Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Madras Café and the Indian state apparatus: Prabhat Kumar

BY Prabhat Kumar

I watched Shoojit Sircar’s film Madras Café (MC) early this week. Commenting on a film released three-four weeks ago, when we are flooded with new Hindi films every Friday, is a lazy exercise and also involves the risk of going unread. Nevertheless, I am eager to share my thoughts on MC.Madras Cafe

For a person who has a superficial knowledge about the minute factual details regarding Ex-PM Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the context of Sri Lankan ethnic strife –involving Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan state, minority Tamil nationalist organization, Indian state apparatus– the film has been an engaging experience. While watching, however, I also somewhat felt irritated for being unable to keep pace with the movie. On an afterthought I have excused myself. Probably it is the film’s shortcoming, not mine. Quite contrary to the generally overstretched Hindi films, MC might be over edited! Audience is bombarded with fast-paced information. Back and forth movement of camera on the scale of the narrative’s time could have been avoided. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, on the whole, it appears to be a good film. A director’s film, indeed, that has got excellent support from his cameraman (especially footage of violence and suffering by civilians) and good assistance from the film’s background scores. At the level of acting the co-producer John Abraham (Indian RAW agent in Sri Lanka) has not done badly with his unchanging expressions. Nargis Faqri, a British war journalist who speaks with American accent, is not very bad either. Characters like by Bala (Prakash Belawadi), the John’s boss in Sri Lanka and the RAW chief in India (Siddharth Basu) were the most impressive and appeared immaculate in their performances. Other characters, even minor ones, like SP (Rajeev Pandey) who taps phone conversations, were looking natural exhibiting a better range of expressions than John.

Slowly, as I emerged from this engaging entertainer, I found that film had grown on me. Although very important in its own right, I was not bothered about facticity of an avowedly fictional political thriller. Instead, the cinematic narrative of a real political event struck a chord: the violence of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism pitted against its Tamil ethnic minority, counter-violence of the Tamil ethno-nationalism, incalculable suffering of the civilians (Tamil as well as non-Tamils) and moreover, the role of Indian state and its security apparatus in the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka, last but not the least, the global network of military-industrial business interests in the security market of nation-states (referred to in passing but far from staying unnoticed). For a person like me, who watches almost all good-bad-ugly Hindi films, it is the sensitive (but safe!) treatment of such subjects that was a new experience.

Before I wanted to pen down my musings, howsoever politically inflated it may appear below, I checked how has this film been reviewed and received in (English) media. I found most of what I have written about MC’s craft above had already been told. However, only a couple of reviews had noticed what I mentioned in the preceding paragraph: the significance of the film’s ‘political’ subject. Reviews dealing with the political side of the film, I feel, have mentioned and lauded only the too obvious (or should I say convenient to comment upon!) a subject: human tragedy of the strife captured by brilliant camera work. Other glaring and not so glaring but certainly inconvenient aspects of the film have gone uncommented.

To be precise, in my opinion, the film does not show, for e.g., early background of the nasty workings of the majoritarian Sinhala nation-state, what actually in the early years Tamil resistance stood for, etc. I will refrain from commenting further on what MC does not cover. After all, MC is essentially an ‘Indian statist narrative’, which tries to be self-consciously realistic by resisting melodrama. John, an Indian army officer, is the sutradhar, the narrator-protagonist. He tells us the story in the capacity of a participant observer, a RAW agent in Sri Lanka. He is sent there to materialise what Indian state could not do politically and officially. John is there (like Rambo!) to curtail the hegemony of LTF (read LTTE) by pitting other Tamil nationalist rivals against Anna (read Prabhakaran). However, he fails because of betrayal by his locally entrenched superior (another RAW official who is coincidentally Tamil). A duty-bound official suffers personal injuries, physical as well as emotional. More importantly perhaps, the sutradhar – the honest Indian citizen is a broken personality who later sank himself into alcohol for his inability to avert a ‘national’ disaster. The primary point of his telling (starting with hackneyed scene of confession to a priest in the Church) is to underline his failure to save his ex-prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi), because of the moles in the state’s own apparatus. There are also other moments, big and small, in the film’s narrative, the political import of which, I believe, could not be ignored. Remember the crucial but brief conversation between ex-intelligence man (played by Dibang) and the protagonist John in Thailand when the actual motive of the planned assassination is told. Through the sutradhar, the audience is told that big business houses of world negotiate through footloose (ex-) diplomats and (ex-) security servicemen for the smooth running and profit of their international enterprise. They function extraterritorially; they buy passage for their business; and directly or indirectly finance killing, warfare, also sale arms (?) to the state or ‘non-state’ actors (here LTTE).

To state the obvious, what is clearly shown in this ‘Indian statist’ narrative is the messy and unapologetic role of the Indian state and its security agencies in the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka. What is more, the film also shows (in the largely nationalist vein) the ‘extra-legal’ global network of military-industrial business interests in the security market of nation-states in which men from Indian establishment may have a clear stake and involvement.

Let me explain. Indian state and its security apparatus are shown to be deeply involved in the extra-legal and extra-territorial activities in the neighbouring region. How security agencies of the big and powerful nation-states, and India is no exception, manoeuvre the political happenings of the region without caring for its tragic human consequences. Military establishments are no exception to corruption, individual greed for money and power. These are issues which are unsurprising to those who engage in some ways or the other, directly or indirectly, with everyday work and practice of the state security agencies. Yet these are also the issues, about which discussion is hardly found to be taking place in public– discussion which could raise questions on its moral-political legitimacy. Probably, a large part of its citizenry (of course those who do not face violence directly) believes in their nation-state’s projected holy self-image; that the nation and its saviour army are too virtuous and sacrosanct to be involved in such acts. Profoundly undemocratic aspect of such involvements is hardly ever talked about in open. On the contrary, such discussions are either systematically discouraged, or take place from the statist perspective where interest of the state-apparatus is projected as the ‘national’ interest. Those who would dare to raise such issues from the non-statist position are received with suspicion in the age of jingoistic nationalism nurtured and propagated by the state and its embedded media. If one talks about India’s diabolic role in sabotaging the democratic upsurge in neighbouring Nepal, if one talks about the possibility of Indian security establishment’s entrenched interest and role in tearing apart the democratic upheaval on its own frontiers, s/he runs the risk of being targeted as ‘anti-national’.

The film, intentionally or unintentionally, brings this issue home. Although told from the perspective of an Indian state official for whom such illegal acts are dirty necessities (for the problem always already exists and initiated by the ‘other’; only way to save the nation is to break the ranks of ‘other’ nation/s operational either in the form of state or waiting-to-be-state!), the film visiblises the darker side of security discourse of the nation-states. It also exposes the transnational nexus of business executives and (retired!) security hawks, a nexus that has clear political consequences not only at the levels of high politics of the nation-state but also for the mass of people in general. MC, apart from being good in terms of its craft, may also be appreciated for this.

However, appreciation of MC as a film, which renders the illegitimate aspects of nation-state and its security apparatus visible on the silver screen, is contingent upon the way the film is received. Critics’ articulation of MC’s reception in public sphere has hardly spelt out this problematic aspect of the movie. A general silence probably reflects consent or at best indifference to such practices of the security state. Tamil nationalist groups have raised political objections. (Some wanted a ban on the film, which is of course unjustified.) But theirs is a populist opposition which accuses the movie for being biased against the (now dead) Tamil militarist-nationalist chief Anna (Prabhakaran) and his fief, the LTTE – a waiting-to-be-state. An opposition which hardly takes into account the issues and problems underlined above.

Prabhat Kumar

Prabhat Kumar

Prabhat Kumar, Assistant Professor of History, Presidency University, Kolkata

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)- Playing on Discreteness : Aditya Tripathi

Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) [“L’année dernière à Marienbad” (original title) ]: Playing on Discreteness

BY Aditya Tripathi

(Prologue: Inter alia, the principal human characters in the film will be referred as ‘A’ and ‘B’ while the principal-ancillary character will be referred as ‘C’, henceforth. A is supposedly reminiscing of a meeting with B in certain state of ‘Time’ which he proposes to B, reminding her of the meeting and related incidents, its promises etc. constantly all over the film, of which B is oblivious or in a state of jamais vu, as it may appear. ‘C’ is the ‘present’ companion/husband of ‘B’ and is element of eminent perturbation of the cinematic mood/ plot-schemata.)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

The film opens up with a gluing sequence of finitely many connected shots of interiors of a compact space, i.e. a ‘dismal’ Baroque hotel inside which, later on,  ‘A’ confides to ‘B’ of a meeting which took place ‘last year in Frederiksbad …or Marienbad’, ‘B’ being completely oblivious of which. Strip remembrance, to be precise ontologically, anamnesis, of temporality and what remains of it is undecidable. Prima facie, the premise of the film is this ‘tenselessness’ of events. The two events of the so-called ‘past’ (supposedly reminiscing of which ‘A’ is) and ‘present’ are shown intermittently occurring inside the compact space of the Baroque hotel and its complement (the sparsely ‘vegetated’ avenue and the hedge-maze). Time in the film has spatial properties thus forming a four-dimensional ambient space of the state of events. Events are nearer or far away instead of ‘happened’ or happening. The ‘odd’ geometry of space is exploited to blur the kinesthetic sense of time.

The verbal and the pure cinematic narratives both follow a binary operation (the assertions by ‘A’ and complete different/opposite perspectives held by ‘B’, camera movements inside the hotel and alternatively in its complementary space). This feature of the film’s narrative is extremely important in what follows. The character ‘C’ constantly poses a game to ‘A’, a game of Nim, throughout the film. There are four rows of heaps of sticks/cards arranged in cardinalities of 1,3,5, and 7. A single move consists of taking as many sticks as the player may from a single row. The player to take the last stick loses. Throughout the film ‘A’ loses the game to ‘C’; ‘A’ happens to pick the last stick no matter what strategy he chooses against ‘C’ (or maybe he is playing wild).

Digression: Understanding winning strategies of Nim Games are part of Combinatorial Game theoretic analysis (Caveat! It is not similar to the theory of games one encounters in mathematical economics). Combinatorial games are of two kinds, Normal play and Misère plays. The kind of Nim game appearing in the film where the last movement corresponds to losing are called Misère plays/ games. Despite the simple looking structure of rules of combinatorial games, finding winning strategy for them is complicated in case of Normal play and ranging from extremely complicated to hitherto unaccomplished in case of Misère plays. For Normal play, due to The Sprague–Grundy Theorem it is established that to any combinatorial game say G there ‘corresponds’ a  Nim heap of finite length. Further, there is a winning strategy to Normal play Nim game. One has to put the cardinality of each strip (heap) in binary representation ( two digit system consisting of 0 and 1) and then run a bitwise XOR operation (i.e. the logical operation of Exclusive disjunction) on them. If the result of this direct sum is identically 0 the previous player’s strategy is winning (Game is in ‘P-position). Therefore the problem gets solved in Normal play Nim. The difficulty with Misère plays is that Sprague–Grundy Theorem does not hold (to a Misère game there does not correspond no Nim heap of any length). The structure theory of Misère games and its winning strategies is being approximated through the concept of Misère quotients which are  commutative monoids  formed by  certain equivalence classes modulo set of certain  Misère games/ positions (see any text on Abstract Algebra to understand these Group theoretic concepts), an area of current advanced research in the realm of combinatorial game theory. Certain Misère games are solved through computer simulations but a whole bunch of them are still lying as open problems, besides a complete general theory of them is still to be framed.

Recurrence of the game throughout the film is not only incidental or for the sake of sensation, the film plays on the idea of binary bitwise exclusive disjunction either inadvertently or surreptitiously so. Wherever there is a coincidence of the similar instances from the two states of referred time, that is to say the space is contracted to a point, the cinematic and verbal narrative gets the incremental impetus to move forward and remain inertial  till further such ‘fixed point’. The difference of remembrance and oblivion, space and its complement pave the way for the cinematic flux while the blurring of such differences represents the origin, the singularity.

The film’s ‘story’, if any is immaterial. Viewer’s presence is sought in the film and his engagement with the narrative would further complicate the affairs.

Influence of the Film: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is heavily influenced of the film, though not idea-wise. The influence is mostly on the cinematic side. The elaborated shots of a Baroque styled labyrinthine Hotel, camera tracking through its corridors and walls, the hedge-maze outside the hotel, the ballroom and resting area as centre of key incidents, the constant playing of organ music in the background etc.  are a few examples. Even Kubrick attempted a mental impasse by showing Jack Nicholson’s picture among others in that portrait hanging in that hotel lobby.

Aditya Tripathi

Aditya Tripathi

Aditya is a post graduate in Economics from Delhi School of Economics and an emerging film critic. He can be contacted at

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