies guaranteed the success of American corporations. Somehow, this had little to do with “radical alternatives” to the China model and I made that point during the q&a. I asked Hudson what differentiated him from Paul Craig Roberts who makes similar points on Counterpunch. I also asked him what good China’s “success” did while it was at the expense of other East Asian economies that—according to Marty Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett—were the losers in the competitive export marketplace. He had no answer.

Tomorrow I report on the Sunday sessions.

September 16, 2009

Distant Thunder

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,india — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

A 1973 movie by Satyajit Ray about the man-made famine in Bengal during WWII can now be seen on Youtube. Below is part one of ten:

August 19, 2009

Three Indian movies of note

Filed under: Film,india,Islam — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

Although it has some major problems, I can recommend director and screenwriter Piyush Jha’s “Sikandar” opening Friday at The ImaginAsian theater in New York. Filmed on location in Kashmir, this is a story about a soccer-playing fourteen year old boy belonging to the region’s Muslim majority who discovers a pistol on a mountain path one day. After that initial discovery, he feels a sense of power that he never had before. As expected, that pistol will also lead to grief in a movie that will remind you of the sort that might be made about the Irish “troubles” by a British director. As a Hindu, Piyush Jha is reasonably fair-minded but has difficulty getting into the heads of his Muslim characters.

At the beginning of the film, Sikandar (Parzan Dastur) is strolling along the mountain path with Nasreen, a girl classmate who he has just met that day and whose father is a local Muslim politician and advocate for peace. When she asks him about his parents, he explains that he has lived with his aunt for the past 10 years following their execution by jihadis. Since he does not bother to mention the exact circumstances of their death, the audience can only be left with the impression that Muslim fighters are little more than criminals, an impression that only deepens after Sikandar meets Zahgeer Quadir (Arunoday Singh), a Kashmiri insurgent.

Zahgeer becomes a kind of surrogate father figure to Sikandar intent on showing him how to use the pistol properly. After a couple of weeks, he catches up with Nasreen giddy with excitement to tell her about the good news. When she learns that the good news is his ability to hit a target with the gun 9 out of 10 times, she looks at him with disgust. Like her father, she is opposed to violence.

Zahgeer is the kind of stereotypical Muslim militant that we have become inured to in Hollywood movies. Since India is gripped by its own “war on terror” with jihadis, it is no surprise that a Hindu screenwriter would succumb to the temptation to turn Zahgeer into a one-dimensional monster. After Zahgeer announces to a small group of his comrades that an informer is in their midst, he then takes out a pistol and shoots one of them. He says that he does not know if the dead man was an informer or not, but meant to use him as a lesson to the rest. This might be the way that movie insurgents behave, but it is doubtful that such an irrational act would help to keep a beleaguered movement together.

Eventually Sikandar finds himself on a collision path with both Zahgeer and with Nasreen’s father whose peace advocacy is eventually revealed to be a cynical act. Perhaps the only thing that can be said on director Piyush Jha obvious contempt for his Muslim characters is that the Indian army does not come off much better. They are depicted as torturing bullies of the kind that have made American occupation forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan the target of popular resentment.

What gives this movie its greatest appeal is the relationship between Sikandar and Nasreen, which comes about as close to intimacy as is possible for young Muslims in a very traditional society. When the army organizes a manhunt to track down Sikandar, who has finally used his pistol in anger, Nasreen gives him a burqa to conceal his identity. It is just such a moment that gives the movie its poignancy. The other very good thing about “Sikandar” is the sheer beauty of the Kashmiri Mountains. How sad that one of the most beautiful places on earth has become a living hell for its Muslim inhabitants.


Available from Netflix, the 2008 “Jodhaa Akbar” depicts a time in Indian history when Muslims and Hindus achieved the kind of mutual respect that is utterly missing today in Kashmir. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, this is a historical drama based on the marriage of Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar  (Hrithik Roshan), India’s greatest Mughal emperor, and Jodhaa Bai (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), a Hindu princess of the Rajput warrior caste. The marriage was originally intended to cement a political alliance between two states in the 16th century, much like the arranged marriages in European kingdoms, but it eventually turned into a great love after some trials and tribulations that structure the movie’s plot. Unlike the Europeans who were united by their Christian beliefs, the religion of the Indian husband and wife would have conspired to keep them apart.

Youtube version of Jodhaa Akbar

Running at 213 minutes (with an intermission), “Jodhaa Akbar” is an old-fashioned spectacle complete with numerous Bollywood-style musical interludes structured as commentaries on the relationship between the two main characters. It is reminiscent of Chinese movies about the rise of historical dynasties such Yimou Zhang “Curse of the Golden Flower”. However, it differs by downplaying the battle scenes and sword fights that typify the Chinese movies. Instead, it is much more about the problems of a man and a woman overcoming cultural and religious differences in order to achieve true love, a plot that is of greater interest to someone like me, who has seen enough sword fights in Asian movies to last a lifetime.

This is not to say that there are no sword fights or battle scenes in “Jodhaa Akbar”. One battle involving the Mughals and Hindu enemies involves thousands of extras and dozens of elephants in full battle regalia!

The film whets my appetite to learn more about the descendants of the Turk-Mongol peoples who put their stamp on Asian civilization despite their reputation for barbarism. The term Mughal actually means Mongol and Akbar was a descendant of Genghis Khan, as was Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) who built an empire in Persia. Mughal India, the Ottoman Empire and Tamerlane’s Persia were precapitalist Empires that compared favorably to those resting on capitalist property relations. Without the need to extract profits, the Kings and Queens of the golden age of Islamic rule were generally more capable of noblesse oblige. In Akbar’s case, this translated into a profoundly cosmopolitan sensibility that the movie can only hint at in comparison with these details from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Begun in 1570 and abandoned in 1586, Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri, near Delhi, is evidence of the resources he could command. Its combination of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles symbolizes the contact of cultures that he encouraged. Similarly, he commissioned the translation of Sanskrit classics into Persian, giving illustrated copies to his courtiers. He also received with enthusiasm the European pictures brought by the Jesuits, and his painters incorporated European techniques of realism and perspective into the distinctive Mughal style (characterized by a vivid treatment of the physical world) that began to develop during his reign. Akbar’s reign was an example of the stimulating effects of cultural encounter. It has also often been portrayed as a model for future governments—strong, benevolent, tolerant, and enlightened. Effective government in a country as geographically vast and as socially complex as India demands a wide measure of social support. Akbar understood this need and satisfied it.


Just as the Islam-Hindu tensions in “Jodhaa Akbar” resonate with “Sikandar”, so do its romantic tensions suggest an unlikely parallel with another Indian movie available from Netflix. “A Match Made in Heaven” (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) is a musical comedy about a forty year old virgin named Surinder ‘Suri’ Sahni (Shahrukh Khan) and his new much younger bride Taani (Anushka Sharma).

At the beginning of this highly enjoyable escapist fantasy, Surinder shows up at a party given by a professor he studied with at college and who treated him as a son. The professor then introduces him to his beautiful younger daughter Taani who Surinder falls in love with at first sight. Later that evening the professor suffers a massive heart attack and just before dying asks Surinder and Taani to agree to marry each other. Out of filial respect, they both agree but Taani much more reluctantly so. She clearly is not attracted to the nerdish and painfully shy older man.

After their marriage, she comes to live with him but not as a wife. Understanding her reluctance to become intimate with him, Surinder volunteers to sleep in another room. She slowly begins to accept her fate, but except for preparing his meals and pretending to his friends that they are in a real marriage, she is willing to go no further.

When Taani discovers a dance school has opened up in town, she asks Surinder for permission to take lessons, the only joy that she would be allowed in a generally joyless marriage.

After agreeing to her request, Surinder decides to take lessons himself but only after disguising his true identity. This means a new hairdo and “disco” type clothes that his best friend Balwinder ‘Bobby’ Khosla (Vinay Pathak), the motorcycle-driving owner of a barber shop, picks out for him. Not only does his appearance change, his personality does as well. Instead of the shy manager of an electric utility company, he is now an Indian version of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy” on SNL.

When he shows up at the dance school, fate conspires to match him up with Taani in a dance contest. She is obviously attracted to the macho guy who is nothing like her husband, but soon becomes very turned off by his flirting and his narcissism. If this is beginning to sound to you a lot like “The Nutty Professor”, you’re right. Just consider “A Match Made in Heaven” as an Indian version of the Jerry Lewis or Eddy Murphy remake, but without the sadism of the Hollywood originals. I much prefer the Indian version.

While there is no gainsaying the talents of Jerry Lewis or Eddy Murphy, Shahrukh Khan’s Surinder is totally brilliant. Unlike the “nutty professors”, there is nothing grotesque about Surinder. Indeed, his very ordinary qualities make his transformation into a disco dancing maniac all the more remarkable. If you got a kick out of Napoleon Dynamite’s dance performance on behalf of Pedro, you will love this Bollywood bon-bon.

The name Shahrukh Khan might ring a bell with some of you who have been looking at a newspaper—that dying artifact—recently. Of Islamic descent, just like Sikandar and Akbar, he had a rude welcome to American civilization recently:

New York Times, August 17, 2009
Bollywood Star’s Questioning at Newark Airport Is Talk of India Day

With adoring fans from New Delhi to New York City, the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan — described by some as the Brad Pitt of India — was feted at a reception following the India Day parade in Midtown Manhattan in 2003.

On Sunday, Mr. Khan was again the talk of the annual parade, even though he did not participate in the festivities. Mr. Khan, who is Muslim, made worldwide headlines after being stopped for questioning at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday evening on his way to Chicago for a similar parade celebrating India’s independence.

But to make matters worse, the trip was also to promote a new film, “My Name is Khan,” which is about racial profiling of Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even before the 29th annual New York City parade started at Madison Avenue and 41st Street, Mehal Kadakia, 26, a business analyst from Ocean Township, N.J., and two friends had spent the drive to the city discussing whether Mr. Khan should have been singled out.

“In my opinion, they were doing their job,” Mr. Kadakia said at a festival next to Madison Square Park after the parade, as his friends nodded. “I’m sure as an actor traveling, he has a lot of luggage, and if that seemed suspicious, I’d rather have them check and make sure he’s O.K.”

After all, Mr. Kadakia added, it’s not as if being stopped at the airport in the post-Sept. 11 world is new to anyone. “I’ve been stopped many times,” he said, estimating the frequency at one out of every three times he flies out of Newark or Philadelphia. “If you cooperate, it’s pretty easy.”

But Santripti Vellody, 30, a business development manager for a South Asian satellite television channel, Sahara One, saw it differently. She said that she was disappointed that one of India’s biggest stars had been subjected to such blatant profiling.

“It’s absolutely disrespectful to him,” she said, “and it’s only based on his religion and last name — he has a Muslim name — and I don’t think that’s right.”

Ms. Vellody said that her husband, Mohamed Roshman Manoli, also has a Muslim name and that each of the last four times that they had flown out of John F. Kennedy International Airport, he had been stopped for questioning. “I never get stopped but I have to wait for him for two hours every single time,” she said. “It’s not random.”

Kevin Corsaro, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Sunday that Mr. Khan was selected for an in-depth interview, known as a “secondary inspection,” during a routine process that lasted just over an hour. He said that Mr. Khan’s checked luggage was lost by the airline, which prolonged the process.

Mr. Corsaro said that while he could not discuss Mr. Khan’s specific case because of privacy issues, passengers are selected for a variety of reasons: for instance, to verify their identity and purpose of travel. He said that they are not selected because of their religion.

Miki Patel, chairwoman of the culture committee of the Federation of Indian Associations, which held the parade, said that she learned about Mr. Khan’s questioning during a meeting of parade organizers on Saturday. The parade, which ended at 24th Street, drew thousands of people for an afternoon of food, music and dance in honor of India’s independence from British rule.

“I personally feel that the rules should apply to each and every one who enters this country — the law is the law,” said Ms. Patel, 53, a dance instructor from Edison, N.J. She said she flies out of Newark two to three times a year and has never been stopped for questioning. “Maybe because I’m not a big star,” she joked.

Outrage over the incident has been growing in India, where Mr. Khan’s fans planned a protest demonstration near the Parliament in New Delhi. The federal information minister, Ambika Soni, was quoted by The Associated Press as suggesting that India adopt a similar policy toward Americans traveling to India.

As for Mr. Khan, he was quoted by The Times of India as saying the experience made him feel “angry and humiliated.”

Later, though, he played down the incident, according to The Associated Press. “I think it’s a procedure that needs to be followed, but an unfortunate procedure,” he told reporters Saturday in suburban Chicago, The A.P. reported.

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