‘Beheading’ Marxism, Unleashing Desire: Ghya Chang Fou and the Marxist Unconscious

Ghya Chang Fou is not a Chinese or East Asian word – it is the name of this new dark Bengali satirical film that had its world premiere this September (2018), at the Transart Communication Festival, Nove Zamky, Slovakia.  Below is the official trailer of the film, followed by my take on it – better not read as a review.

The quirky world of Ghya Chang Fou (Joyraj Bhattacharjee, 2017) is best seen and understood as a dream. For, a dream never really adheres to the conventions of linear realistic narrative, and characteristically, scrambles up time and space. Everything makes perfect sense while you are seeing it but do try interpreting your dreams through realist conventions, especially if you are a believer in any form of realism.

For earnest Marxist friends, particularly those who continue to swear by ‘socialist realism’ and are wont to decry all such ‘incomprehensible’ artwork as ‘decadent bourgeois bilasita’ or ‘apasanskriti’ (if sex comes anywhere near it), there is an additional suggestion to mull over: Think about your own dreams and ask if you really ‘authored’ your dream, and in authoring, did you really want to ‘represent’ reality? Or is your dream, perhaps,the playing out of your unconscious desires, fears and (past) traumas?

In that sense, to my mind, Ghya Chang Fou is a long dream that might well embody the unresolved traumas and repressed sexual desires of Bengali Marxists – though there is one Hindi-speaking character among them, who is perhaps brought in to tell us that Bengali bhadralok Marxism is not all there is to this story after all, as this character flags issues of caste and linguistic subalternity as he goes along.

The entire film is like an insanely ridiculous dream where, sometime after the collapse of socialism, Bengali Marxists have won worldwide victory in a communist revolution. The Bengali Marxist cannot possibly imagine that the epic story of socialism that began with the victorious Russian revolution can end with such a whimper. So Bengal rises to the occasion, or so we are supposed to believe. The film opens with a sequence where a group of thirteen people (Marxist revolutionaries, we assume) move in a procession, entering the lift of a high-rise building, coming out suddenly on to the lanes of a dilapidated neighbourhood. It is night and the lanes are lit up with street lights. The procession moves through these lanes, holding colourful balloons, while the strains of the Internationale can be heard in the background. Soon we realize that there is going to be a celebration of this great occasion of the victorious communist revolution. The thirteen characters reach their destination. They stand before a large, ancient door with a huge rusted lock which is opened and as they enter, we see a neatly laid out table with wine glasses – while everything else in the room, just like the door and the lock, seem to belong to another time. The mise en scene is itself meant to convey a certain comical disjunction – of time, of space, in the dialogues that are to follow, the sequences as they are to develop.

It is in this large hall – the hall of the Marxist unconscious, as it were – that we will witness the raw and raucous play of sexual desire, even as, on the surface, celebrations of Marxist victory continue. The viewers are given the impression that all this is actually itself part of a staging – a play or a film – for we occasionally here the voice of ‘the director’, giving instructions, from the background. But then it appears that the director and the staging themselves might be part of the mise en scene, marking the always absent presence of the ‘director’ in the life of the party and its cadre.

Ghya Chang Fou is an expression that mimics the supposed sound of beheading and so, one could say, it means ‘sudden beheading’, as the brief introduction by the film-makers tells us. But who exactly is beheaded and why? Literally, there is only one actual case of a slitting of throat – not quite a beheading – towards the end of the film. And this act comes at the end of a long, incestuous, bdsm sequence between a brother and a sister. But to my mind, it is not what ‘ghya chang fou’ really refers to here. It is rather, the absent ‘patriarch’ of contemporary Bengali society, namely Marxism, whose beheading alone can open the floodgates for the infinite play of meaning and desire, of rampant sexuality, that had, in a manner of speaking, been held up over decades of the father’s dominating presence.[1] But why do I say the absent father (the absent director, too really)? Clearly, it is not just the collapse of Soviet style socialism that forms the backdrop here but the collapse of the long 34-year reign of Marxists in the state. And yet, it seems quite apparent that even though the ‘patriarch’ who we all love/d is no more, his legacy nonetheless has to be beheaded – a legacy that lives in the comically didactic figures of the ideologues who dominate the formal conversations at the table. All the while, of course, the play of raw sexual desire continues on the sidelines. And because the father figure also embodied the official version of communist history, we get a glimpse here, on the sidelines of the conversations, occasional invocation of marginalized figures of Russian communist history – working class figures and unconventional women like Alexandra Kollontai.

The celebrations come to an end quite abruptly as unrestrained desire takes centre-stage. A gunshot, the death of the leader, the ensuing pandemonium, amidst the performance of various sexual acts, leads to the final dispersal of the gathering. We are now left with a young woman and a young man, who we discover are sister and brother who move rapidly from living nostalgic memories of their childhood to sex. Along with the duo, we as the audience, now step outside what turned out to be a film in which these two characters too were participants – into what might be the actual, real life relationship of incest among them. At the end of a prolonged bdsm sequence between the two, we realize that the brother’s throat has been slit and he is dead. The sister then walks back, down the same lanes they came from, down the same lift of the high-rise, into the car park where we she gets on to a white Ambassador car.

Joyraj Bhattacharjee and his team do not, of course, want to leave viewers comfortable in the belief that they have finally cracked even this long, endless dream. For the car is actually not a real car. It is the car that we have seen in a video game in the very opening sequence – a video game being played by the sister, where the white Ambassador suddenly becomes many and when they halt, from them emerge our thirteen protagonists with their balloons, ready to take the lift to the mysterious neighbourhood.

At the end of the film, one is really in no position to tell which level of it is ‘real’ – where the real ends and fantasy begins. The real and the fantastic are both blended together in this comical but dark, truly ‘underground’ film.[2]The multiple layers of ‘reality’ that the film produces eventually problematizes the very idea of an uncontaminated real that supposedly exists beyond the ‘fantastic’ and the ‘imaginary’. However, as we know, questions about the ‘real’ make sense only as long as we see a film in terms of ‘representation’. What if the film were actually drawing us in, as accomplices, in a dark game of desire? What if it were asking us to unmask the mechanisms of revolution and politics as, in themselves, so many ways of repressing desire? What if it were seeking to liberate revolution itself from the didactic figure of the ideologue/director as a figure of repression? Something of this order is what the film seeks to accomplish. Whether it succeeds in accomplishing this mission or not, it certainly leaves you disturbed. And of course, at the end of the film, you could also ask whether all that was happening in the dream, including the entire episode of the Bengali Marxism, whose dream it was, was after all a video game!

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[1]It is necessary to clarify here that this is not to be read in terms of the Freudian fiction of ‘Oedipus complex’, for at least two reasons. First, while the relationship with figure of ‘the father’ is always complex in most cultures, it is not quite the Oedipal love for ‘the mother’ that drives it. This is a point Girindrasekhar Bose, on the basis of his psychoanalytic practice, is said to have pointed out to Freud in many letters – letters to which Freud responded with silence. Secondly, the Oedipus idea holds only as long as we hold on to the heterosexual normative model, which itself is predicated on a sharp divide between the male and the female sexes/ genders. After Deleuze and Guattari and feminist and queer scholarship, this too needs to be set aside.Ghya Chang Fou indicates that it belongs to this post-Freud moment and most certainly does not subscribe to the hetermornative model of sexual relationships.

[2] The term ‘underground’ is not mine; it has been used by the film makers themselves.

4 thoughts on “‘Beheading’ Marxism, Unleashing Desire: Ghya Chang Fou and the Marxist Unconscious”

  1. I liked the piece. I have seen the movie twice; this narrative helped me identify the broad strokes

  2. Very well written commentary. I have not seen the picture. The layers of meaning and it’s interpretation was magnificent.

  3. “It is rather, the absent ‘patriarch’ of contemporary Bengali society, namely Marxism, whose beheading alone can open the floodgates for the infinite play of meaning and desire, of rampant sexuality, that had, in a manner of speaking, been held up over decades of the father’s dominating presence.” Are you sure that it was Marxism and not the Indian state and one of its loyal parties, CPI(M) – that held up ‘the infinite play of meaning and desire, of rampant sexuality’ in Bengali society? Do you insinuate that the Indian state and its parties merely apply the all-pervasive theoretical/practical authoritarianism of Marxism? Is Marxism the biggest enemy of anti-capitalism and human emancipation? As an inhabitant of Bengal trying to build an anti-Leninist Ambedkarite profile (and to find a job in New Delhi) I am thrilled by this bold conclusion on the politics of this area and its population. Yet a little more explanation will help. It is not very clear if you suggest that Marxism has completely ignored the ‘issues of caste and linguistic subalternity’ – an assertion which will certainly help people like me make their case. Is ‘Bengali bhadralok’ a qualifier on Marxism in the phrase ‘Bengali bhadralok Marxism’, then? This is confusing because above and elsewhere (like in your tome After Utopia) you gallantly use Marxism or Marxist without qualifiers while illustrating similar flaws, limitations or crimes. Please help.

  4. It’s a pity that Judith butler perpetuated the misinterpretation that the
    Freudian notion of the Oedipuss complex is explicitly heteronormative and that in a display of facile ignorance, you have perpetuated the same misinterpretation. Freud does state that even for the infant marked as being of the feminine gender, the first object of love is always the mother which is why he didn’t accept Jung’s concept of Electra complex. Secondly, Lacan in calling the person with whom infant shares the imaginary phallus as the motherer, further banishes the accusation that psychoanalysis is heteronormative. But you missed that.
    Secondly, it is very common today to dismiss Marxism as sexually repressive in the same manner as traditional patriarchy is. Today when the capitalist superego’s injunction is in the words of Todd McGowan to enjoy, it is rather unimaginative to term unbridled sexual enjoyment as radical, but liberalism in alliance with neoliberal libertarianism wants to perpetuate the myth that sexual freedom is the ultimate liberty, which repressed Marxist could never aim for, or get. And this myth that reviles Marxism as patriarchal, heteronormative, and sexually repressive wonderfully contributes to the shaming of Marxism as anachronistic and moribund. Cheers!

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