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Rupturing the ‘political’: Socialist-Utopian Performatives in Satyajit Ray’s Seemabadhha (Company Limited)

Dwaipayan Chowdhury, University of Amsterdam

Abstract

The article delves into Satyajit Ray’s film Seemabadhha (1971), as a pamphlet for social critique in the politically turbulent decade of 1970s Calcutta, with the aim to decipher the possibilities of the socialist-utopia it carries.[1] The focus will be on the politics of Ray’s film aesthetics that project the vision of socialist-utopia on the audience community and predicate an emancipatory potential for the future. In doing so, the focus will be on the film’s aesthetics that rupture the fortified notion of the ‘political’ and catalyse a process of mobilisation through the redistribution of the sensory experiences.[2] By socialist-utopian performatives, I mean – those performative nuances contained in the sensory registers of the medium of film, which crystallises hope for a more just future. The ethical-intellectual drive in Seemabadhha does not let the audience (the social agent) remain shrouded in pure contemplation. Instead, the audience becomes the active community, who see the representations of “configurations”[3] in the cinematic space with an immanent quality of approaching a fulfilment, which forms the basis of what should come, which is, the emancipatory promise generated by the socialist-utopia.

Seemabadhha stands out in the entire Ray repertoire for it spells out the paradox, in vivid detail, of the post-independence Indian civil society by portraying the dialectics inherent in its construction, from the perspective of the urban white-collared middle class, which is completely absorbed by the State, so much so that it snatches from this class its identity.[4]It is through this dialectics that Ray challenges the “aggregation” of the history of post-independence India.[5] Ray’s aesthetics in Seemabadhhastands out in its disagreement with the homogenous linear model of development of the Nehruvian socialist dream and are manifested in the film through various devices such as- acting strategies, camera positioning and sharp cuts.

Ray’s Seemabadha and the other two films of the Calcutta trilogy, were representative of the conception of a decade marked by exponentially growing rates of economic investments from the Western countries in India, increasing expenditures on the processes of militarisation, public announcements of growing antagonisms across international boundaries, unemployment, inflation, failure or exceptional delay in implementation of government policies. The decade of the 1970s were part of the process of a massive democratic impulse in West Bengal, which had seen a recent large-scale peasant uprising in Naxalbari in 1967.[6] The collapse of the movement resulted in further fractures within the Indian left. Such disjunctures within the left democratic movement on the one hand, and on the other hand, the anticipations of massive political upheavals provided the backdrop to Ray’s Seemabadhha, which has to be seen within the larger process of the democratic cultural mobilisation of the decade. However, my study here is concerned withthe subversive impulses that the film generates,contextualising it within the ambit of socialist-utopia, pertaining to specific moments in the film.

            Here one must deal with the concept of utopia as a paradox. Firstly, it negates its own possibility. Secondly, and most importantly, out of its self-negation it becomes discontent with the ‘here-and-now,’[7]thus initiating a promise of material change. It is in the constant reiteration of utopia that the emancipatory potential of humankind is strengthened. It needs to be mentioned that, this article does not deal with the concept of socialist-utopia within the purview of “The utopian socialists” of the early nineteenth century Europe. Nor, is utopia here associated with the narcissistic view of the private individual.[8] My enquiry is to look at socialist-utopia through the notion of emancipation in the Marxist-Leninist trajectory.[9]

Rolling, Camera, Action

Seemabadhha opens with the shot of the employment exchange in Calcutta. We see the long shots of the youths stranded on the roadside sitting idly on the stairs of the pavements, or with applications forms they are filling up to get their names registered in the exchange in front of the closed doors of the colossal buildings. All the while, we hear the honks of the roadside vehicles, which whizzes past the screen on the horizontal axis thereby hindering the sight of the stranded youths momentarily. From the beginning, Ray harps on the invisibility of a large section of the populace. This is contrasted with the close-up shot of a high-rise in the city, from where the camera is zoomed out at a massive diagonal towards the audience. The spatiality of the audience here coincides with the street view of tall high-rises as is seen by the pedestrians. We then go inside the building and observe the name of the company limited. A close up of a hand is seen, cleaning the nameplate with the words written on it which reads as follows.

[1]The English title to film was given as Company Limited. It was the film rendition of the novel by Bengali writer Mani Shankar Mukherjee of the same name, who adopted the pen name Shankar. However, this article only deals with the film version.

[2]   By “fortified notion of the ‘political’ I connote to the concept of police through which the transformative potential of the political society is thwarted by imposition of stringent structures by the State. The politics of the private individual are negated in favour of a ‘political’ determined by public visibility that places the concept itself in the public sphere regulated in and by a civil society absorbed by the State.

[3]   Jill Dolan in “Utopia in Performance” (2005).

[4]   This dialectics is the confrontation of the politics of the police which I refer to as the ‘political’ which is ruptured by Seemabadhha, and the politics of the “autonomous domain”. (Guha 2005).

[5]RanajitGuha in “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India” (2005).

[6] The Naxalbari movement was a massive peasant insurgency in the northern part of West Bengal.

[7] Madhava Prasad in “Satyajit Ray: A revaluation” Economic & Political Weekly (January 19, 2008).

[8] Ruth Levitas in “The Concept of Utopia” (2010). By the nineteenth century “utopian socialists” in Europe I mean here Levitas’s reference of Saint-Simon in France, who envisioned a more just society by the “harmony” of “three human types”, namely the “scientists, artists, and producers”, Charles Fourier, also in France who schematised a just social structure in terms of “harmonious community” by deriving “810 different temperaments” of humans, and Robert Owen of England who tried to solve unemployment by planning the “model factory at New Lanark”.

[9] V.I. Lenin in “State and Revolution: Marxist teaching about the theory of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution” in 1978. Lenin forwarded the concept of Marx’s dialectics by conducting revolutionary class struggles in the domain of emancipation which firstly implies the proletarian takeover of the bourgeoisie state followed by the abolition of the concept of state resulting in the formation of socialist communities.

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