Guest Post by BRINDA BOSE
To return to questions about women’s imperiled sexual desires and freedoms that have been spilling around us in recent weeks – with a middle-aged ‘Rosie’ emerging as a blissful mascot of women’s ageless pleasures in a multiplex film – I had unexpected occasion on a long-haul flight recently, to watch a film in a completely different register, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tope (‘The Bait’, 2016, Bengali with English subtitles).
Tope had done the round of international film festivals last year, and I believe released in Indian theatres (mostly if not only in Bengal, I would think) in the early summer of 2017.
I was struck by the film, for a number of reasons, despite the fact that it seems to have been panned by many, as Dasgupta’s cinematic experiments usually are – despite his holding a record for having seven films featured at the Masters section of the Toronto Film Festival (Tope being the seventh) and being a five-time National Award-winner for Best Feature Film. One thought that Tope forcefully triggered was the need for audiences to look beyond the films that blitz four shows in every city mall upon release, if we are to think in further serious, complicated ways about the evils of patriarchy preying on women’s sexual desires, pleasures and freedoms in contemporary cinema; and that some of that seriousness and complexity may, in fact, come from watching films that fall between the cracks of critical and the popular attention like Tope expectedly did. There is an urgent need to make offbeat regional parallel cinemas – other than a couple of prize-winning ones each season – more accessible to publics across the country, and not even just in metros, through the year.
I have no quarrel with the fact that popular cinema needs to call out, doggedly and loudly, the regressive patriarchy entrenched in nearly every family and community in the country in some form or other, such is our contemporary, and escalating, crisis of policed sexualities. But it is still disconcerting when young, intelligent, informed viewers so easily claim a film to be the ultimate envisioning of nuanced feminist outrage – the film being thus hailed often changes through the weeks and months, but the immediate excessive exultation never seems to. Yet most of these films do not take up permanent place in any critical compendium of memorable cinema; they remain passing moments of resistance in an ambience of censorship, important of course in that context especially when the censor board is so generous with cuts and bans. Sometimes because their message needs shouting in the current climate, many of these films are not able to pursue complexities in the stories they tell. More often, it is how the filmmakers want to tell their tales anyway, loudly and simply. And discerning film-watchers are then caught up in the political excitement of participating in a public nose-thumbing at the censor board or its various extensions, which is of course worthy action in our times.
But perhaps such exulting is also possible because many regional films like Tope that address women’s sexual dreams, repression and violent exploitation in moving, tragic, aesthetic or experimental terms hardly get enough airing. Of course, let a hundred Lipsticks bloom if they make even a few hundred people stop and think about everyday repressions that women face in families and institutions of study and work. But the likes of Dasgupta have urgent things to say and show in films like Tope, vital and horrific at the same time. Tope complicates questions of women’s sexuality and men’s power over it – in heterosexual contexts – by preying upon its intersections with other equally serious, equally political considerations. Perhaps for its overworked preciousness in parts, the film would not appeal to many and may indeed gather dust as yet another misadventure by a filmmaker known more for the box-office collapse of his films than their glorious ringing. And yet, it is imperative that young audiences who profess to know something about cinema, and keep themselves abreast of the political, should have the opportunity to discover that key questions of not just women’s sexual desire but its collusions and combat with established systems of petty royalty, class, labour, male lust, feudal entitlement, humour, music, dance, circus trick performances and even revolution can come resolutely and boldly together in other kinds of cinema, even if ultimately seen as failures by some popular/critical yardstick.
Films like Lipstick play an important role in carrying broad messages to a large urban public, though I think the danger of interpreting the ‘burkha’ as shorthand for patriarchal oppression remains. Other than that, as an aside I would say that I found Pan Nalin’s Angry Young Goddesses more searing, if one talks about contemporary Indian urban cinema on women’s sexuality. But then a chasm yawns between Lipstick and Goddesses on many counts: between Bhopal and Goa, between the middle class conservative family and the westernized swinging set, the overwhelming presence of men and the absence of them by choice in elite women’s lives until uncouth men rampage in to cause tragedy. So there is place and need for all kinds of films about the continued, if not increasing, patriarchal repression of women’s sexuality – and especially of women’s sexual pleasure, which ‘Rosie’ (Ratna Pathak Shah) delightfully demands and gets in Lipstick, however cheesy the swimming pool scenes are.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta, on the other hand, is mostly dismissed as a maverick whose films are too esoteric for regular filmgoers. Tope, however, is not at all difficult to follow; and my exhortation is that even films that are less ‘accessible’ than mainstream cinema must be made available for larger general audiences, and especially for young audiences comprising of those who are keen on cinema. Because films like Tope – the failed, partially successful, boring, over-stylised, et al – are the ones that complicate the horizons of story-telling in ways that popular, smart cinema has neither the brief nor the space for. And because, more often than not, they are the ones that have the wherewithal to politicize the central burning questions in tandem with other tough social conundrums. Through significant diversions and departures that are crucial to the framing of the film, Tope, for example, ultimately makes questions about women’s sexuality moot by addressing them through lenses that are troublesome because they are mottled.
Tope, the film, is based on a macabre short story of the same title by Bengali writer Narayan Gangopadhyay, but Dasgupta takes huge liberties with his cinematic version. He adds a trail of stories and characters to a short story that was composed entirely of a single thread and two male characters. Having gone back to read the short story after watching the film, I could see how both the original and its creative visual interpretation construct two distinct ways of sustaining the horror of the narrative. Dasgupta in an interview after the release of Tope said that he had spent almost 15 years thinking about the best way of bringing the starkly realist short story to his preferred mode of cinema, which he calls ‘extended realism’ – which in fact continually moves between realist, magic-realist and surrealist forms. It is significant that all the threads that Dasgupta added to the short story for his film are rooted in gender questions, especially women’s, an aspect that is not a part of Gangapadhyay’s story, besides the obvious masculinist trope invested in its central character of a feudal lord whose perception of his own sense of self and power is invested wholly in his (manly) capacity to shoot a tiger. The story of a young girl named Munni, aged around 12, who is trained as a tightrope walker and roves from village to village with her parents to earn the family’s livelihood by performing her ‘circus trick’, weaves itself into the tale, and life, of the Raja Bahadur in a fascinating, fearsome twist.
The Bengali short story by Gangopadhyay has a male narrator recalling the story of a visit he had made to the hunting bungalow of one ‘Raja Bahadur N.R. Chowdhury of Ramganga Estate’ – a scion of an old feudal household where the ‘king’ seemed to live alone with attendants. The narrator is invited to the estate to accompany Raja Bahadur on a tiger-hunt; the story builds to a crescendo upon this scenario as it becomes obvious to the narrator when days and nights pass without a successful shoot, that the lord of the manor was mentally slightly unhinged and that something untoward was unfolding. What was untoward was ‘the bait’ that was set up to ensure the tiger came out to be shot.
In Dasgupta’s film, the figure of a half-crazed estate owner famed for his tiger-hunts remains at the centre of the story. The single narrator of the original is transformed into a three-member television crew making a film on tiger-hunting in an environmentally-concerned age. They are peripheral to the film other than as a marker of the advent of television into all corners of the country, and for the irony at the end, which gives them an opportunity to record on camera more (and entirely different) footage than they had expected to. There are three other distinct storylines that Dasgupta introduces into the narrative, that change the tenor of the tale even while preserving (or ‘extending’, perhaps, in the director’s terms) the horror of the original. All three bring women’s relationships with men into focus in unusual ways, particularly playing with the concept of ‘the bait’ in gender politics of the everyday.
The three storylines have three locations, moving outward from the palatial home of the deranged, megalomaniac Raja Bahadur. The first is the bedroom of his voluptuous mistress, Rekha, who is neglected by him and perhaps thus given to hallucination and depression, being sexually unfulfilled. The second site is a tall, lustrous tree in the village, in which a local postman, Goja, has taken up residence, bored with his conjugal and family life; he has adopted a brood of monkeys as friends and family, even calling one of them his second wife. The third is a contingent location, occupied by the young tightrope walker Munni and her parents, who put down their meager belongings wherever they can and rest between her travelling performances, which earn them barely a pittance for their daily meals.
All of them, in significant but diverse ways, become ‘bait’ for the worlds around them, in which people close to them or distant either bait them, or throw bait at them, to lure them away from the pleasures they crave in freedom from the lives they find themselves trapped in. We might be hard pressed to decide whether the droll village postman who reads out letters to his family of monkeys from the post office sackfuls he has hung on the tree’s branches since he stopped doing his job of delivering letters, is the central trope of the film – or whether it is the more obvious story of the ‘baiting’ of the young rope-walker Munni who is lured to a dangerous destiny by coins thrown at her by the arrogant and unpredictable feudal king of the village living out the dream colonial-hunter-throwback life. It could even be the third, the voluptuous neglected mistress, nightly dreaming of a river-soaked lover who watches her from outside her window and who finally beckons her into a watery drowning of her unfulfilled sexual fantasies. Each of these lives are connected by scores of invisible threads and yet their existences are isolated, their desires remain unshared because the air is so vile around the lushness of rural Bengal forests and sunny starkness of its fields that no possible solidarity or resistance can be conceived of, even in art.
Dasgupta, true to his leaning toward the ordinary and the powerless, yet believes in a class revolution to come, perhaps, ignited in the contemporary by violence perpetrated upon women’s sexual dreams and desires by still-feudal men – but also cocks a snook at the nature of a revolution that cannot but be televised today. The day may have long been won by Goja, the man who goes away to live in a tree with monkeys defying the boredom of human conjugal life rhythms. The young circus rope walker Munni had collected the coins flamboyantly tossed at her by the rampaging master of the land because she wanted to save to buy herself jewellery for her own wedding which was her single, simple dream after all. Locked in her bedroom and in despair, Rekha follows her unhappiness to a watery grave. We find a range of women struggling to find their sexual selves in Tope, but none of them can reach out to each other – the wife of Goja the postman who now lives in a tree is as neglected as Rekha, Raja Bahadur’s concubine, but neither have an inkling of each others’ fate because class divides them irreconcilably. The young Munni, precocious beyond her pre-teen age because she can feel so many pairs of eyes uncomfortably touching her body as she walks the tightrope to earn a few paisa, desires to save money because she knows that to get married she will need to possess jewellery – and marriage is a twinkle in her still-innocent eyes. None of them can hold hands or help to save each other from their individual lives, or their eventual deaths.
And so there are deaths instead, horrifying deaths, as there must be when desires transgress the boundaries they are set within. But even more significant than that, perhaps, is what may live to haunt feudal patriarchy another day: that promise at the end of the film of another kind of revolution to come. Not of women’s solidarity across classes and communities, even momentary – that I do not think Dasgupta sees as even a remote possibility, so far removed are his women protagonists from each other – but of a rising of the poor, uneducated, rural, labouring classes against the feudal lord in the wake of a calamity he has engendered. Beating on drums and household thalis, surging forward as if to break down the gates to his palatial residence, there are two significant ironies in the final frame. The first has the revolt led by an avenging woman, mother of young Munni who became the victim of the bait she innocently, gleefully rose to and fell for. The second has this localized revolution in a sparsely populated remote village being televised, a plum falling into the lap of a small filmmaking crew, which had come there to trail the feudal lord on his tiger shooting forays into the forest and found itself tripping upon this sensational story by sheer chance.
Is Dasgupta saying at the end that the market – which he so abhors and which the television crew represents – can yet be put to use by making them carriers of tales about feudal exploitation to the distant viewing masses? Then there is another kind of promise here, not of a fantasy of women’s political alliance across social and economic barriers, but of what the camera can do by carrying tales of violence and horror into never-never lands of privileged blindness. Dasgupta moves seamlessly between realist representations and frames that swirl into the surrealist depths of blue-green waters to extend Narayan Gangopadhyay’s short story – spine-chilling as that is – to other realisms, other terrors. He creates a visual narrative that now baits his audience with the sexual to think about how feudal exploitation is also inevitably patriarchal, misogynist. Tope, in Dasgupta’s hands, becomes a political, feminist film.
Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her book, The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature, Cinema in India, is due from Three Essays Collective later this year.